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Review: 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Review: 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age
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While not an exhibition in the traditional sense, Kelly Grovier’s newest book 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age functions like one. It’s a coffee table tome wherein the author positions himself as curator. His charge? Identifying and making sense of those “artistic achievements that have managed so far to remain afloat amid the remarkable storms of our unsettled era”.

The era Grovier defines is 1989 to the present, and its unsettledness stems from the near total collapse of art’s heretofore tidy chronology of isms, ists, and movements. Art has moved to what Arthur Danto called a “post-historical” age. It has essentially slipped the leash. The art we make now is no longer tethered to any particular school, narrative or style. That’s not to say art doesn’t reflect our time (What would be the point of books like this (or art itself) if it didn’t?), it just reflects it in a more fractured and idiosyncratic way.

The larger point being that identifying 100 works that will define an age is a pretty risky proposition under the best conditions. Take away the easy categories, open art up to a global perspective, and add some emerging formats, and the task goes from risky to unmanageable. I don’t want to assume too much, but I expect the first fifty selections are probably pretty easy in a project like this. The usual suspects are rounded up (Ai Weiwei? Check. Damien Hirst? Check. Barbara Kruger? Check) and the corresponding narratives are penned.

After that, things get a bit dicey. You see, in spite of all the cutting edge art that’s included here, 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age turns out to be a pretty conservative list; one that ultimately relies heavily on established authorities and experts. The works included fall well within the orbit of museums, galleries, collectors, prizes, public commissions, and the Venice Biennale (note that YBAs and the Saatchi/Sensation coterie fair particularly well in Grovier’s estimation). In his defense, Grovier offers a satisfactory answer to the question “Why so much art from the pavilions of Venice and the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern?” (Spoiler alert: size matters). He also manages to represent female artists at a rate that would shame most art history texts (one third of the artists included are women). Still, for all that, I remain nagged by the sense that what we’re being offered is a list that’s much more authoritative and much more prescriptive than the very era it presumes to define.

Look, we live in an time when new mediums are being introduced at a dizzying rate. Similarly the old walls between art, craft, and design are falling away. Technology has provided not just the democratization of information, but also the democratization of creativity. Despite that, 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age stays mostly within the friendly confines of the established art world. Obviously there’s a lot of forward thinking work in Grovier’s book, but there’s nothing that really pushes art beyond that which is already accepted as art. Mind you this is all thoroughly subjective stuff, but it’s worth noting what has been left out. There’s no mention of internet art, sound art, video games as art, or even a nod to those places where art and design intersect.

Street art faces a similar fate. Across the globe this medium (in all it’s forms) is booming, yet Banksy is the only street artist featured. Are we to believe that the iconic works of Blu, Escif, and Roa are less representative of our age? On the subject of street art, I found it interesting that Banksy made the cut but Shepard Fairey didn’t. Yes, Banksy’s imagery is iconic. Yes, it helps define our age. But does it do so more than Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” and “Hope” images do? That seems unlikely.

And speaking of Shepard Fairey, what of that weird and wonderful place where fine art, popular culture, and commerce cross-pollinate? It’s barely noted. Oh sure, Elmgreen & Dragset built a Prada storefront in the middle of an empty Texas landscape and that made the list, but that’s not cross-pollination, that’s commentary. It’s a reaction to, not a part of. In fairness, Grovier does touch on Barbar Kruger’s advertising deal with Selfridge’s, but that passage focuses more on the art world’s reproach than the public’s appreciation.

What I’m talking about is Takashi Murakami and George Condo working with Kanye West, Will Cotton collaborating with Katy Perry, Richard Prince and Raymond Pettibon collaborating with Sonic Youth. I’m talking about Elizabeth Peyton painting Jarvis Cocker and Sam Taylor-Wood doing a video portrait of David Beckham sleeping. Fine art is pushing into our daily lives (and vice versa) in ways we haven’t seen before. It happens when Target works with a famous designer and it happens when Jan Vormann and Ego Leonard appropriate LEGOs. Yet this trend is more or less ignored in 100 Works of Art That Define Our Age. The message seems to be that a Turner Prize matters more than a Kanye West commission.

Ultimately books like these offer the chance to not just document our age, but also to define it. By choosing to leave out so much of what’s happening outside the established art world 100 Works of Art That Define Our Age serves to reinforce the status quo. It’s maybe too fine a point to put on it, but I’m inclined to suggest that what we have in Grovier’s new book is better described as 100 Works of Art That Define the Art World of Our Age.

Despite quibbling with the list itself, there is good news. Kelly Grovier is a terrific writer who does an exceptional job of putting the work he’s selected into context. The accompanying essays establish each piece’s relevance not just to our own age but also to the larger arc of history. He makes connections and draw conclusions that serve to broaden our understanding of these most contemporary of works.

Brimming with interesting questions (Is all art nostaligic?) and surprising facts (Mary Chestnut’s diary contains what is believed to be the first printed use of the word “sellout”) 100 Works of Art That Define Our Age tells the story of contemporary art in a way that’s refreshingly cross-disciplinary. While the photographs are stunning, those who read each passage will find they learn about much more than just art.

Prada Marfa
Elmgreen & Dagset

For the Love of God
Damien Hirst

Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)
Barbara Kruger


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