November 2007

Julian Spalding
The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today
Prestel, 2003

Artworld Maverick

by Louis Torres

In every field there are a few individuals--dubbed mavericks or fools, depending on one's perspective--who dare depart from the received wisdom. One such fiercely independent soul in the world of art is Julian Spalding, author of The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today (for which he wins a retroactive Aristos Award this month). No fool he, Spalding is a former director of the Glasgow Museums in Scotland and the founder of two of them--the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art and the Gallery of Modern Art. He is also a former curator of the Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield, England. His credentials are, in a word, impeccable.

The Eclipse of Art, as Spalding explains, is based on forty years of looking at and thinking about what he terms "modern art." Oddly, he never refers to "postmodern art," though much of the work he cites falls into that category. Never mind that lapse, however. More important is that while he is at times contradictory, or just plain wrong (at times exasperatingly so), in the end he comes this close to being right about what is and is not art, and why--and that, I would argue, is close enough. Most writers today do not even bother to make the distinction. Moreover, as the metaphor of his title indicates, Spalding is acutely aware that art in the early twenty-first century is in a terrible state. Art has been eclipsed in a manner of speaking--by non-art.

At the start, Spalding does not disappoint the reader drawn to the book's polemical title. Casting metaphor aside, he addresses his intended audience directly in the blunt title of his Introduction: "Why You Are Right Not To Like Modern Art." As he then explains:

This book has been written for people who, though they enjoy art in general, have become confused and disenchanted by the art of our times. It has been written for those who feel sure they can respond to art and want to remain open-minded, but can see very little merit in what is being promoted as art today.

Much, if not all, of today's purported art, Spalding seems to be saying, is not art.

He has "never met anyone who told [him] they loved modern art," he continues. No one ever told him that he just had to see Sol LeWitt's new Wall Drawings [scroll down] in the 1970s ("drawings" based on verbal proposals or systems suggested by LeWitt but executed by others), for example, or Julian Schnabel's "smashed plate paintings" in the 1980s, or Jeff Koons's glazed porcelain figures [e.g., Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1998] in the 1990s. In the 1960s he was urged to see exhibitions by such abstract painters as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (whose "hanging veils of luminous colours" he seems to admire), he relates, "but already there were caveats. . . . Even then many sensed that art could be heading into a cul-de-sac." Nonetheless, he implies that Pollock and Rothko were artists. Picasso and Matisse were "unquestionably artists in the fullest sense of that word," in his view, for "they celebrated our existence by making us more conscious of it," and one can love their best work. For Spalding, however, "love is not a word that springs to mind when one thinks of much modern art--so much so that one wonders whether it is art at all."

The first example of such dubious art cited by Spalding is by the "self-styled artist Piero Manzoni [, who] canned, labeled, exhibited and sold his own shit (90 tins of it) in the early 1960s." One tin, or can, No. 004 [more], was purchased by London's Tate Gallery in 2000 and is catalogued as "sculpture." Two other items by this charlatan (who died in 1963 at the age of 30)--Line 4.90m and Line 18.82m, acquired in 1974--are also catalogued as "sculpture" in the collection of Tate Modern, widely considered the world's foremost museum of "contemporary art." Each allegedly consists of a single line drawn in ink on a strip of paper rolled up inside a sealed tube. Spalding rightly asks, "How can a line you cannot see be art?" How, one might further ask, could a mere line be art even if you could see it?" Spalding seems to be saying that the tubes are not art, yet he undercuts that implication in virtually the same breath by observing that ordinary people do not like the "art" in contemporary galleries--including Line 4.90m and Line 18.82m, one presumes.

Lamenting that "modern art" is in "terminal decline," Spalding wonders why our age has produced no great artists. (It has, I would argue--Andrew Wyeth, for one.) "[W]here is our new Picasso or Matisse of 'conceptual art'?" he asks. Yet by enclosing that term in scare quotes, he seems to suggest that it is not art. In another instance, he refers to Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII [more] (also in the Tate Modern collection) as a work of "minimalist, conceptual art" (a misnomer, as the two are quite different categories), yet characterizes it as "a low stack of stock-bought firebricks presented as a work of art" [emphasis added].

