Right as fashion photographer Mario Testino was about to announce the winner of this year’s coveted Turner Prize, a beefy brute in a pink tutu and sensible black socks materialized from nowhere and launched himself into a graceful belly flop on the stage.
As the black-clad forces of artistic order pounced on the intruder and frog-marched him out of the gallery, Testino pressed his pale lips into a smile: “And the winner is—Martin Boyce!”
The Northern Echo later reported that the tutu man had the words “STUDY THIS” written in marker around his navel. For lack of anything more serious, they nicked him “on suspicion of disorderly conduct.”
Since its beginnings in 1984, the Turner Prize has become an institution, a cultural event as loved and respected as the Eurovision Song Contest. But after years of quality entertainment, it may have finally jumped the shark. Martin Boyce proved to be anticlimactic in more ways than one. A funny little man with the air of a stamp-collecting milkman, Boyce had little to say about his work, instead only taking the opportunity to thank his “mum and dad, brilliant wife, and gorgeous children.”
The critics couldn’t find the words for it either, though a lady at the Guardian found it “quietly atmospheric” and “lyrically autumnal.” Quiet it certainly was, since the installation consisted of little more than a rubbish bin set in a large white room.
It’s been a difficult decade for the Sham Art movement in Britain. Since the chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Art broke ranks and called Conceptual Art “pretentious, self-indulgent craftless tat,” since Damien Hirst was outed as a serial plagiarist, a lot of the glitter has worn off the brave new world of the Young British Artists.
Even Charles Saatchi, the ad man whose millions did so much to pump up the Sham Art boom, recently told the Guardian that he finds the contemporary art world “comprehensively and indisputably vulgar….It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, hedgefundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard.”
He ought to know. Meanwhile, we have learned that the tutu streaker’s name is Mark Roberts, and he isn’t exactly new to this line of work. This was his 505th streak, and he considers it his career’s pinnacle. “I’m an artiste,” he told reporters. “What I do is part street art, performance art, and contemporary art.”
The shamsters, at long last, got outshammed.
Rogue intellectual elites’ power plays make up one of modern history’s creepier themes. It was George Orwell who first caught on to the game. Like the Bolsheviks, 1984’s Inner Party was an elite that discovered it could manipulate opinion enough to gain total control of society—control which it would never relinquish. Underneath the Newspeak it was never about ideas or ideals, never about anything but power.
In the 1920s, sweaty-palmed intellos all over the world followed Lenin’s example, dreaming up ever more picturesque totalitarian movements. Art played a major role in all of them—in the costumes and regalia, the posters and pageants, and especially in the hijacking of serious art to promote party goals.
The artists themselves would learn the lesson and retool it for their own purposes. Le Corbusier drilled modernist architects into the CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) in 1928. For the first time, art had a movement organized on political lines, with manifestos, rules, solemn congresses, and a publicity machine.
Le Corbusier’s personal politics, like his ideas for redesigning cities, were profoundly totalitarian. He kept it vague enough, though, hedging his bets so that he could serve whatever new masters—communist or fascist—might eventually emerge in Europe. (During the war he would serve Vichy.)
More importantly, in an increasingly academic and hierarchical world, he and his followers saw that the road to ideological triumph lay in gaining control of the new positions of influence—professorships and critic’s columns. When modernists started pouring out of Nazi Germany into America after 1933, that is just what they did, infiltrating and then taking over the architectural schools, eventually imposing their creed on a country where nearly everyone despised it.
They and the cheerleading critics who passed through their schools have ruled American architecture ever since. Other art movements eagerly learned the same tricks. Interestingly, many of the early protagonists were communists such as Clement Greenberg, the highbrow critic who almost singlehandedly foisted Abstract Expressionism on an unsuspecting world in the 1940s.
Like any good communist, Greenberg was well-schooled in agitprop techniques. He popularized the terms “avant-garde” and “kitsch” in the US, fashioning them into the precise aesthetic counterparts of “progressive” and “reactionary.” If not committed to the first, you were obviously mired in the second.
And on and on, right up to the thrones and dominations of Sham Art that squat above the big galleries and art schools today. Sham Artists, though most may still be fashionable Sham Radicals, no longer worry about taking over the world. Today they’re little more than hipster nihilists, glad to hold the role of anointed tastemakers and positively itchy for any chance of a good strong pull on the public teat. They’ll lecture us philistines about what art really is, knowing all the while that every work they create, every essay they write, is a juicy hocker spat in art’s face.
How do we get rid of them, short of some cathartic mob violence? That’s the real joke—we can’t. This bizarre virus, this self-organizing, self-replicating, cancerous intellectual cabal, is a disease that only appears in free, open societies. No cure has yet been found, though after all the sound and fury of the bloody 20th century we at least seem to be building up a little resistance. Maybe it’s time to dust off that old tutu in the back of your closet; maybe all we can do is laugh.
Copyright 2013 TakiMag.com and the author. This copy is for your personal, noncommercial use only. You can order reprints for distribution by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org.