The eyes have it

By Bruce Millar

Published: May 28 2004 18:06 | Last Updated: May 28 2004 18:06

From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Amis, for centuries literature dominated British culture. But art is better equipped to interpret the world for a visually literate 21st century audience - and it is doing so with a vigour lacking in contemporary writing.

For a thousand years, Britain's artistic culture has been primarily literary; its people have entertained, defined and reflected themselves through poetry, plays and novels.

When Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, sought recently to highlight the dangers of multiculturalism, he lamented: "this country has lost Shakespeare". Everyone knew what he meant.

In a parlour game to draw up a canon of the nation's 20 greatest creative minds - those whose genius shines on an international scale, with a cut-off point of 1950 to avoid rows over premature classification - it might be reasonable to include two or three painters: Turner certainly, plus Hogarth or Stubbs, Gainsborough or Constable. Among architects there might be only Wren, and among composers Purcell.

There's plenty of room for enjoyable dispute over individual nominations - for myself, I would include William Blake for his achievements as a poet rather than a painter - but it is clear that the overwhelming majority of our greatest creative minds, perhaps 15 of the top 20, would be writers.

At the turn of the millennium, however, it is possible to detect a profound and unprecedented shift: ours has become a visual culture, and it is the visual arts that seem best equipped to take the pulse of contemporary life, to describe the now.

Sir Nicholas Serota, who has presided over the dramatic expansion of the Tate galleries during this crucial period, talks of a "sea change" in our culture. Lord (Melvyn) Bragg, the novelist and broadcaster who has directed LWT's arts coverage for nearly three decades, says: "Visual art is where the heat is at the moment.

We have to be careful when passing judgment on Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the others. Is their work significant? It is too early to tell. But what is of significance is that their work is engaging so many people."

I saw this myself at the Saatchi Gallery on London's South Bank a short while ago, where I came across a visitor from Bath who had dropped in between business meetings in town. He said he would not have bothered a few years ago, "But your interests change over the years." His interests, and the interests of tens of thousands like him.

It is not difficult to trace the ascendancy of our literary traditions. Many would start with the English language itself, a unique conjunction of the two main European language families, the Romance and the Germanic, which developed a wonderful flexibility and richness just as the modern English nation emerged in the late 16th century.

This era produced - and I leave it to scholars to argue about whether it was a mere coincidence - not only the nation's greatest creative artist in William Shakespeare, but also its greatest piece of literary committee work in the King James Bible.

Between them, Shakespeare and the vernacular Bible laid the foundations and a good deal of the structure of what became Eng Lit and indeed wider Anglo-British culture.

But just as our literature gathered strength, progress in the visual arts and music was interrupted. The Reformation, which contributed so much to the establishment of English literary culture from the Elizabethan age, had the opposite effect on painting, sculpture and music - art forms that depended on religious patronage.

Indigenous traditions were brought to a halt, and the development of a distinctly offshore Anglo culture cut us off from the areas of artistic development in Italy, the Low Countries and Germany-Austria.

When a less Puritan England emerged, it was as a mercantile culture. The habit developed of importing paintings, of hiring artists and musicians from continental Europe to satisfy the cravings of aristocratic collectors and wealthy connoisseurs or to entertain the Hanoverian court and, later, the musical tastes of the Victorian public.

The one artistic endeavour that could not be imported, at least until the English language had been seeded and grown beyond Britain, was literature - which further cemented its position as the nation's characteristic mode of expression.

This was the English cultural landscape I was educated in as recently as the 1970s: a place where anyone literate would be familiar with certain touchstones - Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens and Waugh - but where art and classical music were specialist, rather elite interests.

There was even, to an English schoolboy, something suspiciously foreign about them. Today, evidence for a revolution in Britain's artistic taste is all around us, from the enormous popular success of Tate Modern (where Olafur Eliasson's "The Weather Project", an installation by a hitherto little known Danish artist, attracted a staggering two million visitors this winter) to the cultural status accorded to the generation of Young British Artists who emerged in the past 15 years.

This cohort - no longer quite so young, with most of them having turned 40 - offer the sort of commentary on the present that was 20 years ago provided, in a more traditionally British manner, by a smart group of novelists led by Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.

