This is Civilisation – Matthew Collings

6 July 2008
Just finished reading it, and I’ve loved it: Collings says things about art that I wish I’d said myself, often in exactly the way I’d like to have said them. So a little fantasy is on the cards: this hip dude is me; I’m as in tune with the zeitgeist (sorry) as he is. How flattering: you can see why I’ve loved reading it.

But what’s it about, exactly? Lots of things – and I’ll have to re-read it straight away to list more than a handful of them – but mainly about the gradual loss of nerve, or faith, or self-belief (or whatever) that’s led to the sorry state of art now. Or of people like him and me who go to galleries and usually can’t find anything they’re happy to look at. According to Collings the process started some time in the mid-19th Century, but it’s gathered pace since the 50s until we’re left with art that can only speak in an ironic voice. If it speaks at all. Most of it is arbitrary – as in the exhibition at Kettle’s Yard I went to after I’d finished reading the book just now: one work showed neat little not-quite repeated drawings, not quite Warhol-like, done on the covers of old economics books. Why those drawings (of glasses of milk)? Why those books? Why any of it?

But I’m getting off the subject. This morning, as I got within 20 pages or so of the end, I really did think I’d have to re-read it. I’ll get back to you whether I do that or not.

Introduction, Egyptians and Greeks
I’m re-reading. Or skimming. Collings has got two parallel structures going on: the obviously pseudo-Civilisation chronology of western art from the Greeks to the present (but the real present, not the recent past when art went modern); and a diary written during 2007 in which he can bounce ideas from the chronological account off whatever is going on now. This is handy – and it illustrates one of his main theses, that we don’t encounter art in academic, neatly structured ways but in the context of everyday living.

A work he worries away at from the start is Alison Lapper pregnant. She’s in the Introduction, and her ironic classicism fits neatly at the end of the first section of Chapter 1: the Greeks (after a nod at Egyptian art, awesome but stiff) in a chapter called Faith. They humanised religious iconography, offering us an image of ourselves as perfectible and worthy of celebration; and they simultaneously offered us a sense of order and rightness through architectural forms. Art had urgent business to do, because the gods were real and we had significance within their creation. ‘You can be someone. You are someone.’ Yay.

Then comes…

7 July
Christian art
…and Collings hangs most of this section – dealing with pre-Giotto Christian art – on two men: St Paul and Constantine. The first sold the new religion, changing it from a reformist branch of Judaism into something for everyone. He was a terrific salesman because he was a terrific speaker and writer – but he didn’t have the iconography yet. Then along comes Constantine, and he wasn’t great on the iconography front either – but he had the money and power to inject some grandeur into it all. It was no longer a bunch of geeks in the desert, it was a massive power-base with new church architecture (or Roman temples under new management) visible to all and often massively impressive. Shock and awe.

But where’s the art? Overwhelming effects of light pouring into (or subtly playing around inside) the highest domes in the world are all well and good, but it was only a start. And Constantine’s main artistic statement was statuary, often trawled from pagan temples, to reinforce his own pre-eminence. According to Collings, it starts small: simple paintings, often based mainly on pagan imagery, on catacomb walls or in other small spaces. Nothing fancy, nothing celebrating the body beautiful, just cartoony pictures telling the story to people that Paul’s high-flown rhetoric couldn’t reach. And the church builders cottoned on. Using the pagan technique of mosaic they developed a flat, glittering, sumptuous way of representation that lasted for centuries.

The parallel story is the one about how Christ is represented. He starts off almost indistinguishable from Constantine: in glory. But slowly the iconic image is developed: Christ crucified. As Collings puts it, with Grunewald’s famously gruesome altarpiece on show, this is a death cult, and the Christians aren’t about to start celebrating the joys of the flesh. For centuries (again) the body is subordinate to a more urgent imperative: to atone for sin and prepare the soul for eternity. It’s no wonder that observational drawing of people and objects in this world wasn’t exactly seen as a priority. Decoration is schematic.

(Meanwhile Collings’ style continues to be a mixture of sensational and vaguely slobby. Beneath Grunewald’s picture, to introduce the section, he writes ‘Hello dead man.’ He doesn’t quite go on to say, Who the fuck are you? I’m ok about it. He doesn’t want to pretend to be academic; instead he’s chatty, and often chaotic: he’s bouncing ideas around, not arguing an irrefutable case. And anyway, there’s at least as much history as I’d want.)


