ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
Review of: Eleanor Heartney. Art & Today. London: Phaidon, 2008.

Phaidon, who have been making too many analytically thin but otherwise huge books in recent years seem to be coming to their senses in 2008 with Eleanor Heartney’s Art & Today. At 440 pages and a mere 2 kilograms (just over 4 pounds) this book is everything that so many of the bulky books are not. It contains a very intelligent introductory essay which carefully sets contemporary art scenes in their recent historical contexts. The book is of very high quality, richly illustrated, analytical, and thought provoking. It does not fall into the “too much is too much” trap (Alexander, 2009). Heartney refuses however to accept the full implications of Duchamp – for her art is alive and well and lives (mainly) in art museums where a curatorial elite struggle against all evidence to the contrary that the avant-garde survived the 1950’s. If Heartney could achieve escape velocity from this view under which her analysis labours she could have written the best book on contemporary art in years.

1. Maurizzio Cattelan. The Ninth Hour (1992)

Heartney charts her course cautiously beginning with “Art and Popular Culture: The Warhol Effect” which is used to explain Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Damian Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, Richard Prince, Inka Essenhigh, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and several others (all of whom are illustrated). The acute analysis takes us through the rise of high modernism and its supportive critics – from Barr through Greenberg (the latter who never saw Warhol coming).

2. Tara Donnovan. Untitled (Plastic Cups) (2006)

This chapter persistently begs the Duchamp issue which her next chapter addresses: “Art and the Quotidian object: The Transformation of the Readymade”. The work of Tony Cragg, Jessica Stockholder, Ashley Bickerton, Sarah Sze, Sarah Lucas, Tara Donnovan, Liza Lou, Katharina Fritsch [the presence of so many women artists in a book on the arts more generally is very refreshing], and others are used to illustrate the persistence of Duchamp’s equation of art and mass produced objects. After we accepted Duchamp’s Fountain we had to accept the presentation of anything in our galleries right down to a wad of gum. Duchamp thus becomes the hero of contemporary art because, for Heartney, he laid out, in advance, a way out of the corner (formal purity) into which modernism was going to paint itself. Heartney – who loves her subject with a passion – does not stop to ponder that if everything is art – then nothing especially is “art” (Baudrillard, 2005). I am not certain that Duchamp would entirely recognize himself as part of Heartney’s functional continuum of artists. She is among many today who refuse to accept the presence of two problematic facts: 1) Now that anything can be art, nothing is art and, 2) Art, like politics, goes on after its death – sometimes in complete indifference to itself.

Two excellent chapters “Art and Abstraction – Retreat From Purity” and “Art and Representation – The fiction of Realism” follow. Both do well to establish the inherent and unstoppable pluralism of contemporary artists before setting up the necessary chapter “Art and Narrative – Postmodern Story Telling”. Here Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, Matthew Barney, Anna Gaskell, Gillian Wearing etc. (and their camera lenses), usher us into an era without history. I think ignoring postmodern painting (to the degree which it does), leads this chapter to suffer in relation to the broader ones which come before it.

“Art & Time – From Real Time to Reel Time” misses the point that the movement of the contemporary is from historical to real time. It is a chapter which suffers from the disease of the work and time it seeks to address – the problem that in real time there is little time for reflection and analysis. “Art and Nature and Technology – Remaking Land and Body” is a much stronger chapter in which Heartney makes the case that artists are raising very important issues at present concerning techno-science (“Should we do things simply because we can”). While she doesn’t mention it one gets the impression that in some way artists are not only fearful of science but jealous of its artistic powers to create. Artist Eduardo Kac has pushed outwards beyond Orlan’s generation to genetically alter an albino rabbit [he added jellyfish DNA] so that it will glow green under ultraviolet light (the rabbit’s new chemistry is as close to a glow fish as it is a rabbit). A strength of this chapter is that, despite the author’s usual optimism, it entirely defeats the last vestiges of the idea of progress under which modern art laboured.