This Easter, London's Wallace Collection, a staid but fabulous museum of old master paintings, decorative arts and weapons, put on a small show of recent paintings by Lucian Freud, lasting just three weeks and with no advertising to speak of.

The museum was barely able to cope with the influx of visitors, up to 3,500 people a day - almost four times the usual figure - waiting patiently in a long snake through the main galleries to gain a few minutes' access to the small room where the Freuds were hanging. Here was a contemporary master at the height of his form in his 80s, and a public eager to witness his extraordinary late work almost as a live event.

I was reminded of an old schoolmaster's description of the queues outside bookshops more than 60 years ago on the day that each of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets appeared. We still see such queues today, of course, but J.K. Rowling, it seems to me, is in a different literary class to Eliot.

Staff at the Wallace Collection were struck not just by the sheer numbers, but also by the age and social mix of the crowd. The old, elite world of fine art has been thoroughly democratised, and the shift in taste is not confined to the metropolitan chattering classes. Emin, Hirst, Freud and many, many others are today public figures, the inhabitants of our shared cultural hinterland who crop up in tabloid newspapers and in the patter of comedians. The sort of people who would have shied away from pronouncing on Freud or Hockney or Bacon 30 years ago are happy to pass loud, confident judgment on the equally loud work of Emin et al.

The presentation of the televised arts prizes corroborates this picture. The Man Booker Prize brings serried ranks of literary types gussied-up in black ties into our living rooms - a hopelessly Edwardian throwback that might have been calculated to portray the novel as the bourgeois art form par excellence, no matter how seamy the content of this year's winner, D.B.C. Pierre's Vernon God Little.

The Turner Prize, by contrast, is peopled by casually dressed, youngish artists in various states of inebriation, who look and behave much like a group of over-age students - indeed, much like any other contemporary group of thirtysomethings partying at the weekend.

While the shock factor may be increasingly difficult to sustain, the Turner retains its ability to baffle, irritate and surprise, from Martin Creed's winning work of 2001 featuring a light switching on and off to Tracey Emin's fall-down-drunk appearance on a television discussion panel; from Jake and Dinos Chapman's graphic depictions of sex and violence to the edgy ceramics produced by the most recent winner, the part-time transvestite Grayson Perry.

Meanwhile, for all the trumpeted sales of a few bestselling authors, the English novel shows signs of serious decline. Zadie Smith's White Teeth is a spirited portrait of multicultural London, but it hardly compares in artistic intent or achievement with Rushdie's Midnight's Children or Martin Amis's London Fields.

Neither, frankly, do the more recent books by Rushdie or Amis. Yellow Dog, Amis's offering last year, contained passages of brilliance but could not conjure that sense of a sparkling new vision that readers responded to in his earlier novels.

Poetry appears to be going through some sort of revival as a live, almost participatory, event, with performances at the Purcell Room on London's South Bank. So far, at least, this is very much an "alternative" culture, in the hands of activists - there is little sign of a poet who could be described as a central figure in the wider culture; no new Larkin or Hughes.

Jeremy Prynne, a retiring figure and retired Cambridge don who writes beautifully poised but wilfully obscure verse (which apparently sells well in China), has been hailed as our most important living poet. But his fame resolutely refuses to spread to the non-specialist public.

None of this is to suggest that intelligent people have already, or will in the near future, stop reading and writing good books. Nor will theatre disappear. Literary traditions are too deeply ingrained in our culture to give up the ghost that easily, and whatever the literature of the future produces, the achievements of writers of the past will always be there for future generations to discover.

But it is hard not to feel that the elan is missing from contemporary writing, and that publishing has succumbed to a pile-'em-high, two-for-the-price-of-one numbers game that is more about marketing, demographics and disposable income than about artistic achievement.

The historian Simon Schama is a self-confessed cultural optimist, who welcomes the excitement generated by contemporary visual art, but is unwilling to see it confined to a particular field. "I am a great believer in symbiosis - the electricity from one art form feeds into the others," he says.