10 July
…Islamic art
From my first reading I can remember a lot of talk about pattern and form, filling wall-space with stuff that’s good to look at without having to be representational. He cheekily sticks in one of Pollock’s jauntier dripfests: someone else using pattern and structure (albeit less overtly than the Islamic artists) and ending with something that says, look at me, aren’t I fab? Collings warns against assuming that the mathematical structures of the patterns are somehow prescriptive. According to him the artists matched the patterns to the spaces: the language was geometry but that was the medium, not the message. Or the ultimate authority – that was to satisfy the eye.

Yep, that’s the main thing. Other things that Matthew Collings says: ‘we’re hard-wired to respond to symmetry and visual complexity….’ (Are we? Or is this simply a way of making an incomprehensible human characteristic sound like one of the eternal verities?) He also remarks on how religious experiences – in all religions – relied on beautiful settings. So beauty takes on a religious aura, becomes inseparable from it. Now, of course, we don’t have the religion – but we still respond, and we’re willing to allow our responses some spiritual dimension. It seems to mean something. Collings seems to think it’s a bit of a con, but he says it doesn’t matter. As a culture we’ve spent millennia being spiritually awed by the beauty of man-made art, and we still yearn for meaning.

I’m jumping the gun a bit: this comes later, when Collings tries to address the sense of a spiritual (or some other) vacuum in much of modern art. But in this section there’s a long digression about the new Gulf Art Fair, in which current western art products are displayed within a culture that hasn’t gone through the strange ironisation of the critical faculties that we have. Piles of monitors showing random stuff happening can have exactly no meaning at all in this context… and yet it’s acceptable because it’s the latest respectable commodity. And Saatchi made sure with Sensation that it’s cool to own this stuff, whatever we think about what it might or might not mean. It’s become ‘both sensationalist ephemera and substantial.’ Ok, he might be talking about a fair in a Gulf state, but he’s really aiming to get to the root of how the art market has made something very strange. ‘It’s both nothing and something.’ He doesn’t say it, but he implies heavily that it’s all snake oil.

However. At the end of this section we get a summing up of what he wants to say about religion and art. It ‘doesn’t rely on faith. But the power of it is that it causes us to get in touch with something deep within ourselves. It lets us know that there is such a thing as depth.’ He doesn’t say it here, but one implication is that we miss it when it’s not there.

28 July
This next chapter isn’t as crude as it sounds; in fact, after a 4- or 5-page appreciation of what Kenneth Clark was doing all those decades ago, the first two sections are concerned with serious stuff: first, how the Enlightenment sought different ways of satisfying our spiritual needs without having to resort to all the theological nonsense; second, how the Renaissance threw its lot in with humanism. Collings does it, as he’s been doing it all along, through a handful of key works of art.

In the first section it’s the Pantheon replacing all that gothic stuff, as represented by the Hospice de Beaune; while David and Goya use the tropes of Christian art to serve a humanist – often frankly political – agenda. Marat is the dead Christ; the white-shirted man in The Executions of 3rd May is a modern-day crucifixion. Clever juxtapositions like this fix it for us, while Collings makes his points about feelings.

In his scheme, feelings are… well, whatever makes us human, really. So the first section (I’m not making this up) is Church Bad. Not human enough, y’see, not humane in its insistence on all those things it insists on. Like original sin, like Judgment. That hostel contains an altarpiece – superb, by Rogier van der Weyden – in which it’s as stark as he can make it: some saint or other weighs us in a balance and it’s wheat and chaff time. The ones who come in underweight are looking very fed up indeed…. Ok, so you were still getting Last Judgments in the High Renaissance, like Michelangelo’s, but Collings doesn’t focus on that. Instead he has Raphael’s big statement in the Vatican: The School of Athens on one side of the room and The Disputa on the other. Inclusive, wanting to embrace anybody who seemed sincere and earnest enough. Ok, they didn’t know about God. So? And all the time he’s focusing on the art. Raphael uses perspective not just as a clever gimmick, but to have his participants exist in real space. And the vanishing-points in the two pictures are the loci of key signs (that’s my word, not Collings’s): two famous philosophers – reason – and the monstrance – faith.