Early on, Spalding raises the crucial question What is art? "Of course," he says, "there is no easy definition." In his view,

Art is essentially a means of visual communication, though that does not mean to say that all visual communications are works of art. To qualify for such an elevated status they must convey content of lasting value. Street signs and maps, comics and advertisements are not art, though you will find many masquerading as such in the art galleries of today. We reserve the word "art" for those rare visual creations that stir our emotions and stimulate our thoughts profoundly and elusively, which we find difficult to express through other means, but which we nevertheless feel to be true to our experiences.

Much of what Spalding says here is true, though it does not constitute a "definition," strictly speaking. (By way of contrast, consider this slightly revised version of Ayn Rand's definition of art that I proposed in What Art Is: "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's fundamental values." It may not be an "easy definition," but it has the virtue of being succinct.

The title of Spalding's book, he explains, was inspired by a total solar eclipse that he had witnessed in Cornwall, England in 1999. It was a dreadful event, as he recounts it. Had he not known its cause, he says, it might have seemed as though it "spelt the end of the world." It was there that he had this epiphany regarding the current state of art: "Art was not suffering from a swing of the pendulum [as some suggested], but was benighted by a total eclipse." His book, he says, documents how the various "constituents of art--its language, its teaching methods, its content and its judgement--have been eclipsed, one after the other, till there is virtually nothing left that is recognizable as art at all."

The Language of Art Eclipsed

The beginning of the eclipse is traced by Spalding to the "'breakthrough'" moment when Jackson Pollock began "pouring paint straight from the can--no need for brushes anymore!" (Never mind that, in fact, Pollock's signature drip technique did include the use of brushes, though not in the customary manner, as the classic photographs and films of Pollock at work [still] [film clip] by Hans Namuth show.) It constituted, for Spalding, "a ruthless diminution in the language of art as a whole." Yet he nonetheless refers to Pollock as an "artist" and to his work as "art." (You may begin to see why reading Spalding can be a frustrating experience.)

In stark contrast to Pollock, the paint in the optical abstracts of Bridget Riley [scroll down]--with whom Spalding once conducted a radio interview--looked as if they "had been applied by a machine." As he notes: "Her lines were ruled; . . . masking tape was used to ensure that the edges were sharp. What had to be eliminated was any hint of human presence." Yet what she had in common with Pollock was the "sense of . . . individuality obliterated in their work"--which prompts Spalding to ask:

But where does that lead? If a work of art is not centred on humanity, what is its form? Why stop at the edge of a canvas, when one could cover the whole wall? The next logical step--and it was only round the corner--was to deny the language of painting its separate identity altogether.

Here Spalding comes tantalizingly close to saying Riley's work is not art, but he fails to complete the circle, for he also declares that the very best of her "art" could "provide experiences of memorable radiance."

The term art is equally carelessly applied by Spalding to a variety of work other than abstract painting, ranging from Dan Flavin's fluorescent tubes and Marcel Duchamp's Paysage fautif, "a caked and yellowed semen stain," to Marc Quinn's Self, "a cast of the artist's head made from his own, frozen blood." And though he seems to exclude such works as Tracey Emin's "unmade bed" (My Bed) from the realm of art when he declares "the public are right to ask where is the art in that?" and notes that the bed is merely "an unmade bed, whether [it is] in an art gallery or not," he nonetheless twice refers to her as an "artist."

Learning Eclipsed

Early in his chapter on the eclipse of learning, Spalding observes: "The key thing that all artists have to learn, once they have chosen their form of expression, is how to make images that express their feelings and ideas." (Indeed, but Spalding seems to forget that the "art" he referred to by Pollock, Riley, Flavin, and Emin includes no images at all.) He then adds: "This is true whether they are carving a block of marble or painting a picture, assembling a construction or manipulating an image on a computer screen." But "assembling a construction" constitutes neither image- making nor art. Nor is it clear in what respect, if any, "manipulating an image on a computer screen" qualifies as art.

Emphasizing that the "language" of art is learned slowly, Spalding notes: "From time immemorial, artists used to learn in the studios of their masters. Until recently some still did." As he further observes, throughout the twentieth century traditional realist artists in America and abroad did indeed continue to teach their craft in private studios and academies, struggling to rediscover and preserve the methods of past masters. Although they still do, in small yet growing numbers, Spalding cites no such activity either here or abroad. (On such training, see my article "The Legacy of Richard Lack," Aristos, December 2006).

