The few more educated members of the club, especially on the staff, sometimes show at least a partial understanding of the situation. In the final year we had to write an extended essay on any topic of our choice. I proposed a very broad and historical theme. The art history teacher forbade my discussion of anything from before the 20th century. Shocked, I went to read the official syllabus, and found no mention of this rule. I returned and told him so. His reply was: "We don't do quantum mechanics either."
At least they do know that art as they teach it is not what art was. They accept that it is now a different subject, so different in fact that old art is as irrelevant as quantum mechanics (it is worth adding that this same teacher had made the suspiciously self-serving argument that the works of Botticelli and Koons were essentially similar). These people do happen to inhabit old art institutions, but I wonder if they use the word art for any motive other than convenience; would they be happier if there were a new word for what they do and they could drop the associations with art all together?
Of course, art has changed before. Once it was primarily decorative and illustrative, organised by the Guilds, and artists were to follow models to the best of their ability. Later artists felt themselves part of a grander project, their duty being to advance artistic method in competition with each other, rather than refine an old design. Eventually art came above all to pursue the individuality of visions. But through all of these phases a level of concentration, sophistication and good faith was maintained —largely, I suspect, through a love of art from which stemmed a special care in making it.
The startling peculiarity of those who call themselves artists now is that they have no determinable interest in art. Even if we allow that they have their own tradition, beginning with Duchamp, through Warhol through Beuys, we are still left with this problem. For they don't love Duchamp's work (well, could you?), they certainly don't look at it, and I doubt they think about it. If they feel anything for him it is a vague and abstract gratitude; he is their Great Enabler, the one who let them do what they do, and be as they are. And this is all they care about — how they are now. This is why contemporary art has made a virtue out of transient work; having no duty to tradition, nothing is worthy that does not pertain to the artist's immediate being.
On the teaching of art history to art students Ernst Gombrich wrote:
You may regret the cult of originality, but whether you do or not, you cannot combine it with a rejection of art history. It is only meaningful within history. And so, of course, is that overworked concept of the protest, of the revolution, of the manifesto.
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