He goes back to Giotto to show how he was the first to take the focus away from the decorative surface and to make Christ and the apostles live in three dimensions. Like us. So he’s returning to a point from the first chapter: western art in the canon celebrated by Lord Clark foregrounds the human. And because Collings is a populist, he has a look at the Mona Lisa – which isn’t a Madonna or a saint, it’s a person. And, in another reprise of a point made in the first chapter, he has a look at where it sits behind bullet-proof glass. We know it’s good, and so we treat it like a religious icon. Over-used word, ‘iconic’, but literally true in this case.

3 August
David and Goya
A more detailed look at these contemporaries, both part of the Enlightenment. At first. For David it was a happy accident that the Revolution needed a new art to get people to rally to the cause, and his take on classicism fitted the bill. He’d already painted The Oath of the Horatii, and people respected its honest depiction of the collateral damage – in the form of weeping women – that military struggles can cause. And the ‘Renaissance space’ is tightly controlled, making the brothers’ stance seem worthwhile. David bought into the idea of classical beauty representing good in classical society (ignoring, as Collings happily points out, the horrors of real Greek and Roman life for most people). The Death of Marat makes the near-terrorist seem timelessly noble: the religious, Deposition-style pose and the taut use of darkness and shadow fill the image with Significance…. It doesn’t really matter that it didn’t last for David (he was happy with Napoleon, but the Bourbons were just too much): it was always clear that David’s subjects held meanings.

Goya was not so lucky. He was doing his job as a court painter, but different accidents – not the least of them to do with this being Spain, not France – made him look into a dark side. It’s not that Reason doesn’t exist… but it sleeps. A lot of current art takes the sleep of reason for granted, and there seems to be a pretty direct line from Goya to the present day. Except, as Collings puts it, in Goya’s work the argument is still going on. In a longish diary entry he describes the opening of a new art ‘project’ in Camden and the Serpentine exhibition I happened to see last summer. In Collings’ opinion there’s little to be said for either of them. Finally… Matthew Wallinger’s recreation of the Parliament Square protest saps it of meaning: at best it adds nothing new; at worst it takes everything away.

So, not greatly taken, then. Even 50 years ago, according to Collings, it was feasible to want to make a point through art, and technique mattered. Now it’s just the commerce of making stuff that will sell, and technique, in a world where all have to be eligible for prizes, seems to be unnecessary. In other words, I suppose, Collings is adding details to his thesis: wherever we are now, we got here through art that itself wasn’t in despair.

(Is what he’s saying true of all modern art? Probably not… but not many ordinary art fans reading what he’s saying are going to disagree. We’ve all had too many experiences of going to galleries and thinking, So what?)

4 August
Three-page Q&A session and Industrialisation
History moves on. The q&A is a transcript of an interview he’d given, then we’ve reached Industrialisation, and John Ruskin’s reaction against it. Nothing wrong with making things, of course, but Ruskin hated the mindless repetitiveness of most modern labour. He was coming to his conclusions at around the same time as Marx, and you can see some root similarities (as if I would know), but Ruskin was a socialist of a very individual kind. For him it begins, and almost ends, with art and architecture.

What he hated was the way the Renaissance threw in its lot with Classical architecture, so the organic was taken out of the making process. Collings’ two examples are the Doge’s Palace and the Sansovino Library on the other side of St Mark’s Square. The gothic building is unsymmetrical, and every capital is carved individually using the forms of nature. The classical Library, on the other hand, demonstrates an insistence on slavish repetition. What must it be like to work on such a project, Ruskin wonders, and decides it would have been horrible. The craftsmen on the Palace – and, by implication, on all the other gothic structures Ruskin favours – were allowed to be creative, not slavish at all. Well, maybe: Collings makes the point that mediaeval craftsmen were probably worked almost to death – and we modern sophisticates like to point out how Ruskin and his followers like Morris were really only focusing on arts and crafts for the middle classes… but that’s not the issue here. For Ruskin it begins and ends with finding inspiration in what is around, not on what other men have designed: on Nature.

