Art: Close to despair

    Are there too many artists in the modern world? I think so. I won’t bore you with the figures, but there has never been an era to compare with ours in terms of the production of artists. A notorious statistic that gets trotted out about Hackney, east London, is that the borough boasts the greatest concentration of artists in the world. But what about Brixton? Or Camden? They’re overrun too. Artists are the rabbits of the urban world. Does this cheer me up? Does it make my work as an art critic feel even more pertinent? No, it doesn’t. Because the popularity of art as an easy career choice has not led to more people making good art. It has led to many more people making bad art. The absolute proof of this is this year’s New Contemporaries exhibition.

    New Contemporaries began a couple of decades ago as a decent idea. Every year, a trawl would be made of the nation’s art colleges, and the best new work would be selected and shown to us. It was billed as a handy way of keeping up with the nation’s aesthetics and spotting the stars of the future. Having visited pretty much all the New Contemporaries displays since the show’s invention, however, I don’t remember encountering anything in any of them that was truly notable or life-changing. New Contemporaries is always a disappointment; always half cocked. And the fault lies, always, with the selection process.

    What ought to happen is that, every year, a systematic search of the nation’s art colleges turns up the finest examples of new art from around the land. Useful. Tangible. Obvious. Instead, as the accounts of the judges preserved in this year’s catalogue make outrageously clear, the same kind of aesthetic indolence that causes our artists to waste so much of their precious studio time listening to Radio 4 when they should be concentrating totally and fiercely on their work goes into selecting this annually depressing waste of space.

    “Somehow, on a diet of endless packets of crisps, nuts, fruit, biscuits, chocolate, coffee, tea, water, wine, bread and cheese, and then some more,” enthuses the exhibition’s administrator, in a spectacularly insouciant catalogue roundup, “the selection is arrived at.” Instead of looking at each work as if your life depended on it, instead of constantly asking yourself if this qualifies as the best and most representative work being produced this year in the nation’s art colleges, instead of putting proper, sustained intellectual effort into the task of building this show, this lot, the New Contemporaries selectors, sit around eating crisps, nibbling cheese, drinking wine and hoping, until something happens. It’s pathetic. It’s disgraceful. It’s the art world.

    Casualness is the abiding fault, also, of most of the works in the show. Pretty much everything here is infected with the so-what-ishness of slacker aesthetics. Anne Kathrin Greiner has been to Japan and taken some photographs of people wandering around a river: so what? Payam Sharifi has collected some slogans in Montevideo, one of which says “Yankees go home, and take me with you”: so what? Andrew Graves has painted some pale and wonky op art, as if Bridget Riley had been left out in the rain: so what? These are not the worst offenders, however. Worse than those artists who don’t try hard enough are those who try, all right, but lack the talent or originality to pull it off.

    Charlotte Rea gives us a suite of photographs of gloomy domestic interiors that searches for that same sense of domestic blankness that artists always look for in gloomy interiors, and that so many have found before her. Chris Smith paints a set of pretend film stills for a grim eastern European movie involving a crashed car and lots of wailing. Poor Stuart McCaffer has gone to enormous trouble to re-create a prison cell in the gallery, perfect in every scruffy detail, but then tried to give the installation deeper meaning by placing a monitor behind the bars, on which are flashed images of the free landscape outside and shaky video footage of a child growing up. How banal.

    Even worse than the searchers after faux-seriousness are those contemporary dimwits who can’t even be arsed to attempt some casual seriousness, but are casually content to remain unshakably casual. The unforgivable Clive Murphy makes balloons out of cardboard packages with slogans on them. Craig Wilson gives us a staggeringly immature video in which he turns himself into a dwarf and careers around Scotland, having infantile adventures with his pals. Dwight Clarke has made a bad record that he plays for us in the gallery on an old record player.

    The only works that rise above the general feebleness of it all are a pair of video pieces that introduce us to some interesting global creeps. In Erica Eyres’s Playing Dead, a demented American teenager who regularly cuts her wrists in order to savour the sensation of death without actually dying — “I had wanted to kill myself, but wasn’t really ready for that kind of commitment” — shares with us the full adolescent scariness of her need for attention. There is also a seedy allure to the glum Israeli stand-up — the Jack Dee of Jerusalem? — whose downbeat stage act Katie Davies has filmed as if to prove there is nothing quite as tragic as comedy.

    New Contemporaries makes one observation about the state of our art colleges that is worth noting. Of the 29 artists on show, half were not born in England, but come instead from Texas, Munich, Mallorca, Lisbon, Barcelona, Osaka, Hiroshima, Winnipeg, Weinheim and various points around the compass. I wish I could find this mad inter- nationalism encouraging. But all it proves is that the international ability to pay your college fees counts for far more in the modern British art-school system than having talent or fresh ideas.

    Something else came through the post the other day. It concerned the dreaded Turner prize. Beneath a photo of the usually estimable Janet Street-Porter was an invitation to witness something called the Gordon’s Judge for Yourself Tour. “Millions to join the debate as the Turner prize is showcased for the first time outside Tate Britain,” it blurted. Of course, I hurried down to Victoria station to take full advantage of this new opportunity to join in the nationwide debate. And there, stuck away in a corner of the concourse, behind a flower stall, opposite the sushi bar, was a foldaway trade counter painted green, at which a pair of Gordon’s girls from rent-a-rep were handing out free shots of booze. In return for this free gin, you could write something on a notice board about this year’s Turner prize, as represented here by a set of placards and some videos.

    Janet herself had written that looking at this beats looking at timetables. I disagree. Looking at timetables is far more useful and honest than trying to pass off the handing-out of free slugs of gin at stations up and down Britain as a valuable contribution to the debate about modern art. This is an unusually shoddy marketing exercise, not an extension of choice. Janet, trust me on this.

    For what it’s worth, the winner this year will be Jim Lambie, who is the only one of the four shortlisted artists colourful and casual enough to adequately represent the art of today.