Seeing through Fuller

Nicholas Penny

  • Theoria: Art and the Absence of Grace by Peter Fuller
    Chatto, 260 pp, £15.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 7011 2942 5
  • Seeing through Berger by Peter Fuller
    Claridge, 176 pp, £8.95, November 1988, ISBN 1 870626 75 3
  • Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain. Vol. IX: Since the Second World War edited by Boris Ford
    Cambridge, 369 pp, £19.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 521 32765 2
  • Ruskin’s Myths by Dinah Birch
    Oxford, 212 pp, £22.50, August 1988, ISBN 0 19 812872 X
  • The Sun is God: Painting, Literature and Mythology in the 19th Century edited by J.B. Bullen
    Oxford, 230 pp, £27.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 19 812884 3
  • Artisans and Architects: The Ruskinian Tradition in Architectural Thought by Mark Swenarton
    Macmillan, 239 pp, £35.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 333 46460 5

It has been respectable for some while now to admit to being bored by the huge, flat, ‘pure’ abstracts on the white walls of the museums of modern art. And yet non-representational paintings on a fairly large scale seem still to be what art students are most encouraged to make. Critics now incline to applaud in them evidence of a strenously physical relationship with paint. Thus Mali Morris, Lucy Ellmann tells us, works ‘with acrylic on unstretched canvas on the floor ... pulling gobs of paint a little way or densely caking colour on, with rough or gentle strokes. The paint sometimes seems to have flitted across, barely swooping low enough to make contact, where at other times it has been rubbed on in quick gestural jerks.’ The voyeuristic excitement here is reminiscent of the awestruck white man watching tribal ritual: magically, the paint itself becomes an agent. Associating art with primitive magic remains, intentionally or not, a common form of approbation with critics – as popular perhaps as what has become the routine detection of the manner in which art makes a statement about art.

Representational art has also returned to favour, much of it avowedly romantic, with raw colours and heavy, often repellent textures, presenting the sublimities of the Cave of Spleen –

Now glaring fiends, and snakes on rolling spires,
Pale spectres, gaping tombs and purple fires –

or the grotesque and erotic blended with an alarming pathos: ‘And maids turn’d bottles, cry aloud for corks.’ The sculptors, meanwhile, have been combing the fringes of modern civilisation, and are especially active, like the Surrealists, on the beaches. Tony Cragg, recently awarded the Turner Prize, made his name with relief murals composed of ‘beach-worn ship-refuse, plastic bottles, lids, frisbees, old toys, plastic milk crates’. For Waldemar Januszczak these were didactic – ‘one of the things they were about was the indisposability of plastic.’ Richard Deacon, who is with Cragg ‘the most expensive, the most written about, the best patronised ... of the new British sculptural establishment’, makes startling hybrids: ‘To produce one of his small sculptures an old brass navigational aid must have screwed a giant snail’ (Januszczak, again).

Among the recently deceased, no artist is more piously revered than Joseph Beuys, who, for his first commercial gallery exhibition, as Andrew Brighton recalls, ‘smeared his head with honey and gold, tied to his right shoe an iron sole as a companion to the felt sole of his left and took into his arms a dead hare to which he appeared to speak for three hours’. In this way, he ‘mixed personal and public metaphors, signs and symbols, words and icons’. He may have ‘climbed out of modernism’, but his performances depended upon the hushed veneration – or critical cowardice – expected in the white-walled sanctuaries of modern art. Would he have earned such applause in the theatre? What would be the reaction of his admirers if someone covered in a sticky substance muttering to a dead animal sat down next to them on the Tube or rang their front-door bell?

Among the new stars and saints to have emerged since the death of Beuys and Warhol is Jeff Koons. He is said to have been a commodity broker. But then he arranged new vacuum-cleaners in a perspex case and sold them to Charles Saatchi. ‘It is my belief,’ announces Januszczac,

that art today is largely in the business of supplying frisson, little niblets of existential uncertainty, ways of not-knowing, mysteries, small after-hours pleasures for overworked urban minds ... What you have to remember is that art today has become one of the performing arts. Art galleries are places where you go in search of a certain kind of kinky experience. Today’s art gallery is a cross between a church and a disco ... Koons and Co are actually addressing a significant late 20th-century problem ... How do you enfranchise the urban worker’s after-hours imagination? What do you give that imagination to keep it healthy, wet-nosed and happy now that the worker no longer has access to the fruits of his own labour?

The literary editor of the Guardian must be thinking (with such condescension) of workers on night-shift, because the others are going to have difficulty visiting the galleries after the factory closes. Busy housewives might find the time to put their own machines away and take a look at Mr Saatchi’s new ones, but one doesn’t often see the users, any more than the makers of vacuum-cleaners in Cork Street or the Tate Gallery looking at this sort of thing. If Koons really is striving to provide popular entertainment, then his efforts are feeble when compared with the television commercials which are so adept at the half-ironic presentation of domestic appliances as dazzling art objects, or sublime Science Fiction.

What, meanwhile, is happening in the art schools?

Well, as far as the fine art schools are concerned, they are in my view derelict because there’s absolutely nothing to teach ... You can paint what you like. You can dig a trench down the Sahara. Everything is absolutely free. But so is technique. You can paint a picture by hammering nails in it ... I don’t know what will happen. They are a complete mess. The only thing you can actually teach is technique. There should be a chap who knows how to saw a piece of wood, to bend a piece of plastic, or weld a bit of metal.

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