The rest of the Ruskin chapter hangs on that. Turner was good because he responded to nature, presenting it not in slavish academic ways but as he responded to it personally. The Pre-Raphaelites – using techniques based on super-real detail and colour (cue Millais’s Ophelia) – were revolutionary because they insisted on the moral superiority of nature. It became a badge for them: the kept woman in Holman Hunt’s Awakening Conscience is inspired by the scene of nature beyond the window; the working family – the Holy Family – in Millais’s Christ in the House of His parents work right next to nature, this time visible through a door. No surprise, then, where Morris went to for his inspiration.

And all through there’s the Victorian equation of what is artistically right with what is morally right. Collings doesn’t go in the direction he might have taken, to have a look at the gothic/classical debate or the way different strands of the Church used architecture that was full of coded moral messages. But he does say that the mid-19th Century belief in the importance of these questions is what separates their time from ours. Again, Collings has found something to grieve over in comparing now with then…

…and there’s a neat segue into the closest he comes to setting out his stall about art in the last ten years. Specifically, it’s how Sensation tore up the old rule book – just as the PRB had attempted to do a similar thing in a Royal Academy exhibition, in 1852. But this time, the rule book wasn’t torn up in order to bring in a replacement. Art ‘was now a kind of democratic tastelessness, or democratic kitsch. Difficulty has been eradicated.’ The artists have become celebs, a crew of rich kids (no longer kids, of course) who are famous for – well, what? Nobody knows, and the tabloids have fun while the posh papers do their best to fit them into a scheme of art appreciation based the old rules. Collings is appalled, and so are we, by Nicholas Serota’s comparison of the tabloids’ glee at the warehouse fire to the burning of books by the Nazis. Wrong, says Collings, when their guru sells a diamond-encrusted skull as a kind of dare and is proud to flaunt his lack of originality/taste/whatever. It’s easy, says Hirst, and Collings says that’s the point. The PRB were superseded by the hugely skilful Impressionists, while the point about art now is that it’s telling us skill is not a requirement.

Except. The critique ends with Alison Lapper pregnant again. I can’t quote the two whole paragraphs he devotes to it, but one of the points he makes is that it looks effortless. Which it isn’t, even if Marc Quinn didn’t actually wield the chisel. And there’s more. ‘The work taps into popular fantasies of classical beauty, popular romantic resistance to classicism, plus popular desire to see representations of humanity that look as real as photographs. It is engaged but also withdrawn, equal parts blankness and conscience, glamour and piety, pity and irony. The mind reels with admiration at the complexity of the paradoxes.’ so some things are worth a look, then.

But Collings hasn’t finished with the 19th Century yet. There’s another section before the end of the chapter. Time to read it

Ruskin and nature
It wasn’t just ‘Nature good’ – because if it had been he wouldn’t have had such a problem with Impressionism. His interest was entirely to do with how nature embodies every part working together. He didn’t call it ecology – although, as Collings tells us, he was immediately convinced by Darwin; for him it was harmony, rightness, an antidote to corruption. The problem with the Impressionists was their lack of a moral standpoint. Collings doesn’t say it, but I‘ve always thought it: they used their eyes as we now use cameras, so the vision is morally neutral.

Despite what now looks like his reactionary stance, Ruskin is the first modernist for Collings – because it was Ruskin who saw what was wrong with capitalism, foresaw the problems ‘progress’ would bring, and saw that the sensual pleasure inherent in art separates it from a judgmental God. According to Collings, art becomes a new form of religion for Ruskin. And, paradoxically, its patrons aren’t fit to lick its shoes: their new-found prosperity contravenes everything he believes in. Phew. Collings finds it hard to hold all this together. As did Ruskin himself, of course. We get the Whistler libel case that began the collapse of Ruskin’s reputation. We also get Ruskin’s madness….

But that’s not what this chapter’s about. Collings ends it with the argument that we should look to Ruskin to help us to judge, that we don’t have to accept the void that progress seems to have brought us to. Art is ‘a way of gaining illumination (these are Collings’ words, not Ruskin’s)… the answer is awakening consciousness of what’s going on.’

It makes me want to read Ruskin for myself; he’s evidently had a big effect on Collings.

5 August
The final chapter
Collings has come full circle – except a circle is far too symmetrical and neat a shape to describe the way he goes fizzing off in different directions. He’s reached the 20th Century. And his first section is called The Optimists. He focuses on the serious-minded artists of the early part of the century, ones who chose to de-skill themselves – or, at least, to choose techniques that appeared to need less skill than they actually possessed – in order to try out new ways to represent things. (What things? Certainly not merely physical reality; certainly not Renaissance space.)

