March 3rd, 2009


Altermodern Week 3: The killing of a flash boy

The story so far. Nicolas Bourriaud has mounted an art show at the Tate called Altermodern. In the accompanying blurb, Bourriaud proposes that postmodernism is dead, and that we might be entering a new cultural period in which the post-colonial meets modernism; one in which we in the West are decentred. He proposes to call this new era "altermodern".

You might think that British cultural commentators would be pleased that London might have pulled off the coup of being the launchpad for the international cultural era that could dominate the next fifty years. You'd think they'd report the news with the same kind of pomp and pride they reported the award of the 2012 Olympics. That hasn't been the case, to put it mildly. What has happened in the cultural columns of British newspapers (and some blogs) over the last couple of weeks is the equivalent of three quarters of sports reporters deriding the entire concept of contemporary sports during the Olympics opening ceremony. Combing Google News Search for reviews (with a little help from this article on the Frieze site), I find that this mild-mannered curator has been accused of fascism, degeneracy, subversion, conservatism, being French, being vain, hating freedom, employing theory, pushing asymmetrical multiculturalism, being "pseudo", being boring, being fake, and being shit.

These commentators are often unable to spell Mr Bourriaud's name (both The Times and The Daily Telegraph misspell it). But they don't need to know how to spell his name to know what Nicolas Bourriaud represents. Here, let them tell you in their own words. He...


Stewart Home tags his entry on Bourriaud with "Adolf Hitler", "crypto-fascists", "Nouvelle Droite", "fascist modernism" and "fascism". Although Home's peculiar rant says "I am NOT claiming Bourriaud is an unreconstructed crypto-fascist... I continue to view him as an over-ambitious culture industry hack rather than a political demagogue" (you mean this art curator is not actually Hitler, Stewart?), he nevertheless spends two paragraphs attempting to link perfectly innocuous Bourriaud statements about people who "fight for autonomy and the possibility of singularity" to some French guy who declared himself "in favour of separate civilisations and cultures" and liked some Italian guy who once flirted with fascism.

For the Telegraph, on the other hand, it's Nick Serota who's the dictator: "As the cruel fashion magazine editor in the film The Devil Wears Prada decrees what rises and what falls, so contemporary art requires a similar brilliant, heartless dictator. This role has been filled for longer than anyone can remember by Sir Nicholas Serota. He became director of the Tate Gallery in 1988. He changed the name to Tate Britain and built Tate Modern across the river. He is the Maecenas (with public money) of the modern."

Meanwhile, for some art critics, contemporary art...


Waldemar Januszczak in The Times says Martin Creed's recent piece at the Tate "brought into focus how flaccid and indulgent and spoilt and grandiloquent and aimless and bloated and, yes, degenerate British art has become." The "yes" there underlines that Waldemar knows full well that the Nazis toured the work of modern artists around alongside the art of the mad in a mocking show called Entartete Kunst, degenerate art. But he's going to say it anyway. The symbolism of his article then takes a chilling turn: "The... question that kept bundling itself into my mind was: what’s the best way to murder a curator? Curators are the art world’s biggest contemporary pests."


Stereotypes of the French abound. For Ben Lewis of The Evening Standard, the show, "like the mind of any French theorist, contains flashes of genius, passages of stomach-churning political correctness, a bit of bean-bag art... The whole mélange is served up with the thick buttery sauce of French art theory, and the catalogue essays will give anyone except a curatorial studies MA student a crise de foie."

For Jonathan Jones in The Guardian: "He is very French, by which I mean he is unapologetic about big ideas."

For Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times: "Bourriard is a Frenchman. He has svelte Gallic looks and a Left Bank aroma of Gauloises. And he seems to have been brought up on Baudrillard and Foucault in the way that the rest of us were brought up on our ABC."

For Nick Cohen in The Observer: "Even the most tolerant journalist would be hard-pressed to deny that Bourriaud is the type of French intellectual who makes the English wish the Channel was a thousand miles wide."


The Unbearable Pointlessness of Subversion (headline over Daily Telegraph review of the Altermodern show).


"The retreat of the avant garde". Original headline of Nick Cohen's piece in The Observer. (What the avant garde seem to have retreated from, in Nick Cohen's eyes, is Nick Cohen's own politics. He supported the Iraq war, and frequently invokes "Islamofascism" and the "with-us-or-against-us" rhetoric of the neo-cons.)

