What’s It All About?

Tom Lubbock

  • Shark-Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the Nineties by Sarah Kent
    Zwemmer, 270 pp, £19.95, November 1994, ISBN 0 302 00648 6
  • The Reviews that Caused the Rumpus, and Other Pieces by Brian Sewell
    Bloomsbury, 365 pp, £12.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1872 6

Last autumn, at the award ceremony of the 1994 Turner Prize, Charles Saatchi took the podium at the Tate Gallery. It was a very rare public appearance by Britain’s leading private collector of contemporary art. His words were awaited with interest. Since it opened to the public in 1985, the Saatchi collection in St John’s Wood has become a focus of what’s called the contemporary art debate. With every purchase, names are made and names are called. But Saatchi’s taste, his collecting policy, is eclectic and elusive. So much art, of so many kinds, has passed into and sometimes out of his hands: British, American, German, minimal, Neo-Expressionist, Neo-Geo, new object, photographic, installation, trad fig. Since 1992 he’s been prominently showcasing young British artists, the objects of much attention and controversy lately. Surely some kind of indicative statement might have been expected. And this is what (ìn part) he said: ‘I’m not sure what today’s young artists are putting in their porridge in the mornings, but it seems to be working. They are producing the most striking new art being made anywhere in the universe. And it seems every museum from Nebraska to Alaska is ringing up trying to organise shows of their work ... And if sometimes that work is tasteless and cynical and uncouth it’s because sometimes we all are.’

Porridge. The British art debate is no such thing. The Turner Prize, especially since 1991 when it has been geared towards younger artists, provides an annual flashpoint in a conflict where neither the arguments nor the battle-lines are clear. Shortly before the 1993 Prize, an actual dispute about contemporary art was staged at the Tate – defending, Michael Craig-Martin, leading light at Goldsmiths’ College; prosecuting, Hilton Kramer, editor of the New Criterion (it’s telling that there was no obvious British champion on this side). It was made a condition that the speakers should not address each other. Afterwards I went to look at Rachel Whiteread’s House by floodlight. A member of the public had joined the debate and smashed the floodlight in. On the night Whiteread won the Prize, the Bow Lib-Dems decided to knock House down. No argument there either.

Everyone knows what the issue is, broadly speaking. As Modern Painters magazine – leading voice in the campaign for real painting – put it in an editorial last year: ‘it is a dispute between adherents of all modes [of painting], up to and including Greenbergian abstraction, versus true believers in the conceptual revolution,’ the latter represented specifically by that new wave of porridge-eaters, sometimes called the Goldsmiths’ Generation, sometimes called ‘neo-conceptualists’, who first appeared at the very end of the Eighties. Some had come out of Goldsmiths’. Some were later bought by Saatchi. Some have been up for the Turner Prize. They’ve featured in many public exhibitions, in the papers, on TV. (There’s a sort of house mag, called Frieze.) Their emblematic figure is of course Damien Hirst.

They present a pretty clear target. They raise suspicions of a ‘programme’. Their work doesn’t look at all the same – it isn’t a visual thing – but it’s informed by a keen and knowing awareness of the art of the (recent) past, and of the ideas around it. Vocabularies, references, discourses are to hand and to be used. No patient, authentic struggling. They know the game. Many of these were artists consciously on the make, worldly about the art-world and its ways, who organised themselves, curated their own shows, got themselves noticed and taken up by dealers. By 1989, one of them could write with justified confidence of ‘a new trend in British art’. Not since the Pop explosion at the start of the Sixties has there been such a rapid and spectacular coup.

That’s what, for many, fills the category ‘contemporary art’ just now. On the other side, there’s no clear stable of real painters to oppose to them, but the general idea is that there are plenty of perfectly decent and interesting young limners around, if anyone paid attention. (Modern Painters offered a shortlist last year.) Of course, it’s a standard irony of controversies like this that heavy opposition only throws the enemy into the headlines. But the publicity isn’t founded only on shock or mockery. The press, pursuing new sensations quite neutrally, finds in Hirst a reliable hotshot: his Shark-in-a-Tank looks good in photos, and provides material for cartoons-and journalistic metaphors, which few new paintings can ever do.