3. Eduardo Kac. GFP Bunny (2000)

“Art and Deformation – Celebrating Human Imperfection” is a timely a chapter to follow and is inventive in its analysis. Here the work of Francis Bacon, Phil Guston, Louise Bourgeois, Wangechi Mutu, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Hellen Chadwick, Lari Pitman, and Elizabeth Murray (among others) is deployed to examine deformation and the important role of chaos and destruction in creation. I think Heartney’s analysis here, while creative, falls a little short as she runs back to the age old conclusion that “order and deformation are two sides of the same coin”. Having demonstrated the possible nightmares ahead in the previous chapter perhaps Heartney might consider adopting a more tragic hope that the present system will collapse under its own weight before becoming the perfect crime against the human. The proliferation of deformation art in certainly doing its part to add to the obesity of the system while simultaneously weakening faith in it.

“Art and the Body – From Object to Subject” and “Art and Identity – The Rise of the Hybrid Self” are two chapters which capture well the complexities of identity as problematized by contemporary art. Here we meet powerful young artists such as Cecily Brown and Lisa Yuskavage, set prudently alongside Judy Chicago and Barbara Kruger, and in the end we have two chapters which affirm the notion that identity is a dream pathetic in its absurdity (Baudrillard, 1998:49) – or as Heartney prefers it: “in the end identity is like a reflection in still water – it is only clearly visible until you reach out and try to grasp it in your hand” (262).

4. Lisa Yuskavage. Day (1999-2000)

A very curious and thought provoking chapter “Art and Spirituality – Rediscovering Transcendence” follows which includes recent artistic efforts to deal with the spiritual – or, as in Eliasson’s case, pass close by it.

5. Olafur Eliasson. The Weather Project (2003-04)

Heartney speculates that what we are seeing today in such works is the expenditure of the utopian yearnings of our time which today demand both affection and irony. Maybe artists like Eliasson are simply trying to achieve escape velocity out of our time – but not into the future. I attended The Weather Project and I can tell you that next to quietly observing the stars, outdoors, at night – it is the most primitive thing I have experienced in my life.

“Art and Globalism – Negotiating A Borderless World” plays the awkward and (unintended) role of ghettoization that those embarrassing chapters called “women’s art” or “black art” used to play in such books twenty to thirty years ago. If the book has a striking weakness (and Heartney did seem to make a sincere effort here to avoid it), it is that while artists from outside of the West are recognized, they are still in insufficient numbers in the other chapters. This is a problematic contradiction given the concern for globalism right from the introduction to this book. Even in this chapter many artists from the West are illustrated (as there should be of course as these issues are not merely those from outside the West). Still, I couldn’t help feeling at least a little embarrassed for this chapter. Perhaps, like others that have now passed it will serve as a launching point for the excluded (especially North American aboriginals and artists from China) to make their way fully into the other chapters of such books. At least this book makes a sincere beginning down that road which we have long waited to open for Chinese art in the West. As for North American aboriginal art, it remains one of the great unrecognized treasures of such publications. What the book achieves for women however points to a kind of feminist dream of the 1970’s that has taken place both in the arts and in publishing. Perhaps in twenty years those excluded now will find a similar place in the next generation of books called “Art and Today” … “Art Now” … etc.

Heartney’s final chapters on architecture, art institutions, politics and audience raise many issues that may well encourage the next book of this kind to adjust its focus in better time with the ever elusive world of contemporary art. Light Art and Environmental (or “Earth”) Art are also underrepresented. Overall this book has its weaknesses but that doesn’t stop it from being a very good read. I highly recommend to those seeking one lucid analysis of the perplexity of contemporary art.

We await the contemporary art book that was more comfortable in seeking a poetic resolution to contemporary art – one that allows the enigma to perplex us rather than seeking textual solutions to (mainly) visual problems.

About the Author
Dr. Gerry Coulter is from Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada

Victoria Alexander (2008). “The Big Art Book – Too Much is Too Much (Even if it is Warhol)”. Double review of Larry Ball et. al., (2007). 30,000 Years of Art. London and New York: Phaidon Press; Julia Hasting, et. al., (2006) Andy Warhol. Giant. London and New York: Phaidon Press. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 6, Number 1, (January).

Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2005). The Conspiracy Of Art. (Edited by Sylvere Lotringer). New York: Semiotext(e) / MIT.