Why the Tate's posing curator is so passé. Published title of Cohen's piece in The Observer.

Subversive is conservative, left is right, future is past. "What was once radical is now conservative. What few visitors there are to the Tate will not be shocked to see a Duchampian battered fridge with a sign next to it saying: "I was up all night making this." The sight of a watercolour would be far more transgressive." (Cohen in The Observer again.)

"The foremost pose is that public sector art is somehow subversive." Financed by something other than a booth at Basel? You can't undermine anything, mate!

(Notice that this uses the "does not shock its own visitors" argument we saw in a This Is London review of Tino Sehgal at the ICA: "But as an act of 'subversion' surely it's all a bit lame. Certainly, the typical ICA crowd this will attract are just too art savvy to think this a genuinely thought-provoking piece. For where once the pushing of boundaries in art gave the ICA its purpose, that very concept now appears extremely tired."

Do you see what the critic is doing there? It's not subversive if it doesn't subvert the expectations (and politics) of its specialist audience. To them, "the sight of a watercolour would be far more transgressive." Rather than "being radical", true subversion means "subverting the radical" for these newspaper critics. Clever chaps, eh? And truly subversive.


"Bourriaud quotes with approval the pseudo-leftist line of political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that anyone in the postmodern - sorry, Altermodern world who is against America or the West is somehow a radical worthy of support. This thinking dignifies the misogynist, the homophobe, the antisemite, the book burner, the theocrat and the psychopath." Nick Cohen in The Observer.

"Curator Nicholas Bourriaud has produced an exhibition drowned in his own critical theory jargon, which justifies a closing-time-in-the-gardens-of-the-west scenario by gathering from across the world the most uncharismatic, low-key, cheap, ill-thought-out, self-indulgent works imaginable." Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

Closing time in the gardens of the West, Jackie? And rising time in the gardens of the Rest?


"How patronising: if white British artists, rather than those born and working in Thailand, Mauritius and Cameroon, had exhibited these pieces, visitors would cringe in embarrassment." The Financial Times again. Again this motif of something threateningly anti-colonialist being turned into a new sort of colonialism! You can never just attack a liberal from the right. You have to make him look like he's on the right. That'll hurt him!


"Reading the catalogue for the current Tate Triennial is a ball-crushingly dispiriting experience: “Forms of Transformation: Modernity as Meta-Language . . . The Altermodern and Habitations of Contemporary Art . . . Supermodernity, Andromodernity, Speciousmodernity . . .” A practised satirist could not have dreamt up a more clunky example of phoney intellectualism elbowing out actual intelligence." Waldemar again.

And here we must remember that -- for some -- the Sokal hoax proved once and for all that all discourse we don't understand is babble.

"It is by no means certain, in any case, that any theory of art that can be made to stretch all the way from Tacita Dean to Franz Ackermann is of much ultimate value." Laura Cumming in The Guardian.

"[Bourriaud's] introductory essay, under such headings as “Rails and Networks: The ‘Viatorisation of Forms'”, offers sentences such as this: “Altermodernism can be defined as that moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities, disdaining the nostalgia for the avant-garde and indeed for any kind of era - a positive vision of chaos and complexity.” Rachel in The Times again.


"Perhaps the British people have had enough of being patronised." Kate Muir, The Times.


For Waldemar in The Times, altermodern is "this meaningless adjective".


"The Triennial is not funny. Or intellectually stimulating. Or shocking. Or a delicious visual joy." Kate Muir in The Times.

"The Triennial artists are either dreary or kitsch, their productions hysterically, embarrassingly bad, and if Terry Wogan were here, he'd need a stiff sherry to get through the commentating. Plus the show drags on until the end of April." Kate Muir, The Times.


""The Triennialists are finding the same old fluff in their once fashionably pierced navels." Kate Muir

"Forwards, backwards or anagramatised, the notions Bourriaud hangs his shows on all amount to the same thing: bullshit."

"M/M’s way too self-conscious use of ‘ecentric’ typefaces is unnecessarily baroque and looks like complete shit."

"An eclectic mix of bullshit & bad taste." All Stuart Home.


"To disagree with three-fourths of the British public is one of the first requisites of sanity," said Oscar Wilde. It doesn't get you far in the newspaper business, though.