Schama sees the current strength of British visual art as the culmination of an intellectual tradition with roots deep in national culture. "There has been a movement at the very high intellectual end of art to demolish the barriers between what is 'art' and what is 'life'," he says. "This started in Britain, where Eduardo Paolozzi painted the world's very first pop art painting in 1948. It was taken up by people like Richard Hamilton and then David Hockney and Peter Blake in the 1960s, and was very important for a particular strand of art, attacking the high-left, puritanical elite such as Sir Herbert Read.

"There's a tough, raunchy, socially engaged playfulness that is taken to be important by us. It has a basis in narrative, and it goes back to Hogarth and then moves on through writers such as Dickens."

While Schama traces the strands that link visual and literary art across the centuries, many others want to trace the links between contemporary visual artists and those of the past. Recent exhibitions devoted to Titian and El Greco at the National Gallery, to Vermeer at the Royal Academy and Durer at the British Museum have stirred the sort of excitement that a generation ago surrounded new interpretations of Shakespeare, such as Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream.

In each case, the artist has struck us as fresh, as uncannily contemporary, reminding us of just how primal an activity painting is - how much easier is it for us to feel in direct contact across centuries and cultures with a painter than, for example, an Italian renaissance sonneteer, a Dutch novelist or a German poet.

We easily forget quite how recent a phenomenon this sort of historical exhibition is, pioneered by Norman Rosenthal at the Royal Academy from the 1980s and boosted by the opening of the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery in 1991. Before that, art lovers needed the leisure and the means to travel abroad to pursue their passion.

As Bragg says, "We're catching up with the rest of Europe in two ways - with the art of the past as well as the art of the present." In the Europe he is referring to - France, Italy, Germany, Spain or the Low Countries - literature has never enjoyed the cultural dominance that it has in this country.

One interesting beneficiary of the sea change noted by Serota has been the reputation of Francis Bacon since his death in 1992. "Normally, an artist's work disappears for a while after their death, but what happened through the 1990s is that Bacon's work struck a chord across Europe and America." Bacon is no longer regarded as an eccentric, out of step with the currents in art; instead he has become a seminal figure for a younger generation of British artists inspired by his dramatisation of the "big issues" that Woody Allen summed up in his film title, Love and Death. Today we see the confessional sexual themes explored by Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and others; the consciousness of mortality explored by Damien Hirst, and the combination of sex, violence and death explored by the Chapmans.

In his current group exhibition at Tate Britain, In-A-Gadda- Da-Vida, Hirst's striking work The Pursuit of Oblivion is an overt tribute to Bacon's 1946 work Painting. And of course the viewer who discovers Bacon through Hirst is then drawn back into the high Renaissance - at once the high ground and the heartbeat of visual art history, and cultural territory where the British felt themselves so long to be mere spectators rather than participants.

There are a number of related and overlapping explanations for this shifting of the tectonic plates of our culture. Profound changes of this sort do not happen in isolation, but result from wider socio-historical change, from developments in education and in leisure activities, and from the histories of the particular art forms.

The public that consumes art - more or less equivalent to what used to be called, significantly, "the reading public" - has expanded tremendously with social mobility and the widening of educational opportunity, while at the same time traditional literary education has all but disappeared. An audience familiar with the King James Bible and Shakespeare, with Bunyan, Milton and Wordsworth (plus at the higher levels with classical Greek and Latin authors) was primed to respond to literature above all other arts.

Today, by contrast, even Eng Lit graduates may have negotiated their way through GCSE, A-level and a degree studying just two or three Shakespeare plays and not a line of "Paradise Lost", "The Pilgrim's Progress" or "The Prelude". Eng Lit abandoned "Beowulf" to Virginia Woolf in the last decades of the 20th century, becoming instead a far less stable, less historically linear selection of texts.

More crucially, we live in a visual age, and are programmed from early childhood to decode visual representation from television, video, photography, advertising and so on. So our visual sophistication has grown as our literary sophistication has declined. We struggle to appreciate Bunyan, whose religious impulse baffles or bores us, while finding freshness and accessibility in pre-historic cave paintings from Lascaux.

Bragg sees this new visual literacy all around us: "Look at shop windows in the high street - they are full of well-designed stuff, the lighting, the look, the balance. No one is afraid of a shocking new look any more, and the new blocks of flats along the Thames that look like great hulls of ships have been built without any of the fuss you would have seen 15 years ago. Today, people want architects to design their cities, and they'll travel somewhere specifically to look at buildings."

