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Books: Have curators and collectors replaced critics? Paul Wood demystifies while Alistair Hicks disappoints

Two very different books speak to a worrying trend in the critique of art

If one peruses coverage of the art fairs and biennales, one notices something curious. Much prominent new painting in China (Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, Yan Pei-Ming) and Russia (Dubossarsky and Vinogradov, Olga Soldatova, Ilya Gaponov) is reminiscent of 19th-century French academic art of the Paris Salon. The large-scale, smooth surfaces, art-historical references, presentation of outré subject matter in aesthetically acceptable terms and aversion to innovation all parallel art of Victorian salons to an uncanny degree.

In Western Art and the Wider World, Paul Wood discusses how non-Western art is frequently perceived in relation to European standards. Although he presents no original findings, Wood adeptly summarises the subject in several areas, including Orientalism and images of the New World. The core of the book is how Modernism and the Western canon have been reframed by new art theorists since 1968, abandoning the Old Left Marxist production- and class-based analyses in favour of New Left structuralist, post-colonialist and identity-based models.

Wood’s evident sympathy for the progressive ideals shared by the Old Left and Modernism (namely, commonality, social progress and liberation through education and technology) comes through when he criticises the limitations of identity politics and structuralism. Wood is cutting about the New Left’s tendency to dethrone white, male artists in order to crown über-curators, who arrange exhibitions via their smartphones while jetting between biennales. It is a fallacy to claim that postmodernist curators stand outside history and dispense social and political justice through exhibition and publication in a way that Modernist artists could not.

The Global Art Compass by Alistair Hicks, the senior curator of the Deutsche Bank Collection, surveys the art familiar from today’s art fairs. The selection is international in scope, each artist getting an illustration and a few paragraphs of discussion, anecdotal in nature and usually centring on Hicks’s encounters with artists in studios or galleries. The roll call of Alÿs, Cattelan, Kapoor, Kentridge, Neshat, Orozco and Pettibon conforms to the standard global-art-scene model. I cannot see for whom this book is intended—chronic art fair attendees, perhaps.

The complete absence of abstract painting is unforgiveable and telling. Hicks has a bias towards conceptual and anecdotal art and an aversion to visually and conceptually ambiguous art of a strongly pictorial/optical character. Hicks manages almost entirely to avoid discussing the visual properties of the art he champions. One cannot but conclude that Hicks either does not care what art looks like or thinks it does not matter. The failure of current critics to draw blood from the complacent, self-congratulatory commonplaces of new art is a matter to be lamented. Art criticism is in crisis precisely because critics are afraid to discuss the visual properties of art as Ruskin and Greenberg did. Which is just how the New Left intended it: consigning revanchist bourgeois aesthetics to the dustbin of history.

Hicks asserts that artists have liberated themselves from restrictive narratives imposed by overbearing critics, yet he fails to realise that the current consensus on what is advanced or worthwhile in art among contemporary curators and collectors is just as oppressive as the dictates of any prominent individual critic. Cliques stifle diversity more effectively than individuals do, groups being harder to combat. The global cycle of art fairs and biennales propagates conformity with fashionable art brands, and eclipses local artists.

Much of today’s art is avant-garde-style gesture: Modernist idiom undercut with irony. The artists of The Global Art Compass typify the avant-garde endgame mentality, whereby the artist seeks to position themselves in one unoccupied corner in a field of practice that is hugely expanded yet already nearly mapped. Apparently diverse as this selection is, there is not one work in this book that appears to be the outcome of genuine inquiry or struggle or that produced results that were unexpected. As such, this book very accurately captures art that is found on the global art fair circuit.

*

o Paul Wood, Western Art and the Wider World, Wiley-Blackwell, 314pp, £19.99, €24 (pb)

o Alistair Hicks, The Global Art Compass: New Directions in 21st-century Art Thames & Hudson, 224pp, £18.95 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'When diversity is a disguise of uniformity'