The battle isn’t principally between artists, but between critics and curators, and the battle-lines are not too clearly drawn. You can make lists. In favour of ‘contemporary art’: Nicholas Serota (at the Tate), Charles Saatchi, Sarah Kent (Time Out), Richard Dorment (Daily Telegraph, oddly enough). Against: Modern Painters, Brian Sewell (Evening Standard), Giles Auty (Spectator), Glynn Williams (at the RCA) and any number of Johnsonian or Waugh-like commentators who throw themselves into the breach on wet afternoons. But it’s no neat line-up. Auty is too reactionary for practically everyone. Serota pleases all of the people at one time or another. Saatchi’s taste is bizarrely catholic. Both Sewell and Kent can spring the odd surprise. Modern Painters offers one ne plus ultra – Greenbergian abstraction – but not everyone on their ‘side’ would go along with that. And do the acceptable ‘modes’ go right back to Lascaux?

It’s the ‘real painting’ tendency that makes the argumentative going in this confrontation. The ‘contemporary art’ lobby can sometimes be goaded into a response or a counter-attack, but mostly their case is assumed. They shrug in bewilderment: ‘Do we seriously have to go over this old ground yet again?’ They make blankly positive assertions – ‘this is what is happening now’; or talk of ‘cultural fascism’; they say that the critic’s duty is to be positive and informative. And despite Po-Mo doubts about Progress, an appeal to the irreversible advance of history – ‘Christ, it’s as if Du-champ and Pop never happened!’ – usually proves unavoidable.

But the case of real painting isn’t too clear either. What is ‘the cause’ of painting, as such? Granted, in art you can never say what you want, before you see it. And if those young hopeful painters listed don’t in fact give much cause for passionate celebration? (‘But the art-schools just aren’t teaching them now, you can’t be choosy.’) So the argument moves beyond questions of individual merit, and onto the offensive. It’s not just that most Neo-Conceptualists happen to be inferior to most painters; the ‘conceptual revolution’ is inherently no good. You must back painting whatever, because the other thing is wrong at root. And what are the roots of the objection? Some firm aesthetic lines would have to be drawn. They seldom are. Is the problem in the use of found objects and readymades per se? The loss of handiwork? Some of the Goldsmiths’ Generation are painters; at least they use painting, knowingly: does that count them out? Where does it all go wrong?

The crucial point is that this isn’t a struggle over the true course of art in the abstract. It never is. It’s over public institutions: about what’s taught in art schools, promoted abroad, what gets bought by public collections, exhibited in public galleries and put up for public prizes. And the prosecution’s energies come from a perception that the art they’re against is now in, and the art they’re for is out. If it wasn’t for what the Hayward and the Serpentine show, what the Tate and the Arts Council collect and the British Council sends to Biennales, what’s shortlisted for the Turner Prize, no ‘conspiracy’ in little magazines and private galleries would matter. The Saatchi Gallery, just because it seems so influential in these areas, has acquired a quasi-public status.

True, the ‘contemporary art’ camp can be extremely touchy too. There was outrage in 1991, when a student at the relatively conservative RCA was refused his degree for not doing anything his teachers considered proper work. His degree show was an empty studio with a simulacrum of a GLC Blue Plaque on the wall, inscribed ‘Gavin Turk, Sculptor, Worked Here.’ But Turk did fine. He joined the gang. His work is now in the Saatchi Collection. Yet further confirmation of the whole worrying trend – and for the conservatives this was a development that came at exactly the wrong moment.

For much of the Eighties it looked as if British painting was on the up. A School of London had been vaguely but vigorously identified, and compared in importance to the New York School of the Forties and Fifties. The personnel weren’t new (Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Kitaj et al), but the identification was, and such identifications are almost everything: in art everyone thinks in history-book chapter headings. At the same time, a group of young figurative artists emerged from Glasgow (Curry, Howson, Campbell, Conroy) and commanded headlines. And these two groups could be co-ordinated with an array of other individual painters, some new, some long-striving, into a resurgence.

The turning point was 1990. The first major signal that things might be moving another way was the British Art Show 1990. This five-yearly exhibition was, by convention, a broad and pluralistic survey of current British art. The 1985 version had included a bit of everything, all ages and genres, and had duly acknowledged a revival of figuration. In 1990 it was very different. The selection was not ‘representative’. No artist over forty was chosen; most were around thirty; only a few were much heard of outside the art press. Not that the show made the careers of all its artists by any means; it wasn’t Goldsmiths’-dominated; and the curators were careful to say they detected no overall tendencies. But it staked a claim. This was British art now, and no hand-on-heart painting of any kind was included, which meant – provocatively for a show which opened at the start of the year in Glasgow – that the New Glasgow Boys were, to a lad, left out. In the summer the British Art Show arrived in London. In the meantime, Peter Fuller had died in a car crash.

