Zeitgeist: art at the end of the boom

How art will look by 2011

It's going to take two years (at least) for the world to claw itself out of this current financial crisis, a recession that's shaping up to be protracted as well as painful.

The contemporary art boom of the last fifteen years is finally over, and although the market is likely to prove more resilient than many currently anticipate - it is, after all, a global one, with a reach that has extended enormously in recent times - change and challenge are as inevitable as heavily sliding prices.

So how will art itself respond?


Apocalypse right now

Rumblings about a newly foreboding, post-apocalyptic trend in contemporary practice have been surfacing with increasing regularity, peddling the notion that artists en masse are responding to global woes with angsty output.

In fact, the theme is hardly a new one, but when times are good - for which read 'prosperous' - such sentiments are often regarded as awkwardly sincere or even slightly irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the darker sides of art are going to receive plenty of critical attention, and unease as a theme is certainly on the rise. Expect much more of it, especially since, as economies crumble, struggling artists will no doubt find themselves struggling more than most.


The bling thing: done and (diamond) dusted

Ostentation in art is one trend that's almost certain to sink without trace. Piling precious stones on artworks, no matter how ironic, already has the air of an unfortunate obscenity, as suddenly redundant as a portfolio of shares.

The principal player in this mini-movement was, of course, Damien Hirst, but just as his infamous Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale seems to have marked a last-gasp spending apogee before art prices plummeted, the self-consciously decadent works that went under the hammer already reflect another era entirely.

The act of lavishing bullion on art - which, in Hirst's case, cynically targeted a breed of billionaire buyer who has all but deserted the salesrooms - has fallen victim to unforeseen context, symbolic of the insatiable greed that brought banks to their knees and shredded global economies.

Hirst, of course, was not the only one to flaunt art's extraordinary former successes: Marc Quinn's solid gold statue of Kate Moss or even Farhad Moshiri's essentially cynical, bling-encrusted canvases revelled in the excesses of a turbo-charged market.


Out with the old - in with the new

More reassuring, however, is the fact that the next few years is likely to produce some very good work indeed.

Priority will be placed on attention to detail, depth, vision, and the creative process itself. As smaller galleries close and competition to show becomes fiercer than ever, newer artists will face mounting challenges just to make their presence felt.

It's a state of affairs that many of the current crop of household names have good reason to fear. Changing times demand fresh attitudes and approaches, and mass-production advocates such as Murakami, Koons and, of course, Hirst, are going to look increasingly facile, representatives of an ethic that has changed virtually overnight.

The formulaic won't survive this particular art-crunch, and both Murakami and Hirst in particular seem increasingly inclined to produce uninventive work that trades on the strength of their names.

Will these art giants recover their status once prosperity returns? Koons himself was badly affected by the '80s art downturn before springing back spectacularly. While none of today's biggest players will find themselves wiped off the art map, their perceived relevance over the next few years will probably dip in line with their prices.


Mediums, well done

When economies expand, so, too does art, veering towards the monumental and lavish.

Take something as fundamental as painting: its much mooted 'resurgence' was not just about creative shifts, but driven, too, by prosperity. Canvases are big ticket, high-cost items that depend on investment from the artist to the buyer.

By contrast, much emerging art over the next few years will inevitably reflect reduced production costs (if not necessarily diminishing scale) as strapped-for-cash artists turn to less expensive mediums.

Drawing is likely to make yet another return to galleries, with a heavier accent, this time round, on mixed media. Collage, in particular, allows for highly subtle, powerfully charged comment if genuine social documents - magazines, newspapers etc - are recontextualised to hint at unexpected meaning. Work by artists such as Dash Snow or the talented Kirsten Stoltmann provide good examples.

Performance is also likely to surge in popularity. It has been on the verge of a major comeback for some time now - one of those cyclical factors that affect art just as they do fashion - and is already the source of exciting work by various newcomers.

Absurdity is likely to be a keynote in live art, expressed through collective, Dada-esque theatricality as opposed to intensely reflective solo work. Film, too, will gain in importance as a vehicle for particularly vivid, direct appeal.

A notion of community and the collective should also become far more evident, with a focus on blues-banishing, ludic interactivity and 'us against them' gesture.

If the last few decades were increasingly about ego and individuals, the coming years will emphasise unity and inclusiveness. We'll see a growth in practice that physically involves participants in its resolution, such as the sculptural work of Jeppe Hein or Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's people-powered installations.


Practice and politics

So is art going to take on a renewed political vigour?

Urban art, with its tradition of comment and dissent, should theoretically meet this particular need. But its image has also been tainted in recent years through association with big money and commercialism.

Who's really going to buy into commentary by the likes of flush-with-success Banksy on themes such as spiralling unemployment or repossession? Against a backdrop of genuine hardship, the validity of his voice - and that of many his peers - will appear highly questionable, and his value, both commercial and as a commentator, could well slump dramatically.

Furthermore, the kind of environments in which urban art often flourishes - those blighted by unemployment, deprivation and decay - will, unfortunately, become increasingly common as recession kicks in. In short, we're going to see far better street art on streets themselves than anything currently shown in galleries.


The anatomy of melancholy

Disenchantment can manifest itself in many ways, from the angrily active to the insular and introspective. Melancholy and art are hardly a new partnership, but will gain in pertinence and provide a counterpoint to simultaneously emergent themes of communal power and strength in numbers.

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