Culture at Crisis Point by Giles Auty

Reviewed by Ida Lichter

  • Publisher: Connor Court Publishing, 2016
  • ISBN: 9781925501247
  • RRP $29.95

British-born Giles Auty was a professional painter who lived in the artist colony of West Cornwall for many years before he took up art criticism. Culture at Crisis Point is a compilation of 50 of his many articles written over several decades and published in The Spectator, Quadrant and Annals Australasia.

In the introduction, he explains: “In spite of its slightly alarming title Culture at Crisis Point is intended to be a celebration of the joys of uninhibited thinking and writing…” He quotes Cyril Connolly, the English literary critic, who affirmed that truth carries “not only the hope of humanity but its safety.” Throughout his career, Auty has followed this lodestar and appealed for a spirit of enquiry.

Several articles discuss political and economic matters, such as the global financial crisis but most deal with the modern and postmodern movements in the visual arts.

Between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century, modernism strove to break with the past and impose new radical values. A torrent of different ideas in this era of exceptional change and the period that followed, produced almost 100 new art movements. For Auty, these new standards ignored and devalued great art traditionally cherished as a timeless reflection of the human condition.

The postmodern reaction to modernism began with the protest culture in the 1960s and brought in its wake the concept of  “anything goes,” as well as subjective versus objective truth. Moreover, truth was considered relative rather than universal.

Auty’s reviews of the postmodern exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery in London during the late 1980s and 1990s express some of his misgivings regarding the items on display and their descriptions.

Of a preserved shark in a tank of formaldehyde, British art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote: “The fact that the Shark appears to move contributes to its considerable power as an object of contemplation. It is a paradox made solid, this creature, at once frighteningly dynamic and completely still. It is, of course a vanitas, albeit of an unusual kind: a work that prompts reflections on death…”

Although an eloquent personal reaction by Graham-Dixon, Auty contends that this work is not art; nor is an assortment of flies, maggots and a cow’s head by the same artist. [1]

The unintelligible description of another artwork read: “This repetition involves what henceforth shall be called the logic of the again and anew. Marking out a co-presence which is never a simple presence. Not simple because, as will be suggested, the origin is diremptive: anoriginally diremptive…”

In one of his reviews, Auty pronounced the Saatchi Collection “a fitting monument to a time of economic boom and to the financial profligacy that accompanied it.”

Buyers in the US, willing to pay high prices, were often lacking in knowledge and dependent on other people’s opinions. In New York, the market for contemporary art became so overblown that artists made “wilder and wilder guesses in the hope of tapping into the golden vein.”

Back in 1971, American art critic, Hilton Kramer, warned that much art criticism had turned into “an archaeological task – the task of digging out a lost civilization from the debris that has swamped and buried it.”

Postmodernism, Auty writes, has adopted catch phrases and clichés such as “cutting edge,” “seeking to put the clock back,” “outmoded” and other rhetorical language that settled into the cultural lexicon.

He questions the notion of equivalent standards in historic and contemporary art. According to this mindset, works by Velasquez and Goya are deemed the equals of artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Auty decries these comparisons and asks how the abstract range of colour in Rothko’s paintings could match the scope of human conflict in works such as The Disasters of War by Goya.

In this context, Auty mentions two false assumptions: the belief that differences in artistic expression derive from the restrictions artists face in their respective eras, and that historical development of art is characterised by “inevitable evolution and progress”. Answering these assumptions, he draws attention to the total freedom of contemporary artists and the modernists’ deliberate break with the past.

Rejection of the continuous tradition in art and replacement with novel, radical ideas led to a “cult of formal novelty” that infiltrated Western art in education, critical evaluation and practice.

Artists themselves championed novelty as an “artistic virtue”. Georges Braque accused Picasso of “betraying modernism” and other artists were similarly vilified.

Auty traces the origins of postmodernism to the counterculture of the late 1960s, when a number of Marxist-inspired initiatives coalesced as Neo-Marxism, forming a broad postmodernist movement. Rather than emerging as a political revolution, it developed as a subversive appropriation and politicisation of culture. Quoting American art critic Roger Kimball,[2] Auty notes: “the counterculture’s call for total freedom quickly turned into a demand for total control. The phenomenon of ‘political correctness’, with its speech codes and other efforts to enforce ideological conformity, was one predictable result of this transformation.”

 

Corrosion of Western culture was probably influenced by China’s “cultural revolution” of 1966 – 1976.  Auty asserts this upheaval gained considerable approval in the West, despite unleashing widespread destruction and persecution in an attempt to eliminate Chinese traditions and replace them with Maoism.