Following the Second World War, the teaching of art deteriorated markedly. The principal villain in Spalding's view was Josef Albers, who had moved to America from Germany. Albers, Spalding notes, "became increasingly purist and theoretical, like his pictures [more]," in which he rarely varied the format of superimposed squares or rectangles of different colors.

[Albers's] work was the epitome of post-war abstraction, and the teaching of art suffered as the language of art was decimated. There was no point in learning to draw a figure if you would never have to paint one. So a generation of artists emerged who had never learnt to draw. . . . Before long artists did not dare put pencil to paper for fear of exposing themselves and their incompetence. But then many argued that drawing, so long regarded as the foundation of all visual creativity, was anti-art because it was too personal.

In such a passage, Spalding stands far above his peers in the contemporary artworld. What eminent critic, museum director, or scholar would dare make such statements? Surely not, for example, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art--which includes in its collection Albers's Homage to the Square: Soft Spoken, presumably one of the museum's "treasures" that Montebello once proclaimed "speak to the hopes, dreams and triumphs of the human race."

However unwittingly, Spalding's lament regarding the decline of learning and craft in the visual arts echoes that of the painter-teacher R. H. Ives Gammell some decades earlier. In The Twilight of Painting (published in 1946, around the time Albers was teaching at the avant-garde Black Mountain College), Gammell offered this sober assessment:

The ultimate importance of Modern Painting in the history of art will be seen to lie in the fact that it discredited and virtually destroyed the great technical traditions of European painting, laboriously built up through the centuries by a long succession of men of genius. The loss of these traditions has deprived our potential painters of their rightful heritage, a heritage without which it will be impossible for them to give full scope to such talent as they may possess.

Spalding sums up the dismal decline of art training after World War II by observing:

Within four decades art education in England had been transformed out of all recognition. In the 1950s, a boy of thirteen could begin his training by going to his local art school, and start by learning to draw, slowly working his way up through the grades, learning perspective and anatomy, drawing from the antique and from life. . . . The same boy intent on a career in art in the 1990s would not have started any specialist training in art until he was at least 18. . . . Even then he probably would not specialise, but would be more likely to combine fine arts [bearing no resemblance to the "fine-art" curriculum of the 1950s, it should be noted], with, say, media studies or film, or graphics with computer programming, in order to acquire "transferable skills."

Such a system, Spalding continues, "favoured the development of a theoretical rather than a practical approach to art, and conceptual art fitted the bill perfectly because the job of the artist in that tradition was to think not to make." His reference to "the artist" notwithstanding, he seems clearly to imply that such an approach does not further the making of art. What is again needed, Spalding argues (as did Gammell) is an "apprenticeship system" in art. "The challenge for any visual artist," Spalding insists, "is to relate the process of making with the process of seeing; it takes time and effort to make the hand and the eye begin to work together in this way."

Content Eclipsed

In Spalding's view, art (including, presumably, this painting) must be about something. It must have content--or meaning. With respect to the content of abstract work, however, his discussion is muddled. In arguing that "it is impossible to create an abstract image that has no associational (or representational) properties," for example, he ignores that the very term "image" refers to a representation of something. "Abstract image" is therefore a contradiction in terms, yet Spalding persists in referring to abstract painters as "artists" and to their work as "art."

Piet Mondrian, "who painted abstracts using pure reds, yellows and blues in a black grid format," is an "artist," whose work has "artistic value." Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-43), Spalding claims, "[expresses] his response to New York through an unusually jazzy arrangement of colours." It does no such thing. Even if Mondrian intended this, it is simply not possible (even accompanied by the title) for such an arrangement of color and form to evoke something so complex as Broadway--not to mention Mondrian's psychological response to it. In fairness to Spalding, however, I should note that the interpretation he offers is a common one (see, for example, that of the Museum of Modern Art, which owns the painting).

In commenting on the eclipse of content, Spalding also cites as "artists"such post-war "Pop Art" stars as Robert Rauschenberg (who studied with Albers in 1948) and Jasper Johns. calling them artists. He finds John's brushwork "delicious," even if Rauschenberg's handling of paint was the "stronger." He mentions no examples of their work possessing these qualities, however, nor (more important) does he explain how, if at all, it relates to the issue of content, or meaning, except for the dubious assertion that Rauschenberg used his handling of paint "to express the tumultuous excitement of city life."

