Robot artists, group-think and a £52m JPEG: the year the art world went mad

Of course, the art world’s decadence has long amused outsiders, and, despite the generally sombre mood generated by the pandemic, 2021, in this respect, didn’t disappoint. A semi-shredded painting by Banksy, returning to auction having partially self-destructed three years earlier in a surprise saleroom stunt, fetched £18.5 million at Sotheby’s in London: double what the National Gallery is paying to acquire Thomas Lawrence’s The Red Boy (1825). 

The Louvre threatened legal action against adult streaming site Pornhub after it released an erotic guide to art history, recreating works in its collection. Robot artist Ai-Da, en route to the Great Pyramid of Giza, was detained by Egypt’s security forces as a possible spy. And a scuffed pair of high-top Nike Airs, once worn during a game in 1984 by basketball superstar Michael Jordan, sold in Las Vegas (where else?) for nearly $1.5 million, prompting feverish speculation that “sneakers” are the new Picassos.

Distractions aside, it also became apparent that the cultural landscape is still being buffeted by tempestuous societal forces. By now, it’s well established that the current crop of museum professionals wants to expand the canon of Western art to include marginalised or forgotten figures. Still, we only discovered the full extent of the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on the art world when galleries reopened this spring. Everywhere you looked, black artists were being celebrated, from Michael Armitage at the Royal Academy – where Yinka Shonibare oversaw the 253rd Summer Exhibition – to Theaster Gates at the Whitechapel Gallery and Lubaina Himid at Tate Modern.

Last month, Tate Britain’s director Alex Farquharson opened Life Between Islands, his survey of Caribbean-British art from the 1950s to today, bringing many neglected artists into the limelight. Yesterday, Kehinde Wiley, famous for his official portrait of Barack Obama, unveiled a new show at the National Gallery, interrogating the tradition of European landscape painting.

Who wouldn’t applaud this as progress? (Although I don’t see much evidence of ethnic diversity among the leadership of our most prominent museums and galleries.) However, because of BLM, and the related move to “decolonise” art history, lots of institutions are tying themselves up in knots, presumably for fear of getting “cancelled” by Gen Z. Trigger warnings inside galleries are now ten-a-penny. Likewise, a new, puritanical spirit. The nadir was Tate Britain’s Hogarth and Europe, which, confusingly, deviated from its ostensible subject matter (the 18th-century satirist’s relationship with his continental peers), to become a self-flagellating lament about this country’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

As the Prince of Wales, speaking in Barbados, reminded us, slavery is an “appalling atrocity” that “forever stains our history”. Still, one couldn’t help feeling that the curators of the Hogarth show were trading on his name before explicitly denouncing him to pursue a contemporary agenda. It felt borderline duplicitous, and certainly distorting – whereas an exhibition openly exploring colonialism in the age of Hogarth would have been fine.

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