“The flight from cliché ends in cliché”

Strangely enough, the fake art endorsed by our museums and galleries today arose from the fear of fake art: fleeing from one kind of fake, artists created another. It began with the modernists, who worked in direct reaction against the sentimental art of their day. The early modernists — Stravinsky and Schoenberg in music, Eliot and Yeats in poetry, Gauguin and Matisse in painting, Loos and Voysey in architecture — were united in the belief that popular taste had become corrupted, that banality and kitsch had invaded the spheres of art and eclipsed their messages. Tonal harmonies had been trivialised by popular music; figurative painting trumped by photography; rhyme and meter was the stuff of Christmas cards; the stories had been too often told. Everything out there, in the world of naive and unthinking people, was kitsch.
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Hence for a long time now, it has been assumed that there can be no authentic creation in high art which is not in some way a ‘challenge’ to public culture. Art must give offence, stepping out armed against the bourgeois taste for the conforming and the comfortable, which are simply other names for kitsch and cliché. The result of this is that offence itself becomes a cliché. If the public has become so immune to shock that only a dead shark in formaldehyde will awaken a brief spasm of outrage, then the artist must produce a dead shark in formaldehyde — this, at least, is an authentic gesture. In place of the late American art critic Harold Rosenberg’s ‘tradition of the new’, we have the ‘cliché of the transgressive’ — a repetition of the would-be unrepeatable.
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To convince themselves that they are true progressives, riding in the vanguard of history, the new impresarios surround themselves with others of their kind. They promote them to all the committees that are relevant to their status and expect to be promoted in their turn. Thus arose the contemporary establishment — the self-contained circle of critics and promoters, who form the backbone of our official and semi-official cultural institutions. They trade in ‘originality’, ‘transgression’ and ‘breaking new paths’. But these terms are clichés, as are the things they are used to praise. Hence the flight from cliché ends in cliché.

It is not only beliefs and actions that can be faked. Fake emotions have played a decisive role in the evolution of art in recent times. Real emotion allows no substitutes, and is never the subject of a bargain or an exchange. Fake emotion seeks to discard the cost of feeling while receiving the benefit. It is therefore always ready to exchange its present object for a better one. The sentimental lover who enjoys the warm feelings of self-approval that accompany his love is also the one who moves quickly to another object should the present one prove too arduous — perhaps because he or she has developed some debilitating illness, or has grown old, weary and unattractive.

Love transferred is not real love, and the same goes for other emotions too. All that was made clear by Oscar Wilde in ‘De Profundis’ (1897), his great denunciation of the sentimentalist Lord Alfred Douglas, by whom he had been ruined.

The great swindle: From pickled sharks to compositions in silence, fake ideas and fake emotions have elbowed out truth and beauty

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