Art World 'must face truth & condemn bad work'Date: 10 August 1999
The art world should be prepared to criticise art when it is bad and abandon 'weasel words' that excuse poor work, according to a leading cultural commentator.
John Tusa, the writer and managing director of the Barbican centre in London, has declared that it is time to separate the 'artistic sheep from the goats' and be prepared openly to damn art when it is of inferior quality. Artists who claim that their work is ironic when it is merely badly done should no longer hide behind 'evasive relativism', he said.
In an article written for The Scotsman, Tusa claims it has become impossible to evaluate the quality of art because of modern artists' sense of irony. This attitude leads to 'relativism' where there are no artistic standards, only comparison to other works of art. A new seriousness should be fostered in the arts world.
Tusa's views come as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe begins its first week of performances in the capital and dozens of arts critics prepare to review the hundreds of shows on the city's stages.
He will be addressing the issue further in a Culture Wars debate which is part of the International Book festival at the Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, on 19 August. In the debate, entitled 'What's wrong with cultural elitism?', Tusa, the former managing director of the BBC World Service, will argue with the writers Meg Henderson, Tim Parks and Mark Ryan, that there is a pressing need to return to judging art with 'judgmental evaluation': 'Not content with shying away from unfashionably absolute words such as 'good' and 'excellent', we have spawned our own weasel words that allow us to label everything while judging nothing,' Tusa said. He added: 'I think we should have had enough of artistic judgments based in the evasions of relativism, of the cowardice of special pleading, of fear being called elitist because we take up the cudgels of robust, disinterested criticism that explains why it is trying to separate the artistic sheep from the goats.'
Tusa has also laid the blame for the lack of rigour in judging art at the door of the government, which he says is increasingly concerned with funding art institutions that are educational, provide outreach, improve access and advance ethnic diversity rather than being accomplished at their primary tasks.
He said that, although being formally accomplished, or 'good', at art, is still lauded and appreciated, it is no longer the only basis on which funding is granted to artists.