The state of art


Although thoughtful and scholarly responses to art – including critical evaluations – have enjoyed a history that is almost as long as art itself, modern art criticism came into being in France during the 18th century. It was in France that the famous and heretofore exclusive ‘salon’ opened its doors to a new kind of person – ‘the public’ – and, in so doing, made it possible for the men and women of letters to address this new audience, the people, with their critiques of works of art.

Among the visitors to the salon was Denis Diderot who became one of the new ‘enlightened’ and decidedly modern critics of art.

Diderot not only held forth about his likes and dislikes in relation to the paintings on display but also succeeded in turning art criticism into social criticism. He thought that the state of art reflected (or equated with) the state of the nation – in this case France.

By way of example, Diderot did not care for the highly contrived, technically refined and lusciously erotic paintings of, for example, Boucher. And if Boucher’s work was seen by the higher echelons of society as ‘masterly’ and desirable then it reflected the decadence and perverted values of that very same stratum of french society. Instead, Diderot preferred the workaday artisanal subject – the still life – the ordinary scenes of kitchens, their utensils, along with tables and food stuffs – that were so strikingly portrayed by Chardin. In Chardin’s work Diderot found expressed a range of desirable values and virtues – all in powerful opposition to the corruption and decadence he thought characteristic of the elites in French society. There was a mood in some of Chardin’s painting that was almost ominous; it suggested disturbance; it foreshadowed what was to come …

And so it was possible to see in art an indicator of what is good and what is bad in society.

(There’s a wonderful portrait of Diderot painted in 1767 by Louis-Michel Van Loo in the Palais du Louvre – although Diderot, himself, did not like the way he had been expressively portrayed …)

I think the general thesis that art reflects truths about the society in which the very works of art are generated remains stimulating and provocative. Let’s take the idea seriously; if we do, it raises the question: what does contemporary art ‘say’ about the state we’re in? One answer is that we see a kind of ubiquitous glitzy advertising: Selfie – self-interest – self-promotion …

Perhaps a kind of calculation is going on: what is the best way to get noticed, to get ‘exposure’?


In part I have been moved to write these notes following an exhibition held at the University College for the Creative Arts. A PhD student is showing an installation full of lights and moving images and shiny walls and strange glowing moments on patterned wall-paper. It’s very much of the ‘now’. It mixes genre(s) and relies heavily on very sophisticated technology that mediates the image projections. It’s colourful and entirely contemporary. The student is plainly a person of our age – whatever this age may actually be. I’ve seen similar kinds of work in the centres for contemporary art throughout Europe. It fascinates me : it suggests an evolving anthropology of art.

Giusy Pirrotta is the PhD student and her ‘immersive’ installation is entitled ‘Between the the Glimpse and the Gaze.

Footnote 2: The photograph features Francis Bacon.

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