the year the art world went crazy
Of course, the decadence of the art world has amused foreigners for a long time and, despite the generally gloomy mood generated by the pandemic, 2021, in this regard, has not disappointed. A semi-ragged Banksy painting, back at auction after partially self-destructing three years earlier in a surprise auction stunt, has fetched Â£ 18.5million at Sotheby’s in London: the double what the National Gallery pays to acquire The Red Boy by Thomas Lawrence (1825).
The Louvre has threatened adult streaming site Pornhub with legal action after it published an erotic guide to art history, recreating works from its collection. Robotic artist Ai-Da, en route to the Great Pyramid of Giza, has been arrested by Egyptian security forces as a possible spy. And a pair of scuffed Nike Airs, worn once in a 1984 game by basketball superstar Michael Jordan, sold in Las Vegas (where else?)
Distractions aside, it has also become evident that the cultural landscape is always shaken by tumultuous societal forces. By now, it is well established that the current generation of museum professionals wish to broaden the canon of Western art to include marginalized or forgotten figures. Yet we only discovered the full extent of the impact the Black Lives Matter movement had on the art world when the galleries reopened this spring. Everywhere you looked, black artists were celebrated, from Michael Armitage at the Royal Academy – where Yinka Shonibare oversaw the 253rd Summer Exhibition – to Theaster Gates at the Whitechapel Gallery and Lubaina Himid at the Tate Modern.
Last month, Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson opened Life Between Islands, his investigation of Caribbean-British art from the 1950s to the present day, putting many neglected artists in the spotlight. Yesterday, Kehinde Wiley, famous for his official portrayal of Barack Obama, unveiled a new exhibition at the National Gallery, questioning the tradition of European landscape painting.
Who wouldn’t applaud this as progress? (Although I don’t see much evidence of ethnic diversity among the leaders of our most prominent museums and galleries.) However, because of the BLM and the related tendency to ‘decolonize’ art history, many institutions bind to the nodes. , presumably for fear of being “canceled” by Generation Z. The warnings of triggering inside the galleries are now ten cents. Likewise, a new Puritan spirit. The nadir was Tate Britain’s Hogarth and Europe, which confusedly strayed from its ostensible subject (the 18th-century satirist’s relationship with his Continental peers), to become a self-flagellating lament over the role of that country in the transatlantic slave trade.
As the Prince of Wales, speaking in Barbados, reminded us, slavery is a “dreadful atrocity” which “forever sullies our history”. Yet one could not help but think that the curators of the Hogarth exhibition were discussing his name before explicitly denouncing him in order to pursue a contemporary program. It seemed on the verge of duplicity and certainly distortion – whereas an exhibition openly exploring colonialism in Hogarth’s day would have been nice.