Fuller never lived to type out the words ‘Damien Hirst’. He died before the Turner Prize began to favour younger artists, before Saatchi started collecting the new art of the Nineties. But his is still a spectral presence in the arguments. His polemical campaigns of the Eighties set a tone and an agenda which have survived him. Though I hardly think that he could have significantly stalled recent trends, one knows pretty well where he would stood. Indeed, his name should remind us that art wars were already raging well before the present round, and in not so different terms.

Leaving the columns of Art Monthly, Fuller started Modern Painters in 1987, as a firmer platform for his attacks on the ‘anaesthetic’, the ‘megavisual’, the ‘pornography of despair’, art-internationalism, on Serota and Saatchi and Norman Rosenthal and the Turner Prize, on new hyped foreign painting (Schnabel and the Italian Transavantgardia), on the so-called ‘Neo-Geo’ movement from New York (being collected by Saatchi), on the British ‘new object’ sculptors (also collected by Saatchi), on established Turner-winning Brits like Richard Long and Gilbert and George, on old bugbears like Warhol and Richard Hamilton. Shortly before Fuller’s death, he thought the tide was turning: Serota seemed to be coming into line, even Saatchi was investing in the School of London. Then it turned right back.

In his last completed book, Theoria: Art and the Absence of Grace, Fuller worked his arguments and advocacies into a general theory – something that might have provided an overall party line for the traditionalists. Drawing on some ideas of Ruskin’s, he told a story of how things went wrong, while tracing a native ‘spiritual’ tradition of British art, much beleaguered but still surviving to be nurtured. Like most tendentious histories of art, it ended up impossibly Procrustean. It did for its immediate targets, but on grounds that condemned or excluded from interest a whole lot more; and as a strategic position it was unworkable, because no one could follow it all the way back to its premises – namely, that the rot set in with the loss of belief in the world as God’s visible handiwork. It wasn’t even clear how the argument made room for quite a few of the artists it was supposed to favour. No other thorough-going statement from this side has been produced, and Theoria is a warning against the attempt.

But it also points to a lack on the other side. America has had Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Hal Foster and Craig Owens setting up positions, rationalising developments; in Britain there’s very little general pro-contemporary art theory. But then in New York the battle-lines and the historical stopping-off points were always far clearer. The cause of ‘formalist’ Modernism was firmly established there, as it never was here: consecrated in MoMA, justified by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. It was more obvious what, at any stage, was to be overcome and where attacks, when they came, were coming from. Thus Hilton Kramer, who counts as an arch-conservative, is identifiable as a solid mid-century Modernist; for him, things go off around Pop. Fuller stood for nothing so straightforward.

The British debate takes place more tactically, in the everyday practice of art criticism. And – unco-ordinated and underarticulated – a vague sense of ‘encampment’ exerts a pressure from which perhaps no one’s mind is quite free. Except perhaps that of the weather-vane, export-drive critic, who has sacrificed any idea of discrimination to the afflatus of promotion, for whom it makes no difference what it is: Freud, Long, Hirst – if it’s on the Turner shortlist, if it’s big in Kassel, big in Venice, big in São Paulo, let’s just celebrate. But where there’s any pretence to judgment, the pressures of encampment are felt. There is the problem of not wanting to sound like x or y, or conversely of not wanting to be seen to sit on the fence. Or there’s the case of supporting (or being reluctant to knock) the work of certain artists, for the good of a cause – because the work is on the right side, on the right lines.

Ever since Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg glad-handed Abstract Expressionism, some critics have dreamt of being champion-advocate or house-interpreter to a burgeoning movement. And since a movement must seem strong, they tend not to be too picky about what gets the seal of approval. Could Fuller really have admired all of the work he ‘believed in’? Didn’t the cause of British painting, and the need to find living representatives, hijack his powers of discrimination? I’m not sure. It might simply be that while his arguments were often strong, his taste, whenever it took off on its own – the early enthusiasms for Robert Natkin, the later advocacy of Arthur Boyd – was unerringly awful. Either way, it hardly strengthened his cause.