Nevertheless, what matters in the end for Spalding is "what [art] is about." In that light, his account of the genesis of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (acquired by the Tate a few years ago) is telling. Spalding correctly implies that the piece is not about anything, that it has no content (although his first mention of Andre referred to him as "the American artist"). As Spalding relates, in 1966 Andre bought identical smooth white bricks from a building-trade supplier and arranged them in a series of varying rectangular configurations--each two bricks high and totaling 120 bricks--which were exhibited in a New York gallery. In Spalding's view, Equivalent VIII is "difficult to look at . . . for long for its own sake." There is not much to stimulate the gray matter or stir the soul, he seems to say. As he notes, the content of the piece was "equally elusive" when it was first exhibited, and even Peter Schjeldahl, now the art critic for the New Yorker, was perplexed when he saw all eight Equivalents displayed at one time. Schjeldahl's recollection of what was for him a transforming experience is quoted verbatim by Spalding:

"In March 1966, when I entered the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and saw some bricks lying on the floor: eight neat, low lying arrangements of them, construction in progress, I thought, and I turned to leave. Then another thought halted me: what if it is art? Scarcely daring to hope for anything so wonderful (I may have held my breath), I asked a person in the gallery . . . and was assured, that, yes, this was a show of sculpture by Carl Andre. I was ecstatic. I perused the bricks with a feeling of triumph . . . here was an art which existed in relation to me and which, in a sense, I created . . . With them at my feet as I walked around the gallery, accumulating views, I felt my awkward self-consciousness, physical and psychological, being valorised, being made the focus and even the point of the experience . . . here, at last, was the purely and cleanly existing heart of the matter."

Is Schjeldahl serious? He is indeed, though one would be excused for mistaking such confessional criticism to be a parody. Spalding, for his part, does not comment, allowing the words to hang their author, and simply noting that no one purchased the bricks at the exhibition, "so Andre returned them to the supplier"--adding that when the Tate decided to include the work in its august collection, Andre had to "order a new set [of bricks]." The work is now ensconced in the museum, Spalding reports, "surrounded by a little, protective rail (an angry visitor once threw ink at it)." Do not despair, however, as you are permitted to walk on other Andre "floor pieces" nearby, if you wish--"though few visitors do, unless by accident, because it is difficult to see what one would gain by doing so, and in any case many [are] unsure whether they are works of art or not."

In a corner of the same gallery, Spalding further reports, there is "a set of three metal grids, each divided into 214 equidistant slits, set into the floor" but not protected by a guard rail--though no less visually inviting than other pieces that are. As one soon realizes, however, they are the gratings of the museum's air-conditioning system. Yet just around the corner is what turns out to be "an exact replica of a real heating grid, propped up on the floor, with 22 slots in its aluminum frame . . . and surrounded by a little rail." (It is Julian Opie's H.) "Thank goodness for the little rails in Tate Modern!" exclaims Spalding. "They help you distinguish what is art from what is not."

Judgment Eclipsed

Early in the chapter entitled "The Eclipse of Judgement," Spalding makes two generalizations about artists that are simply not true. The first is that "since the emergence of the avant-garde, artists have seen themselves as a revolutionary force." In fact, only poseurs such as Albers and Andre are so pretentious. The second is that "the artist attempts to be the first arbiter in the decision about what is art and what is not" by simply declaring his work to be art. In truth, only charlatans do.

Reporting that when Tracy Emin was asked by television host David Frost why her installation My Bed [more] is art, she replied "Because I say it is." Spalding laments that Frost "did not then ask her, as he could have done, 'But who says you're an artist?'" He adds: "Artists . . . are free to try to be artists, but others are also free to decide for themselves whether they have achieved their goal." Spalding clearly implies that Emin is a fraud. Yet in his preceding paragraph he seemed to imply that her work is "art," and that she is an "artist," by claiming that her "unmade bed . . . makes a statement of a kind--as a rebellion . . . against 'rising and shining'"--and by further characterizing it as a "struggle to bring art closer to life."