First up is Picasso – you don’t get more serious-minded than the Desmoiselles and, nearly 30 years later, Guernica – whose style is challenging, anti-smooth. Against him Collings sets up some Nazi art – smooth all right, but chilling – and he describes Hitler’s mockery of ‘degenerate’ art. Ok… but this is an Aunt Sally: anything by anyone would be preferable. Then, via a diary digression about the movie Pollock, which he mostly hates, we’re into the Abstract Expressionists. Like Picasso, they’re serious-minded, interested in what’s going on in the mid-20th Century. But instead of dealing with it directly they go for an even more radical set of experiments, And boy are they sincere, endlessly striving to be true to, er, whatever it is they’re doing. Then Collings the populist goes for what we’ve heard of: ‘the scandal of the Tate’s bricks’. He argues for Andre’s sincere exploration of the integrity of his materials… and it lets him leap to the present for a moment to describe how that particular work is now part of what five million people per year are happy to accept. He doesn’t use the expression but the bricks, like all the other stuff we don’t get, are a given: we look at them because they’re there. (At this point he has another go at explaining why Alison Lapper pregnant presses so many buttons. A monumental sculpture of such a subject, Collings says, is a punk gesture – and yet people are moved by what it appears to be saying about the acceptance or otherwise of disability.)

But I’m jumping the gun. Or, rather, I’m doing what Collings does, flitting from one idea to another…. He goes to the next section, The Pessimists, and for him that’s most of the artists since about 1960. The late-century malaise was irony, demonstrating a lack of faith in anything. And the first perpetrators were the Pop Artists. They made stuff we could enjoy without working hard, which we could get and feel self-satisfied about getting. It was telling us stuff about ourselves that we were ruefully happy not to deny: about the joy of consumption, the crapness of our materialist lives. (Uh-oh, you can see where he’s going with this.)

6 August
The end –
again – and I was wrong about the way you could see it was going: there’s plenty to be enjoyed about contemporary art. It’s just that – what? – you have to use your eyes/judgment/brain to decide what’s worth your attention. Collings doesn’t put it like this, of course. We have to work it out from the firework display of art history – now bringing us to the present day – and diary entries that have been present-day all along. And… all this section comes under the same heading of The Pessimists. So go figure.

After Pop Art he turns his attention to China – which, if we’re to believe him (and we do) takes contemporary western art and re-makes it. We get Miss Mao, creepily like a Jeff Koons but creepily Chinese as well. (I’m not just talking about the subject matter: it has that faux babyishness the Chinese go in for, as in the cuddly animals bringing on the Olympics.) And he looks hard at Wang Qingsong’ epic photomontages, a gift to critics for the way western art is mined in order to make points about the hell the world has become. You can see why he’s put a detail on the cover of the book, along with a Greek kouros and the earnest Horatii….

After this the book turns into a kind of performance art. Chance meetings with fellow critics, recent dreams, the death of his mother… all are thrown into a pot in which any certainties we thought we cold rely on – including the conclusion it looked as though he might draw, that all modern art is snake oil – are stirred up to see what emerges. And what emerges is a kind of hope: he describes plenty of things he enjoys, alongside nonsense like the Tate Modern crack (‘pretty much a hundred per cent idiotic’). Louise Bourgeois – in that retrospective I saw at Tate Modern last year – might not be the greatest thing since mankind’s first daubings on a cave wall (as, he suggests she is regarded in New York) but ‘she does have something to offer – she puts surfaces together in a way that makes them resonate.’ This is spot-on, and it’s why, an hour or so after I first finished reading the book, that I decided I loved it. (See, if you can bear it, the first paragraph of this diary.)

Whatever nonsense might be going on at the art fairs, Collings goes out arguing the case for higher feelings. (Ok, he really ends with a disorienting dream in which he knows stuff is going on but can’t get inside. But that’s just showing off.) He seems to say, Keep looking, keep going to see what people are producing. He doesn’t say it, but he tells stories that consign Hirst and Emin to a media sideshow, with Hirst as the arch-cynic. There are still plenty of artists trying out new things to see what works for them – not for the sake of the market. And they’re worth a look.


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