Take another critical position, more independent but more desperate. This critic is not encamped. There is one sort of art to which he responds, and in that sense he backs it; but he is willing and eager to discriminate here, he doesn’t in particular examples bend his judgment to a general cause. However, there’s a whole category of art which, prior to any particular discriminations, is lost on him: try as he may, or may not, he can’t see much in it. This is a generic portrait of a critic who ‘doesn’t like contemporary art’, drawn to clarify a professional dilemma. What is this critic to do? Or what’s to be done with him? Should you establish a fairly clear exclusion zone around the art this critic is unfit to like or to dislike because he’s categorically out of sympathy with it?

Now it would be possible to sort that out. A paper could have two art critics on the go: the division of spoils would be quite easy to agree on, and the system might well appeal to both of them. But the art-world itself doesn’t make this demarcation. Both kinds of art are competing for exactly the same exhibition space. Any exclusion zone would be editorial censorship – not censorship of individual opinion so much as censorship of an important subject. Each critic would happily discriminate on his own patch, and the issue of whether the Tate, say, was right to showcase art of the other kind wouldn’t arise. I don’t deny that the one-critic system can have tedious results, because where a critic’s categorically out of sympathy he just sounds grumpy or repeats the same general objections, but the alternative isn’t good either.

In her introduction to Shark-Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the Nineties, Sarah Kent, keen to avoid both argument and discrimination, proposes a third solution. ‘It seems more appropriate to elucidate ideas than to confer brownie points. I have become increasingly reluctant to award medals and throw brickbats; passing judgment does not seem a relevant or an adequate response.’ The critic, she says, should make no value judgments, but rather take on ‘the rewarding task of investigation, analysis, interpretation and comparison’.

But even if you maintain a neutral, expository tone in your writing, value judgments won’t be avoided. To devote five hundred or a thousand words of attentive, interested exposition to an artist counts inevitably as a plug; the value judgment consists in deciding who you give this treatment to. Even if you take your task as writing art history in the present tense, you still must judge which artists are important (and ‘importance’ is all), or accept someone else’s judgment about it.

It’s not really a critical principle that’s being offered, and I haven’t noticed Kent conferring fewer brownie points than formerly in her Time Out pieces. It’s a response to the tricky position she finds herself in. She’s fallen into an aggravated form of ‘encampment’ – that is, she’s contracted to write a multiple catalogue essay. Of the 35 artists dealt with here, I’m not sure which Kent would have retained if she’d been writing an independent survey of her own choice (and since she’s been working with the Saatchi Collection for several years, writing its exhibition notes, her Time Out pieces on these same artists, usually saying much the same thing, don’t provide a reliable, independent ‘control’). As it is, Saatchi’s taste is eclectic. It’s not all Goldsmiths’: the 35 artists are no more than one man’s pleasure – and one woman’s duty.

No one could credibly admire all these 35 varied artists or admire them equally: 35 bursts of unqualified enthusiasm would sound ridiculous. On the other hand, clear discriminations are clearly out. So a non-judgmental tone does seem the best policy for the occasion. But then of course – and this is the perfect tweak of her double-bind – Kent can’t openly say that she’s adopting this method just for the occasion: she must present it as her constant critical principle – which it’s not. What a job.

Having stated the principle, Kent does let a few evaluations through, and a close reader would detect that with several of Saatchi’s artists – he’s bought some pretty rum painters – Kent’s commentaries are distinctly low-temperature. (Incidentally, those who see Saatchi as puppet-master of a vast art-world conspiracy may reflect that he’d have real difficulty flogging some of this stuff at a decent price.) And the sheer variety brings her to the verge of contradiction: one artist’s work reflects the fact that ‘painterly painting is now an exhausted genre’ – a fact that is quietly forgotten when she comes to the manifestly painterly work of Simon English.

In a way, the intended state of perfect indifference is what she achieves. The text reads like the digest of a consumer survey or a piece of party literature, nerveless, unblinking, heavily printed-out, without pause or flicker: official! The elucidation of ideas is made in terms of a bluffer’s guide mulch of several shelves of critical theory, studded with quotations which are cited only for authority, never for further reflection, and with no sense that Foucault, Lacan, Irigaray, Baudrillard and Barthes might not all be saying basically the same thing. For instance, on the question of authentic painterly expression:

Arguments against Rosenberg are legion. ‘Unmediated expression is a philosophical impossibility,’ insists Paul de Man. According to Jacques Lacan, the unconscious is structured like a language, so there can be no unmediated inner life and no expression innocent of its cultural context. If these caveats are right, no claims can be made for paintings on the grounds of emotional authenticity.