For a generation of highly trained consumers, used to hunting as a pack, it is easier, more convenient and more sociable to file through an art gallery than to struggle with a book. We are time- poor, overloaded with sensation, accustomed to sound-bites or dollops of information, so we develop skills in what Serota calls "scanning". "We get very good at picking up things that are interesting, deciding whether we like or dislike something in five seconds, and it doesn't require the commitment of the concert hall or book," he said, adding tartly: "This is not always to the advantage of the visual artist."

At the exit to the Saatchi Gallery, Tony Paterra, an IT consultant in his 20s on a visit from Washington DC, emerged a satisfied customer, and echoed what Serota had told me: "It's easy looking at the art here - you don't have to look that long, and you get from it what you want." Fittingly, it might be said, the gallery's founder, Charles Saatchi, the advertising mogul who became BritArt's foremost collector and promoter, embodies this consumerist approach to art, hoovering up entire shows by emerging artists with an insouciance that seems to proclaim "I'm buying it all, because I can."

Visual art takes its place seamlessly in the contemporary world's globalised economy, in which advertising and entertainment have given audiences around the world common sources of imagery and visual techniques. Literature has had an international reach for centuries - from the legacy of the classical authors to the passion for Shakespeare, but an image or design travels instantly and without the need for translation.

Our leading architects compete for commissions from California to the Far East, and there are important collectors of BritArt in Greece and Korea. Less gets lost in translation when we see a piece by Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern than when an Icelander reads London Fields.

It is not just the art that moves on a global plane: the audience, too, is on the move, with cultural tourism an increasing contributor to national economies. A year after the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, McKinsey calculated that the gallery had contributed 100m to the regional economy, while the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao seven years ago transformed the economic fortunes of the Basque industrial city.

In Britain, arts institutions have benefited from lottery funding, while in the US the money has come from the private sector and in Germany from regional governments. But whatever the source of funds, it seems that every self-respecting provincial city in Europe and North America now wants to invest in its own museum of contemporary art. For governments and institutions investing in culture, visual art must increasingly seem a more attractive proposition than theatre, for instance, with its narrower tourist base.

The prime supranational art form is, of course, cinema - in its most concentrated and powerful form the Hollywood movie industry - which along with television established itself as the 20th century's distinctive and dominant art form. This had two serious consequences for the state of our tastes at the beginning of a new century: first, it provided us with a vast mental library of shared visual references - for the first time in history, much of the world shared the same stories, dreams and information about the world around them. Second, moving pictures replaced the novel as the main means of telling stories.

As Bragg puts it: "People have got used to seeing and listening to stories instead of reading them. And not just any old stories: in this country writers like Dennis Potter and Paul Abbott gave us quality narrative with complex characters on our televisions."

The novel is not the only art form to have been challenged by the newer, faster, more scientifically accurate means of representing reality that were developed in the modern era. Perhaps it was to visual art's advantage that it had to coexist with photography relatively early, a stimulus that led to the experiments of the impressionist painters and others in the latter half of the 19th century.

In the early decades of the 20th century, practitioners of the various arts responded to these challenges with a range of strategies that have been lumped together under the collective title of modernism - a movement that continues to wield a profound influence.

In the case of music, the legacy of modernism is a yawning gap between highly academic contemporary music - which speaks to a small, specialised audience, much like contemporary poetry - and historical classical music on one hand, and various popular folk and commercial musical traditions on the other. So while music is ubiquitous today, it's cultural heft is diluted.

Literary modernism left behind peaks of achievement - in the works of Joyce and Proust, Eliot and Pound - that have not been matched since. Perhaps literary art reached some sort of conclusion or dead end with Modernism.

We may even conclude that English literature, as opposed to literature in English, has been in decline for longer, with its last great flowering owing most of its lustre to two Americans (James and Eliot), a Pole (Conrad) and three Irishmen (Joyce, Yeats and Beckett, who was claimed to have made further literature impossible).

