Duke Ellington once said that, in the future, no one would be able to retain his or her identity. He meant culturally not personally.
Duke’s prediction is plainly coming true in the globalized world of the 21st century. Take the Turner Prize as a litmus test of what’s happening in art.
Of the four names on this year’s shortlist, one — Laure Prouvost — is a French artist based in London. That’s hardly unusual, now that London has a larger French population than many cities in France.
Yet in a further twist of cross-cultural convolution, one of the works for which she is nominated is an installation on Kurt Schwitters: a German Dadaist who bizarrely ended up in the Lake District in northwestern England.
Her installation, called “Wantee,” is set amid chairs and teacups. Visitors watch a film describing a fictitious relationship between Schwitters and Prouvost’s grandfather.
Also on the list are Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a London-based painter of Ghanaian descent; and Tino Sehgal, an Anglo-German artist who was born in London, yet lives and works in Berlin.
That’s just the artist’s biographies. If you consider some of their work, even relatively recent labels such as “installation” don’t quite cover it.
Sehgal, for example, is an orchestrator of social encounters. He was nominated partly for “These Associations” inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall last year. This consisted of a team of volunteers milling around, mingling with visitors, and periodically buttonholing one to launch into a narration of quirky personal history.
To ask “Is it art?” is to pose too limited a question. You might as well inquire, “Is it dance, theater or group encounter?”
By contrast, Yiadom-Boakye’s work is amazingly — perhaps even reassuringly — traditional. It takes the form of oil paintings of imaginary people (a staple genre in art for at least 500 years).
So does it still make sense to talk about “British art?” In some cases, yes. The sharp, linear humor of David Shrigley — the fourth nominee — seems remotely connected, if not with Turner, at least with Hogarth.
Charles Saatchi was instrumental, some two decades ago, in discovering what now looks (almost nostalgically) like the last major event in the history of British art, the so-called Young British Artists of the 1990s: Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and their contemporaries.
Saatchi is still indefatigably talent-spotting (Yiadom-Boakye has shown at his gallery in Chelsea).
“New Order: British Art Today” at the Saatchi Gallery consists of work by 17 artists who are mainly in their 20s. The participants were born in a variety of places including Spain, Poland, Israel, and — in the case of an engaging artist calling himself “Dominic from Luton” — Luton.
These artists work in a variety of media. This being a Saatchi exhibition, however, there’s plenty of paint on canvas (which, personally, I welcome).
You might dispute whether much of it is particularly new, or, for that matter, British. Yet, as usual with Saatchi shows, there are one or two potential stars, such as Charlie Billingham, who paints pictures based on Georgian prints that somehow look contemporary.
In terms of media and approach, however, there’s not a huge difference between “New Order” and a show of new Russian art in the galleries below, titled “Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union.”
That’s the new artistic world order. Art comes from just about everywhere, and is made in every conceivable way. In spirit, however, individual works are surprisingly similar. The Venice Biennale, which opens in late May, will probably offer further confirmation of that.
First published on Bloomberg Businessweek