He insists, does he? But – among other things – the conclusion doesn’t follow. These ‘caveats’ only challenge a false, transcendental account of authentic expression, which may well have been advanced in talk about Abstract Expressionism, but they leave the possibility of authentic expression itself, culture-relative as it must be, unaffected. It also seriously weakens Kent’s claim that this art is not ‘merely a repository for existing beliefs, the illustration of ideas’, that she must place it so squarely in existing discourses. I should say that her elucidations seem by and large quite true to the work – but that this is not at all the whole story.

Kent was one of the 35 signatories to the famous letter to the Evening Standard in January 1994, referring to Brian Sewell’s ‘virulent homophobia and misogyny’, and demanding his dismissal as the paper’s regular art critic.

Although, very occasionally, he has something perceptive to say on subjects where he has some expertise, he is deeply hostile to and ignorant about contemporary art. In place of an informed critique, week in and week out he serves up the same menu of formulaic insults and predictable scurrilities – the easiest and cheapest form of demagogy. We believe that the capital deserves better than Sewell’s dire mix of sexual and class hypocrisy, intellectual posturing and artistic prejudice.

Among other ‘members of the art world’, the letter was signed by Marina Warner, Michael Craig-Martin, Christopher Frayling and George Melly, also several artists and dealers, and as with all round-robins it wasn’t perhaps the letter any one of them would have written individually. Still, as a tactic, it showed blessed unworldliness, as surprising as it is creditable. Nothing could have been more guaranteed to secure Sewell’s position at the Standard for many years to come.

This incident – one of the most visible flash-points in the contemporary art debate recently – was the ‘rumpus’ that inspired Sewell to collect some of his art-writing from the last seven years into The Reviews that Caused the Rumpus. In the introduction he defends himself with characteristic glee, and in many pieces vigorously pleads for critical independence. No one ever explained quite what was meant by ‘class and sexual hypocrisy’, though I would guess that ‘sexual’ means that Sewell seems to be gay, but pays fascinated and severe attention to homosexuality wherever possible (an ‘affliction’ he calls it at one point). And ‘class hypocrisy’ means perhaps that he’s a populist who pretends to be an élitist, that his manner dignifies philistinism with connoisseurship; or perhaps vice versa, an élitist who pretends to populism, a covert acknowledgment that Sewell is not quite as ‘ignorant’ about contemporary art as, for demagogic purposes, he’s willing to let on. Meant or not, that last would be near the truth.

The Sewell act needs no introduction: the vile schoolboy, the giddy aunt, the fruity gadfly, the hanging judge, the man of words – ‘the panjandrums of contemporary art’ occurs I don’t know how many times, one of those diminishing returns that beset unedited collections. Well, ‘Grimes is at his exercise’; he’s working something out in public, some troublesome gay-and-not-gay thing. His writing is such a textbook case of ‘fear of the other’ that I almost believe in the idea. But take away the act (on a second reading you stop noticing it), and what have you? On his patch, excellent. The qualified adulation of Bacon, the unqualified dismissal of Hodgkin, hit their marks. I don’t agree with either, but one’s not asking to agree. There are some dodgy soft spots (like Minton) and excoriations whose energy far exceeds their stated grounds (a violent ad feminam attack on Gwen John). And then there are fondnesses that make it harder to speak of a patch at all – a sneaking admiration for Joseph Beuys, a distinct penchant for Meret Oppenheim. Sewell is by no means ‘encamped’. His savagings know no distinction of genre, though savagings do predominate here. I don’t think there’s much he doesn’t understand: I can imagine him, in a locked room, at gunpoint, writing perfectly serviceable ‘elucidations’ of the work in the Saatchi Collection. But when his objections are categorical, he’s not too keen on seeing the argument through.

There is a damning piece on the 1993 exhibition of Italian Arte Povera (mainly) at the Hayward, which ends, roundly: ‘the apotheosis of rubbish on a baroque scale with baroque pretensions – but whatever was done in the Swinging Sixties, Bernini did it better.’ What is the ‘it’ Bernini did better than these objet-trouveurs? Where’s the comparison? Bernini did it better than Canova, if you like. It may be tiresome that what Bernini and Canova did, and what Povera did, are both called ‘sculpture’; family resemblance between the two activities is stretched beyond sense. But what Sewell surely means is that even someone who can fashion a birdbath has more hope – because Arte Povera, doing something utterly different, is beneath artistic consideration. But he needs to show why.