The novel inherited from epic poetry the primal task of reflecting a people's self-image, of providing a nation with its creation myths, and it may be that literary history has left Britain behind - the stories have already been told. Certainly, Martin Amis suggests in his admiration for the great elders of the American novel, Bellow, Updike and Roth, that the action has moved on, and that America is now its locus. Australia, another young nation still inventing itself, still in the process of recasting its creation myths, produces powerful novels which have no parallel in contemporary Britain, from Patrick White's Voss to Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang.

In a further ironic twist, the closest Eng Lit currently gets to a bard is Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who, at the very turn of the new millennium, breathed new life into our first creation myth, "Beowulf", the oldest literary relic of our Anglo Saxon heritage.

Visual art might well have reached a dead end under the weight of Picasso and Matisse, its two great modernist progenitors. Instead, it found new life, new directions and ambitions. The experiments of figures such as Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys in particular threw the field wide open, and gave art the apparently infinite flexibility and plasticity once enjoyed by the English language. New forms proliferated, some of them using new technologies as they emerged, all of them limited only by the imagination of the artists using them.

Pop artists on both sides of the Atlantic ensured that visual art avoided the split suffered in music between the academy and the audience by folding the new imagery of mass production and advertising back into the mainstream, where minimalist abstraction could co-exist with highly accessible and representational work. Serota believes the impact of the YBA generation has interesting parallels with the emergence of Pop Art 50 years ago: "The subject matter - with its concerns in contemporary life and issues of identity - is presented in very graphic and easily accessible forms, which means that young people can identify easily with the art and the artists."

Today's artists have an extraordinary range of expression at their disposal, which provides them with the means to respond to the reality they find themselves in - a global culture in which science and technological advances have answered many questions, only to add more layers of uncertainty about existence and the individual.

Artists can work in text, with letters and words, while bypassing literature; they can work in sound that is not music; they can deploy an armoury of electronic equipment and industrial technology - camera, video, computerised imagery, animatronics. They can work in performance that is neither theatre nor dance nor comedy sketch, even if it incorporates and alludes to all three; they can involve the viewer in active engagement or participation; they can bring disparate elements together to create poetic juxtapositions. They can work with readymades or installations, and with concepts in which the finished object is not as interesting as the thought process behind it - a single On Kawara date painting only touches the viewer who knows that it is just one in a series of thousands by the Japanese artist, painted on that particular date over the past 35 years.

They have the freedom to switch between mediums, choosing the means of delivery to suit each particular concern: in his extraordinary performance Breakdown (2001), Michael Landy ground all his possessions into dust mechanically over three days in a disused department store; he followed it with a series of the most delicate copperplate etchings of weeds.

They can follow in the photographic footsteps of a Berndt and Hilla Becher, the hugely influential German couple who taught us how to find a strange beauty in the detritus of the industrial age. Or they can take a much more British direction in documentary photography, like Martin Parr, whose shiny, overweight, chip-eating working class subjects allude to the Donald McGill world of seaside postcards - Simon Schama's "tough, raunchy, socially engaged playfulness".

All of these elements and more will confront you on a visit to Tate Modern or the Saatchi Gallery, or to the small private galleries that have sprung up in cities throughout the world, or to the degree shows at art schools.

I challenged Serota to encompass the contemporary experience of visual art. "Art today has a wrap-around feel," he said. "It envelops you and doesn't leave you untouched."

Fashions change, of course. Both Serota and Bragg recall a time when the artistic giants of the day were film-makers, and they rattle off a litany of names: Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Bunuel. It might have seemed then that the novel was finished.

Bragg expands: "Martin Amis revived interest in the novel by making it fashionable again, by making it sexy. He had a public persona, was quotable, and he had a gang. The same thing happened in visual art with Damien Hirst and his gang."

It is perfectly possible that a new gang of novelists will appear on the scene - or even poets - who will recast our literature, taking inspiration perhaps from the YBAs. That, certainly, would be the optimistic view. But it is surely difficult to see the current strength of visual art as a passing blip on the graph of British cultural history, or to imagine that writers will ever again hold precedence over visual artists in the same way they did throughout the second millennium.

For whatever an individual or a group of artists achieve, it is the audience that makes a culture - and the audience has surely changed for ever.

Bruce Millar is a freelance writer on the visual arts.