Spalding cites Joseph Beuys [more], a precursor of Emin, as typical of "artists" who consider themselves modern shamans--"divinely gifted individuals who turn everything they touch into art." Beuys "left a trail of dried flowers, felt hats [and suits], sticks and fat, bones and blood, mud, sledges, stuffed animals, torches and toenail clippings [see nail clippings and more] in galleries of modern art around the world, as evidence of his passing presence." In no uncertain terms, Spalding rejects the contemporary artworld's notion that such "assemblages and installations of everyday objects in art galleries can mean anything we want them to mean." This idea, he suggests, contradicts the very nature of art, for the "meaning of a work of art is locked into it in the process of its creation. This gives true works of art the power to say so much more than objects lifted out of life or than works which are dependent on a non-intrinsic biographical context for their meaning."

Despite such insights, however, Spalding continues to apply the terms art and artist indiscriminately, ignoring his own criteria. He cites as "art," for example, Andy Warhol's silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe [scroll down] [more]--which, like many of Warhol's creations, were mechanically based on someone else's photographs (in this case, a single publicity shot for the film Niagara). The process of transforming them into "art" began in a professional photo shop and was completed mostly by Warhol's assistants in his aptly named studio, The Factory. "Not all of Warhol's work is empty of meaning, despite his best efforts to make it so," Spalding nonetheless insists, offering no evidence to back up that claim. Instead he merely asserts that the series dedicated to Monroe was "executed with surprising verve in a highly original, often plaintive" response to the movie star's tragic life. He is sorely mistaken here. Like the found objects presented as "art" that Spalding later roundly criticizes, Warhol's mechanically replicated Marilyns "short-circuit the making of art; they are borrowed, not born. They are not images wrought out of feelings and thoughts and crystallized into consciousness."

The Return of Light

In his final chapter, optimistically titled "The Passing of the Eclipse," Spalding astutely observes:

The very concept of art has been so brutalised in recent years that it is difficult to see how it can survive, let alone revive. Without a widely accepted understanding of what we mean by art, what chance has it to regenerate? The task we face is to clarify what qualities distinguish a genuine work of art from the ersatz products of today.

But just what are the qualities that distinguish genuine art from bogus, art? For Spalding it is "the aesthetic light that appears to shine out from them," which "will re-emerge after the eclipse has passed." This is much too vague to be of much use, but his further explanation is illuminating:

The life in a work of art is . . . triggered in ourselves, not in the object before us. Looking at . . . art makes one feel more fully aware of one's thoughts . . . , more exposed to one's emotions . . . , more integrated, more composed--more, in a word, conscious.

Here Spalding has succinctly identified the cognitive and emotional function of art, which recalls Ayn Rand's observation that "art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts." Rand's term "concepts" corresponds to Spalding's "thoughts."

In Spalding's view, "a found object, whether it is a brick [even this slightly altered one by an American MFA student in 2003, Spalding would probably agree] or a urinal [Duchamp's, 1917], cannot by itself inspire you with a heightened level of consciousness, just because it is selected and placed in a gallery," or dubbed art by a critic. He thereby alludes to, and justly rejects, the "institutional theory" [click on + symbol under title] of art--which, in one form or another, is at the base of most writing on "contemporary art" (and abstraction). One cannot look at a found (or purchased) object, Spalding argues, and know what its finder (or purchaser) thinks or feels about it. Yet he claims that one can "make a good guess at what was going on in Andre's mind when he arranged his bricks on the floor," but not be certain, because Andre "left no trace" that would reveal what he thought or felt about them. (Can a common brick be the subject of art? Of course. Feast your eyes on The Brick, by the contemporary Norwegian painter Terje Adler Mørk--more on him below.)

Another "found object" of sorts (actually the cast of a house that was later demolished) is House [more], by Rachel Whiteread. "When all the bricks and mortar, windows and roofs of the row [of it and other adjoining houses] had been removed, the cast was left standing there in the vacant lot like a pale, abandoned ghost--a death mask of the interior of a house." But was House (later destroyed for safety reasons) art? Not in Spalding's view. As he explains:

Found objects and casts of found objects are detached from their perpetrators, . . . because they have never been part of the artist in the first place. They short-circuit the making of art; they are borrowed, not born. They are not images wrought out of feelings and thoughts and crystallized into consciousness. By [these] criteria] House does not . . . even begin to be a work of art.

The term Spalding might have used following his apt reference to "perpetrators" is "the maker," not "the artist." That is a minor quibble, however. More troubling is his remark that found objects are "images" of a sort, and his subsequent embrace of other found objects as art, both noted below.