So back to the debate. Let me look at some of the big objections to the new British art of the Nineties and all its kind, and how they can be met. One common line of attack is that it’s all been done before. Here is Sewell on that Hayward show again: ‘Attendance at this exhibition should be compulsory for all students in all art schools; they will learn from it that nothing they do is new and fresh, that their work is no longer outrageous or inventive or exploratory, and that it is nothing but the stale and forlorn repetition of formulae laid down in the Sixties.’ It will always be a question for any art, at any time, whether it has all been done already. The advocates of true painting are happy enough to appeal to the maintenance of a tradition; don’t mind a bit of water-treading even while denying this line to the other lot.

The objection has therefore to be made more specific, as it usually is. This art has all been done before because it is something that can only be done once. It is about breaking down artistic barriers, and this may be worth doing once to show where the barriers are, but it isn’t worth doing again and again. But there’s no reason to think that today’s ‘new’ art is about breaking down artistic barriers. Similarly, it’s no good saying: ‘this so-called avant-garde is no avant-garde at all.’ Quite so, but it’s not so called. This work is not formally innovative: it is a consolidating fusion of a lot of old things – Duchamp, Dada, Surrealism, Pop, Povera, Conceptual Art. An academicism, if you will (do we oppose academies absolutely?) An orthodoxy of the unorthodox (but for whom is it unorthodox?) A tradition (why not?) But let’s not talk of forlorn repetition. What must be proved is that this tradition of art is flawed or limited fundamentally.

Take another line of attack: that this art is part of a critical, curatorial conspiracy. The artist exhibits any old piece of nonsense, and the critic comes along and free-associates; interpretation consists in saying the most pretentious thing possible about the work, and declaring that this is its meaning. One may call the art offensively obscure; or one may say rather that it’s an art entirely dependent on its ‘elucidation’. Very nice for the critics, they can ballsache away without let or hindrance, and they’re plugged into the process, they’re more important than the art, just what critics always wanted, no wonder they keep the racket up. And I agree of course that art critics often talk nonsense – ‘a steady iron-hard jet of absolutely total nonsense as if under great pressure from a hose’, as William Empson put it.

Coming on the attack here, though, you need to get beyond the blank stare and the affectless inventory that ‘speaks for itself’, that declares: ‘and this is literally all there is to it.’ (‘We are presented with a piece of invaginated tupperware and a bale of hay etc.’) When we say ‘free association’, what we’re registering is that this work bears meaning in ways that are traditionally thought irrelevant in visual art. It is an art of meanings and conceits, thoroughly anti-formalist, and almost every aspect of a work may contribute: the image, the words in the title or in the work, the styles, materials and objects used, and where they come from, the life of these things in other contexts, what’s been done to them, the process by which the work was made, where it is placed, and so on. All these factors, which might elsewhere be seen as aesthetically extraneous, extrinsic, not visual, background information, merely associative, are here used to create the work’s meaning. In Mark Quinn’s Self, a Saatchi example, the fact that the frozen head is a cast of his own, and is made of solid blood, and his own blood, and a full nine pints of it – none of this visually evident – are important points of attention. You have to have them. And this is simply a convention, consciously employed by some artists, accepted by some critics and viewers. The genre breaks various aesthetic laws. It has its own. This much is old hat. The question is: does it work?

With so many possible sources of meaning, and no control on which are relevant, where almost anything you could think or feel or know about the work might be meaningful, cacophony is a likely result. The floodgates are opened for elucidation, and for bullshit, error and bewilderment. Is it also important to reflect that Self has been purchased at a particular price? Should we bear in mind that the artist’s head-cast was moulded specifically in dental plaster? Is the head meant to look a little ancient and hieratic, or is that just what frozen blood does? Things will go wild or blank unless we know the kind of thing a work’s likely to be about. Consequently this work needs to be anchored in some fairly definite and agreed ways of thinking, to control its meaning; so that once you pick up a clue, you can roughly know where you are – I’m in a work about ‘the social construction of identity’, say – and can pick up more clues, and refinements and penumbrae. You must know what the going conversations are. Only then can you clearly read it and fully sound it out.

The work relies, so to speak, on this understanding between artist and audience. In this case, meaning is controlled, not by a fixed system of symbols, but simply by agreed – and sometimes common enough – topics. It can lead to difficulties for the ‘uninitiated’, when the discourses are unfamiliar, when we’re in the depths of ‘the gaze’, or ‘body theory’ or a Foucauldian ‘politics of architecture’. Not that the artists are necessarily great readers, though some are, but these things are in the air, and may take shape in a work almost unconsciously. Self, on the other hand, you’d pick up without much priming, given the facts. Life, death, self and preservation are always current topics, and are cued quite naturally by blood, ice, a human head, and their complex inter-relations here. But once Self has gelled for you, it may then seem all too bleeding obvious. Work of this kind teeters between being a tabula rasa, and a textbook illustration.

