BY Jörg Heiser AND Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 01 SEP 11
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Issue 141

Happy Returns

It’s 20 years since the first issue of frieze. How has the art world changed in that time?

BY Jörg Heiser AND Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 01 SEP 11

The adage ‘The days are long but life is short’ perfectly sum ups the intensity of publishing a magazine. This year frieze turns 20, which seems both astonishing (a common response: ‘Surely it’s about eight years? Twenty? You’re kidding, right?’ etc.) and apt: a lot has happened since 1991, to put it mildly. To look back at the earliest issues of the magazine is to glimpse a time just before the art market boomed, a time when everyone seemed to know everyone else at every private view, ‘google’ was still a word in books by Douglas Adams, contemporary art was much cheaper than the old stuff, no-one had a mobile phone, biennials were few and far between, and air travel was really expensive. Any attempt to summarize such a complex two decades is fraught with difficulty, contradiction and paradox: make any claim about developments in art and its social and economic manifestations and you run into a counter-claim.

Claim 1: In the last 20 years the art world has turned into a bizarrely ornate and elitist community. Accordingly, a lot of the high-profile work has been shallow, hysterical and often far bigger than an average home. Counter-claim: This kind of vulgarity is only the scum on the surface of a rich, deep pool. It’s not the first time in history that institutions or individuals have favoured big, flashy, empty art. Today, a growing percentage of the population is genuinely interested in understanding or making art and the relatively few who do buy it are often great supporters of work that is both intellectually and sensually stimulating. In the same way that there’s more to the literature of the last 20 years than Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling or Stieg Larsson, the art of the same period is simply too diverse to be represented by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami.

Claim 2: Art criticism was killed off by the Internet, a lack of real scholarship and the manipulations and demands of the art market; nobody cares anymore what critics say, it’s the dealers and curators who shape public opinion. Counter-claim: Art criticism is alive and well. The Internet has facilitated levels of communication between artists and writers in different parts of globe to a degree that wasn’t dreamt of 20 years ago. The explosion in blogging has encouraged writing from people who might – due to politics, education, sexuality, geography or gender – never have had the chance to express their opinions before and, contrary to gloomy expectations, art magazines are doing fine. But not only has the Internet been good for writing, it’s been great for reading: thanks to our website, frieze is now freely available to readers who, in 1991, would never have had access to the magazine. As for critics: today, most are a different breed from the kind of writer who promoted a small group of artists whose careers they supposedly single-handedly ‘made’ and who assumed that the most important art was created in New York or London. Art criticism now accommodates myriad perspectives. True, there is a danger that some critics can be too diplomatic in a Facebooking, economically precarious social environment, but still, many approach their subject with bite, scholarship and integrity. As editors of frieze we have found that, time and again, the same people who claim art criticism has run out of steam often adopt ideas that they first came across in a recent piece of critical writing; ironically, these are also the same people who get upset by negative responses to either their own work or to the work of artists they represent or like. We do, though, have one question: when will major newspapers, especially in the UK, start employing a cross-section of art critics who might better reflect the realities of the contemporary art world rather than relying on the views of a few men (and it is usually men) who have been doing the same job, often with decreasing energy and imagination, for years and years? (Not that there aren’t some good newspaper critics – of course there are. But why are there so few of them?)

Claim 3: Art today is an eclectic and superficial rehash of the art of earlier periods, made by increasingly professionalized art-school graduates; everything is possible and therefore nothing matters. Counter-claim: We live in an exciting period when what art is and what it can be is pretty much up-for-grabs. This allows for an unprecedented number of positions to be expressed, many of which rub up against each other in a productive way. It would not be an overstatement to say that the art being made today is more representative of the complexities of people’s lives than ever before.

Claim 4: There are no longer any critical standards. Who really knows what’s good and what’s not? Counter-claim: In fact, the tried and tested rules of judging an art work still apply – namely, does it reflect its time? Does it use its materials in a skilful or imaginative fashion? Does it express itself with wit, subtlety or originality? Does it move you or tell you something new? If you can respond ‘yes’ to all of these questions, then, without a doubt, the art work in question is worth looking at and thinking about. It’s as simple as that. We look forward to the next 20 years. We can’t imagine what’s going to happen. And that’s exciting.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.