Emerging from the Gloom

"As the eclipse passes, all recent artistic reputations will be reassessed," Spalding predicts, both of those in the avant-garde and of those "who have doggedly resisted it." But the eclipse will not pass, as he has said, until and unless we (scholars, critics, and the culture at large) "clarify what qualities distinguish a genuine work of art." When the eclipse does finally pass (if indeed it ever does), Spalding may find that the reputation of one of his favorites, David Hockney, has not emerged untarnished.

Spalding does not merely admire Hockney, he goes so far as to predict that his work "will come to be seen as a bridge between the days before the eclipse when painting was pre-eminent, and its re-elevation afterwards--a brilliant light glowing on the distant horizon, if always on the edge." That is sheer hyperbole, as any survey [more - slide bottom bar to right to view images] of Hockney's work over the past half-century suggests. The worst of that work is pretentious or downright incompetent, while the best is often so for its decorative qualities (not surprisingly, Hockney is reputed for his opera set designs). Many of the paintings are derived in large measure from photographs, however. As Anne Hoy notes in the catalogue David Hockney: A Retrospective, though Hockney professes to consider the camera inferior to life drawing as a means of rendering "'weight and volume'" (and rendering the inner life of human subjects, I might add), he has utilized photographs as preliminary studies for his paintings since 1968. Many of his best-known works, moreover, are photographs, or rather photocollages (see Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1985, and Pearblossom Highway, 1986, for example). Hoy estimates that these constitute "a major body of work within his career." Since photography is not a fine art in my view (as argued in What Art Is), photocollages do not "even begin to be art," to borrow Spalding's words quoted earlier in another context. Finally, in works produced via fax machines and computers [scroll down to "Fax Pictures" and "Digital Art"] Hockney has dispensed with paint and even photography altogether. The pity of all this is that he can draw, it seems.

Spalding predicts that as the eclipse passes new talent will emerge.

There are thousands of artists around the world who have gone on creating art . . . whose work has been totally obscured. Glorious new art, much of it modest, though still valid, some of it profound, will emerge from the gloom. Among these hidden delights will be the great art of our times. The tragedy is that we cannot yet see it.

Forget for the moment the thousands whose work, though well-intentioned, is understandably ignored by critics. One's concern should be instead with the modest number of neglected classically trained painters and sculptors who produced admirable art of wide range and style, some of it even profound, in the gloom of the twentieth century, and with those who do so now. The real tragedy is that they too are ignored, at least virtually so. Spalding names none of them, however. If he is even aware that they exist he does not say. The artists he does cite are for the most part a strange lot. Some of their work does not even qualify as art according to his own criteria. That which does is mediocre at best. One of the artists he admires, for example, is the German painter Peter Angermann, whose "combination of gross cartoons with limpid beauty" [more], he claims, "is deeply resonant of our times." Spalding also esteems Francis Davison, a British "abstract artist of monastic rigour" who made collages [more] of torn and cut colored paper--on which he wrote an exhibition catalogue. However much pleasure Spalding may gain from them, these collages, like all abstract work, lack meaning, and therefore should not be considered art by his own standards.

Among the sculptors Spalding admires, two are British: the wood and stone carver Fred Watson (Three Plastic Bottles [granite], Shelf [wood], and Bookstack [granite]), and David Kemp (whose works The Old Transformers--The Ironmaster and The Miner [see also King Coal] are both mentioned). Kemp also transforms found objects "in the manner of Picasso [e.g., Bull's Head]"). In addition, Spalding names an American, H. C. Westerman, claiming that he ought to be recognized as "one of the greatest artists of his time." Westerman's "sculpture" (e.g., The Deerslayer, made from iron, wood, and antlers; and The Last Ray of Hope [more], a pair of work boots in a small glass case), "always finely crafted," in Spalding's view, combines "the toughness of David Smith [e.g., Cubi XXVII] with the poetry of Joseph Cornell [e.g., Untitled (Cockatoo and Corks) [more] [more]"--neither of whom can be considered artists by the standards Spalding himself has set. "Found objects," he now seems to say, can be art after all.

Antony Gormley's Angel of the North [more] [website: click on Series and Projects, page 2, Angel of the North, Photos, then Fabrication (if you wish to know more)] is the most pretentious of the bogus art Spalding cites.