Of course, you may also find some of the going conversations particularly depressing or incoherent. And then you’re likely to find them weary and slavish too – heigh ho, one more artist who seems only just to have read the usual bit by Walter Benjamin. (What would a work by a reader of Simone Weil be like?) I certainly feel this about the obsession with the fine art tradition that fuels a lot of contemporary art: oh no, not another work that exposes the maleness of Abstract Expressionism, or the political neutrality (not) of Minimalism (I mean, who cares about Minimalism?) Take Mark Wallinger’s Race, Sex, Class, a series of neat portraits of race horses in oils, the use of oil paint standing for the tradition of oil painting. And then we build up themes around oil painting: portraiture, property, breeding, hierarchy, competition, betting, capitalism – in short, a deftly compact illustration to the argument of Ways of Seeing, Chapter Five.

To make matters trickier, when a body of ideas gets up and running, artists can afford to become very laconic or whimsical, and still rely on the same critical treatment, which then appears increasingly pretentious; the artist knows the score, starts playing-up or out-cooling the standard conversations, stretches relations of meaning to the limit, half-plays the old Modernist card (‘I do not mean, I am’), flirts with blank vacuity, the smallest hints, the largest gaps. And this itself becomes another point of attention. As Hirst – who always seems very open about these things – has said: ‘I like these long, clumsy titles which try to explain something but end up making matters worse, leaving huge holes for interpretation.’ Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding would be one. I like them too. I think they’re often the best bit.

But when people talk of conspiracy, you need to see exactly where this conspiracy is taking place. It’s not as a rule that critics are arbitrarily extracting meanings from nothing. It’s rather that certain intellectual climates prevail. If your work is clearly not dealing with the accepted kinds of question – Sarah Kent is a pretty good guide to what these are currently – then probably no show at the ICA. A party line, certainly; but remember that Poussin’s intellectual world had a party line too, and one equally obscure to most viewers then and now. (I’m not making a comparison: just showing this objection isn’t decisive.)

There’s another limitation that’s inherent to the genre. Whatever ideas a work declares, it can only declare them. It can’t inflect or further articulate them. Without the painter’s expressive handiwork or the poet’s power of speech, the work’s thoughts and part-thoughts lie stuck in resonating apposition. You have this, and this, and this: let them interreact. They may be built up into finely dissonant or resolved chords, and this is a real aesthetic effect. But it is a static one. Meanings are only set going, initiated, can’t be followed through or made substantial. (A common symptom: the work ‘asks questions’.) It is, so to speak, a concatenation of the verbal and the visual – visual means, verbal meanings – which puts the possibilities of both media in deadlock. The traditionalist plea for expression and embodiment, for the creative mediation of a human touch, has a strong claim here.

It must, however, meet a counter-argument about power and directness of effect, sheer realness. Art which uses things taken from the world, relatively unmediated, works on and with real-world feelings. And don’t just say: ‘it’s not art then.’ Recognise that sometimes – sometimes – it’s hard to imagine how any handiwork or representation could ever compete. Whatever ideas it may leave hanging in the air around it, could there be a more direct and precise communication of habitat than Rachel Whiteread’s Ghost – the negative plaster life-cast of the inside space of a small room from an old home? It’s a pity Saatchi doesn’t have it out always. Among this body of work, Whiteread’s is in a class apart. None of my general reservations apply to it.

But any categorical aesthetic gib – any argument about a whole kind of art just not working – is very weak. I have my doubts about specifically ideas-based work, but it takes only one convincing counter-instance to overturn them – the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, for example. (The fact that the world of Finlay’s thought is all his own is part of it; one may not normally ask artists to be original thinkers, but in this kind of work it seems more important.) I say, ‘for example’ – but there aren’t many. It is a genre very exhaustive of invention, and something like genius is needed to bring it off at all. Very little of the British Art of the Nineties comes anywhere near it. Nor is this where its real appeal lies.

