BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

This is Modern Art (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

'This is Modern Art' is a six part TV series and book. This is a review. Matthew Collings, the presenter and author, has an enjoyable, successfully clever trademark style - a droll manner somewhere between Nigel Molesworth, Andy Warhol and Vic Reeves. It's a definite act, but a class one and confers an insider legitimacy on Collings' wry observations about the calculated acts of others and on the look-at-me devices of the organ-grinding, bum showing monkeys of the art world.

Apart from his huge pointed sideburns and dodgy suits, Coll-ings appears to be a nice, funny, intelligent guy, indifferent to the constraints of time, space and opaque sunglasses as he flies through the cultural universe, seeking a fix on the elusive nature of art practice. He is a laconic, affectionately deprecating critic of both his subject and himself, offering a designer lifestyle package of ironic self reflexivity, irritatingly fashionable pop music and aphoristic sound bites, edited with super sharp snazamatazz.

Both the series and the book have a fractured, easy style, in which Collings employs a kind of stream of consciousness baby talk (which is more obvious in the book than the series). Like Molesworth, Collings has a strange syntax, his writing not grammatically incorrect like Molesworth's, but similarly unpunctuated and open form like this and rushing to get to the end of the sentence but also slightly overextending itself breathlessly at the last moment. Then a sad sentence like this. Or a cleverly witty, self referential gag, such as the cleverly witty, self referential gag 'This is a review,' you can read at the beginning of this review.

Collings does not discriminate between contemporary art and modern art, so fails this and other tests of credibility, doomed (poor guy) as anyone of such high profile would be, by the hostile and unforgiving art world and its critical geniuses - which is not to forget the other massed forces of darkness, the Neanderthals growling and grunting over The Spectator and The Sun, who wish to invite Collings into their caves to have a word with him themselves.

The 'This' of Collings' modern art is Picasso, Picasso and Picasso, Duchamp, Pollock and Warhol, adumbrated by Goya and rounded off by Dali as honourary king of the media shits. In between are the other ones, some of them glorious and holy and noble, such as Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George, but also a certain number of sad old fucks. Collings acknowledges Feminism's corrections to the marginalising of women in art, but only cheekily, and sensibly ignores the death-throes of post-Structuralism.

There is a preponderance of humorists, such as Sean Landers, Martin Kippenberger and Richard Prince, their inclusion consistent with Collings' own role in the art world as a tragic comic - although he is probably funnier. There is a chilling moment when he talks frankly and shamelessly to Landers, and Landers to him, both without self-conscious irony for a change, about Landers' 'act'. And there is a (fortunately non representative) scene in which Collings hams it up with Gilbert and George for the camera. They all come off surprising badly in the process, suffering a loss of human dignity out of all proportion to the effect.

'This is Modern Art' is hype, but it's not hypocritical. It's accessible and fun and definitely instructively useful, if prone to a little style fatigue. Not that Collings rubs our faces in it, but the cumulative effect of the book and series leads to an awareness that he is perhaps not as benign as he seems and may be suffering a certain worldly weariness - a slightly demoralised fatigue of the ironies not experienced by Sister Wendy Beckett.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.