Gormley's figures . . . are not modeled but cast. To make his sculptures, Gormley strips naked and adopts a pose. He then gets an assistant to cover his bare body with plastic film patted over with wet clay. When dry, the clay is removed in sections and then used as molds to cast a version of the sculptor's body, usually in lead. To make A Case for an Angel [an earlier, much smaller version owned by the Tate] Gormley posed standing straight up with his legs together and arms outstretched, except that when he came to cast the body he had the wings of a miniature aeroplane welded on in place of his arms.

Spalding apparently is not troubled by Gormley's method of making "sculptures." Never mind that the term is derived from the Latin, sculptura, which means carving or cutting (or, by extension, modeling)--not casting directly from life. One need only compare the noble Angel of the Waters [more] [more] by the nineteenth-century American sculptor Emma Stebbins in New York's Central Park with Gormley's phony angel to discern the difference between art and pretense. A further worthwhile comparison in this regard is with Rising Sun [more] [more], by another estimable American sculptor, Adolph Weinman (though his figure does not depict an angel).

Oddly, Spalding fails to mention any of the artists in the U. K. who are now working in classical realist or academic styles. He might, for example, have cited the sculptor Alexander Stoddart [more] [more], a fellow Scot who has already created the sort of work that he says "will emerge from the gloom." Stoddart's name is mostly unknown in America, though he has visited here and has had his work installed at Princeton University [see statue of John Witherspoon] [more: be sure to click on "additional views"] and at the Millennium Gate in Atlantic Station (Atlanta, Ga.) [see Peace and Justice] [more] [also illustrated background information on the website of the National Monuments Foundation]. I wonder, though, how many Europeans outside of the U. K. (or even in it) are familiar with Stoddart's sculpture. Not many I would bet. Other works of his in Great Britain include a statue of David Hume [more] on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, and one of Adam Smith, commissioned by the Adam Smith Institute. Speaking of Scots, Spalding might have also cited the best work of at least one of the artists listed in Sculpture Scotland, a directory of figurative sculptors residing there--among them, Frances Ross, a physician-sculptor who created and edits the directory, and David Annand.

In fact, artists around the globe are creating work that seems impressive in depth and quality. Among painters, for example, there is the Norwegian classical realist Terje Adler Mørk (whose Brick I cited above--see also other works). The young Dutch sculptor Lotta Blokker has created bronze heads (e.g., Woman, Manolo, and Kouin) that have the power to take one's breath away, as I am fortunate to know firsthand. (See also her Atlas.)

What matters about The Eclipse of Art, however, is not which artists will ultimately "emerge from the gloom" (or already have)--that will be sorted out in time by consensus, not by Spalding (nor by me, I might add). What truly matters, his many contradictions notwithstanding, is his bold critique of the alleged art of our time--as distilled in such phrases as these: "what is being promoted as art today . . . till there is virtually nothing left that is recognizable as art at all . . . does not even begin to be a work of art." What matters even more is Spalding's insight into the nature of art. Here, too, he stands in stark contrast to the prevailing view that there are no objective standards, that anything can be art if experts say it is. Not so, says this artworld maverick:

We reserve the word "art" for those rare visual creations that stir our emotions and stimulate our thoughts profoundly. . . . If a work of art is not centred on humanity, what is its form? . . . The key thing that all artists have to learn . . . is how to make images that express their feelings and ideas. . . . What matters is what [a work of art] is about. . . . [T]he meaning of a work of art is locked into it in the process of its creation. . . . Looking at . . . art makes one feel more fully aware of one's thoughts . . . , more exposed to one's emotions . . . , more integrated, more composed--more, in a word, conscious.

Spalding, as I have said, comes this close to being right about art. And that, for my money, is close enough.

See Spalding's letter in response (Aristos, June 2008).

Articles and Books by Julian Spalding

"Why the Louvre is the World's Worst Museum"

"More Central Control Is the Last Thing Our Museums Need" [scroll down]

"Time to Turn Off the Lights on Turner?"

Interview with Bridget Riley [bio + links]

"Busy Doing Nothing"

"Taking a Fresh Look at Art History"

The Art of Wonder: A History of Seeing (2005) [more]

The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collections [more] [more] (2002)