It’s not the ideas, the conceits, the discourses around these works that swing it. They are there. The readings made out by Sarah Kent are true enough, these works are mostly thinking in the ways she says they are. But at another level, nobody cares much about all this. It’s taken as read. The audience is out for kicks, and the kicks are elsewhere, and not so easy to admit. And if it seems to you that this kind of work doesn’t take you long to look at, you’re not actually being asked to take long. (Brisk gallery habits are something this generation has clocked onto.) But an attitude is being struck. To give a blatant example: Kent, doing the critical job, looks at the really rough page-three stuff done by Sarah Lucas, and tries her best to read it like the eminently responsible work of older feminist artists such as Helen Chadwick or Mary Kelly. She finds an analysis, one that is definitely behind the work. But what is staring her in the face is sex and violence. That’s where the kick is.

To put it another way – a little bit of politics – what about Saatchi and his Collection? The obvious thing is to point to a contradiction. Here are works which reflect badly on private property, which ‘deal with the encroachments of advertising’, which ‘reveal the ideologies embedded in the heart of buildings’ – housed in the very heart of the beast. Kent is, broadly speaking, on the Left. She expects that the art she favours will be on the Left: advanced art is, isn’t it? And the art she’s writing about here is too, in a sense. And Saatchi? This game has been played before. When, years ago, Kent attacked Modern Painters for being neo-conservative, Fuller had no trouble coming back: look at you, you support Thatcher’s ad-man! But this is a contradiction Kent has long learned to live with. As she wrote back then, ‘the Saatchis’ politics may be repellently right-wing ... Their patronage does not exonerate their politics, but nor do their unsavoury beliefs in any way vitiate their courage as collectors.’ But it’s easier to hold onto this ‘anomaly’ than admit that Saatchi is quite at home.

Think of Pop Art and the people who found in it a critique of consumerism. Maybe it was there, but it wasn’t what got people going. Saatchi knew just what he was talking about, and just what he liked, when he said: ‘tasteless and cynical and vulgar ... sometimes we all are.’ Attitude. Dead cool, dead crass, smart-dumb, flip, flash. If you compare these artists with a lot of recent New York art – multi-culti, self-therapeutic, health-conscious, threatened, concerned – they’re an unbroody, enterprising, immensely self-assertive bunch, full of the sauve-qui-peut energies of social chaos and disorientation. As Kent half-recognises, ‘at a time of rapid change, only those fighting a rearguard action cling to aesthetic or moral positions.’ It sounds a bit like Dylan, which makes it easier to say, but we’re not talking about the Fall of the Wall, or New Labour, or the Internet. We’re talking about the backwash of the Eighties. And ‘from Nebraska to Alaska’ this work no doubt offers a more accurate vision of Britain than the gleam of heritage or the glooms of social realism.

What I’m writing about is the past. Any knowing person must have blinked hard at my references to New Art or a Goldsmiths’ Generation, as if it was still the thriving thing. This only reflects the relative slowness of the art-machine. Exhibition, celebration and controversy are always subject to a few years’ delay. As Stuart Morgan – not a critic much involved in the central controversy, more in internal debates on the contemporary side of the fence – wrote in Frieze’s very first issue (1991), ‘Goldsmiths’ is over’; we’re already into a second generation of clones and real shysters. And other voices on that side of the fence have been worrying about flim-flammery, one-liners and disappearance-up-arse as much as anyone else (though with a disarming sense of surprise). Maybe Saatchi won’t be buying it any more either. His last big intake of young British artists, remember, were painters: pretty much real painters, two of them on that Modern Painters list. A sign?

Saatchi’s movements are utterly mysterious. One doesn’t know why, with the young artists he was buying just before that, he chose some but not others. One doesn’t know whether artists of that generation will keep their names much longer, or even stay in art (White-read I guess will). One remembers, or rather one doesn’t remember, Robyn Denny, who had a solo retrospective at the Tate in l970, aged 30, and then ... As for painting, it may not be dead – how could anyone know? – but it doesn’t look too lively. It seems obvious to me that a conceptual component in art is here to stay; or rather, it was always there, and that with the bifurcation of art into the symbolic/conceptual and the visual/carnal (Duchamp v. Greenberg, for short) both sides feel the loss of the other, and one can desire the triumph of neither. But I don’t find that there are any artists of my own age or younger whom I absolutely admire – and that is a hopeless position. You need some actual lodes to look to. You can’t make your own standards for ever. Imaginary, ideal criticism becomes either a lonely lost cause or worse, a self-fulfilling prophecy, seeing what it seeks. I’d better stop.