Why does today’s artworld so often turn young artists into tribute acts, asks Martin Herbert. Is it simply to mask the shame of its own nostalgia?
If, like me, you’re a longstanding subscriber to music magazines like Headbanging Fossil and Wrinkly Rocker, you’ll have noticed that a central part of their editorial policy these days is the anniversary piece. Usefully for hard-pressed staers, these require very little brainwork. Look back 50, 40, 30 years or whatever, see what revered slab of vinyl came out that month and commission a lookback, maybe even interviewing some of the makers if they’re still alive. There’s a substantial double audience for such texts: nostalgists who were around at the time, kids who wish they were. Often the articles find convenient synergy with the launch of a super-deluxe edition of the album, now expanded to 53 discs plus commemorative beermat, and advertised on the back page. All of which is, well, business, but there’s something honest about it. The jig’s basically up, such articles collectively exhale; the best stu happened decades ago and all we can do now is memorialise it, celebrate its birthdays (not only now, but maybe again in ten years’ time). This trend has not yet infected art magazines – unless you count art-history magazines, which in any case adopt a less champagne-popping, door-slamming stance – but there’s a reason for that.
If we inhabit a cultural legacy era, an age of epigones, we don’t accept it. Sure, on the level of artistic practice, which since the 1980s has gone from jigsaws of art history to unabashed reruns of specific moments, there are continuing signs of mined-out seams. But still we stagger on, or we’re tugged along. Just as the music-reissue market and anniversary-article market exist less because of demand than because someone wants to sell something, the bloated contemporary art infrastructure primarily continues to manifest and even expand because people can make money within it, and so it needs to be populated by product. In the less self-regarding arena of rock, the fact that new music of that genre doesn’t contain new ideas doesn’t much matter, because there’ll always be a critic around to call it a ‘deft synthesis of [insert the names of three canonical bands here]’ and give it four stars. In the artworld, that kind of approval can’t be enough, even though many viewers probably enjoy looking at things that are full of historical signifiers: it’s easier, it’s comforting. And so the argument – I’ve made it myself – accompanying work that looks like something from long ago runs along the following lines: art history went by pretty fast, you know, and it might be edifying to see what Neo-vorticism looks like now, how it registers in the midst of civilisational collapse. We might learn something, there might just be a tiny bit more juice in that tank.
Another reason for this shilly-shallying is (misplaced) pride, particularly on the part of people who’ve been in this game awhile and must now keep psyching themselves into it. Do you want to get midway through your life and decide you devoted it to something that’s a shell of what it purports to be? (Relatively speaking, since it’s not like we’re in the business of selling derivatives here… oh, wait.) Art still has intellectual lustre, but it’s increasingly patchy thanks to all the peacocking, celebritisation, genuflecting to the wealthy, not-unrelated money-laundering, lack of visual literacy and structural concern for encouraging it. Speaking from the inside, what do you do when you’ve committed to the bit, so to speak, for so long that you’re unemployable elsewhere, which given the degree of specialisation, the cost of art education etc, need not be very long at all? You might idly ponder how many of us would do something else if they could, and yet – here’s the trap – then you might spend the rest of your life wondering if the problem, really, had been the artworld or your ageing self.
So no, that’s not going to happen; and in the meantime, dignity must be maintained. Sort of. Rightly or wrongly, the art scene is too full of itself to be flat-out retrospective, to enjoy saying ‘we had a good run, and look what so-and-so did, exactly 40 years ago’ (or whatever), even though there’s surely still a ton of old stu to exhume. Instead that yearning, over-the-shoulder impulse emerges in a slyer way, through art that is at once physically new and, in the main, aesthetically familiar, chasing historical highs. Maybe we can’t admit that we arrived a bit too late and, by way of recompense, would be happy to wallow in the collective achievements of yesteryear; so we get young artists to do it for us, enjoy the ersatz buzz and then dunk on them. And people say contemporary art isn’t funny.