Jewish World Review April 23, 2002 / 12 Iyar, 5762

Karen Lehrman

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Consumer Reports

When the hipsters take 'conservative' stances about art | In the same week as the opening of the Whitney Biennial 2002, a parallel exhibit also opened, at a Newark performance art space called the Fringe. Both exhibits see themselves as representing the cutting edge of contemporary art, but they couldn't be more different.

The Biennial received its usual glut of pre-event publicity; the Fringe received a listing in New Jersey Monthly. At the Whitney's opening parties, the sleek and the swank drank Cosmopolitans and studied each other; Saturday night at the Fringe the neo-grunge crowd drank sangria, talked about Goya, and studied the art.

The most important difference, however, involves the art itself. Following the fashion of the past decade, this year's Biennial has only a handful of actual paintings; the rest are "conceptual" works using video, sound, and the Internet. The Fringe exhibit consists entirely of paintings, nearly on canvas. The Whitney has wall text trying to explain the art; the Fringe has posted the exhibit's manifesto, which basically explains why the art doesn't need explanation.

The Fringe is holding one of the first American exhibitions of Stuckism, a movement far better known in London where it began. The Stuckists believe that today's "conceptual" artists have completely sold out to the market, and that the market has sold out to a warped version of post-modern theory. "Art that has to be in a gallery to be [understood as] art isn't art," reads the manifesto. "We don't need more dull, boring, brainless destruction of convention, what we need is not new, but perennial." The Stuckists promote a return to painting and to the "spiritual vision" of the founding fathers of modernism.

This type of criticism of the contemporary art world, of course, is nothing new. But until now it's come mostly from conservatives old enough to have actually lived through the good old days of modernism. The Stuckists are young and noncomformist enough to see through the anti-establishment pretensions of "postmodern" artists, curators, and critics.

The name Stuckist is derived from an insult Tracey Emin, the queen of a particularly sordid type of conceptual art, hurled at then-boyfriend Billy Childish a few years ago: "Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!" Childish and fellow British artist Charles Thomson subsequently coined the term to refer to anyone who was happily "stuck" on painting. The Stuckists have caused quite a ruckus in London, demonstrating against the anti-painting policies of the Turner Prize and the Tate Modern. There are now 25 Stuckist chapters worldwide, including one in New York.

As a movement poised to subvert the mythology of the contemporary art world, however, the Stuckists have a couple of big challenges, both of which are on display at the Newark exhibit. For one, their art--at the moment--is not particularly brilliant. Far more important, their manifesto is gratuitously rigid. The Stuckists claim that not just painting but figurative painting is the only true form of art. As it happens, about a third of the paintings in the Fringe exhibit don't meet this criteria. Even the work of the Fringe's curator, Terry Harnett, is abstract. "It's why I don't call myself a Stuckist," says Harnett. "They need to lighten up."

Indeed. What the art world doesn't need is another set of exclusionary theories. "We shouldn't be saying that other types of art shouldn't exist," says the lone member of the New York chapter, Terry Marks. "We should be saying that there should be room for us as well."

What the art world does need more than anything is internal criticism-a willingness to be held to higher standards of quality. It needs a group of young artists willing to risk their careers to say that the best art doesn't to be explained; that real innovation has little to do with gimmicks or novelty; and that the contemporary art world has become little more than an affected, self-indulgent fashion show.

It needs, in other words, the Stuckists, without the unnecessary rigidity and with perhaps a more palatable name. But if the Stuckists or another rebellious group do start to get a hearing, we shouldn't expect overnight changes. As critic Brian Sewell puts it: "There is so much money and power vested in the art establishment that they don't want somebody to come along and say it's all worthless." At some point, though, the "transgressive" trend has got to run its course, and it will suddenly be cool to be able to actually stir people emotionally, not just annoy them intellectually.

JWR contributor Karen Lehrman is a social and cultural critic. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Karen Lehrman