 

In Auty’s view, the “long march through the institutions,”[3] is now deep-rooted and aims to “overthrow” and “rewrite” the West’s moral and civil conventions, especially the Christian elements. As truth is considered subjective, truth and opinion have “become synonymous – and even interchangeable somehow.” This fluidity has led to the belief that anything is permissible, including the overthrow of an existing social order and he maintains that intellectuals, together with a compliant media, have continually betrayed Western values since the end of the Cold War.

He argues that postmodern philosophy has fostered political correctness, multiculturalism, divisive class or racist warfare and denigration of religion, while professing social justice and equality. Political correctness has also impacted legislation, notably criminalising speech considered offensive to certain groups.

According to Auty, the “virtues” advanced by postmodernist educators, and currently accepted and valued as progress, will eventually be seen as “semi-totalitarian attempts at social control”.

In short, Auty argues that Western culture is suffering from postmodern domination. Followers have continually worked “to overthrow as many existing cultural, social and religious traditions as possible and to supplant these with…an entirely ersatz culture”. Often based on slogans and propaganda, the campaign has been particularly successful in the visual arts. Nevertheless, Auty suspects that many ordinary viewers have doubts about postmodern art.

He maintains that Australia fell prey to postmodern ideas. Curators and directors of the major galleries “managed to persuade themselves…that novelty must be a virtue in itself”. Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles was bought by the Australian National Gallery in 1973, amid controversy as well as fanfare proclaiming it was one of the greatest works of art since the Renaissance. Auty derides this claim as part of the “novelty trap”, and believes “both Blue Poles itself and the whole, aberrant notion of ‘total’ abstraction in art will continue to appear as small blips on a large screen”. He does, however, commend some abstract work and recognises its place in artistic inspiration.

In his opinion, postmodern ideology, which still features in much of Australia’s media, is particularly destructive in a country that is still young, relatively isolated and “often uncertain of itself”.

British art critic Brian Sewell[4] observed how often art-funding organisations in Britain supported “generally worthless ‘official’ state art” for decades, as well as dubious art prizes judged by powerful arts commissars. Such matters, writes Auty, are relevant for Australia.

Despite the prevailing postmodernism in Australia’s visual arts, Auty acknowledges many national artists worthy of praise. He singles out William Robertson, Lloyd Rees (“one of the more brilliant draughtsmen in the entire history of Western art”) and John Olsen. Auty recalls Olsen lamenting that the eyes of Australian curators “were located in entirely the wrong part of their anatomies – thus impeding their vision seriously whenever they sat down”.

Auty’s influence on the cultural life of Australia might have been limited by his religious position as a proud convert to Catholicism, who mourns the erosion of Christian ethics intrinsic to the development of Western culture. In this increasingly secular age, some would regard his views on Christianity as distasteful and obsolete.

For many in the art world fraternity, Auty is probably considered a reactionary, unfit for admittance to their society. Indeed, after he arrived in Australia in 1995, he was recommended as a possible contributor to a radio program on the ABC. However, the presenter said she could not include such people on her show.

Today, Auty is still an outsider to prevailing academic and political perspectives. In his article on Brexit, he eschews fashionable opinion and bemoans the totalitarian tendencies of Europe’s unelected elites, as well as the new demography that might put intolerable pressure on Western culture.

Concepts of Western cultural decline are difficult to assimilate in a diverse anthology, so a general index would have been useful in addition to the author guide. As most of the reviews are short, the ideas often lack development, yet the clarity and entertaining writing sustain the reader’s attention.

Art does not stand still and although he welcomes its natural development, Auty disagrees with postmodernist concepts advanced without the balance afforded by alternative views. He also implies a need to reconsider the pursuit of truth, knowledge and noble aspirations in the name of art.

Whatever one’s opinion on postmodernism, it would seem vital to question and evaluate the tenets of this mainstream movement, as well as its major artistic and political impact.

Contemporary scholars are engaged in addressing postmodernism and Auty adds a compelling dissident voice to the discourse.

Ida Lichter is the author of The Secret Magic of Music: Conversations with Musical Masters

ENDNOTES

[1]  A Thousand Years by Damien Hirst, 1990

[2]  Roger Kimball, The Long March (Encounter Books 2000)

[3] Coined by German New leftist Rudi Dutschke.

[4]  Brian Sewell, Naked Emperors: Criticisms of English Contemporary Art  (Quartet Books 2012)