What we need is a new sort of paintbrush

by Sam Kriss

There aren’t any explanatory cards at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London. This doesn’t mean that the viewer is forced to confront the painting on a barren field, with nothing to helpfully and patronisingly mediate between the gaze and the pure image. Instead, there’s a little booklet, in which all the works are listed according to their catalogue number, along with their prices. For those who object to such things, this could be read as a despicable commodification of culture; the work is swallowed whole by its exchange-value, the exhibition is less an art show than a degenerated flea market. As I tend to think art and money are joined at the hip, I found that it could actually be turned into a quite diverting game. This composition in red and black, with the gooseflesh ghost of a human form shimmering unsteadily in one corner – that’s £9,000; you were quite right to like it. On the other hand, this painting, acrylically abstract, its overlapping shapes looking like something you could make in five minutes on MS Paint – it costs £12,000, and you’ve lost this round. Better luck next time.

It’s a favourite pastime of art critics to snobbishly denigrate the Summer Exhibition’s supposed conservatism – even arch-traditionalist Brian Sewell is getting in on the act. It’s true that while many of the works on display are perfectly pleasant, none of them have the force of a punch in the gut, the sudden violence that marks out great art. Instead, wall after wall is crammed with pastiche. Shades of late Picasso, Miró, and Kandinsky dominate. Not that there’s anything wrong with Picasso, Miró, or Kandinsky, and some of these imitations are very well executed – but by being repeated their styles ossify and lose all sense of motion; revolutionary artists are turned into reactionaries. Heidegger thought that art could constitute an opening to the future; but in the Summer Exhibition it seems hopelessly mired in its own past. The saving grace of the exhibition is supposedly Greyson Perry’s series of tapestries. Here there’s more pastiche, this time of Hogarth (in fact, I hazily remember being made to ‘update’ the Rake’s Progress for GCSE Art); the ‘class satire’ is meanwhile very self-consciously clever but depressingly toothless. There’s no better demonstration of the enfeebled nature of pseudosatirical pastiche than the concentration of people hanging round the tapestry that depicts the middle classes, cooing with the joy of an infant looking at itself in the mirror. Yes, we do all read the Guardian, don’t we? And all our food is organic and fairtrade, and we all have therapists; isn’t it brilliant? All this is hardly the fault of the curators, though. Across the river, at the (unstuffy, unconservative) Tate Modern, you can see a grey felt-covered cuboid hanging on a wall with a little card next to it that breathlessly expounds the significance of this ‘box-like object’ – as if a box-like object could be, in the final analysis, anything other than a box. Outside the dust-heavy air of the museum, the best-known British artist is probably – for fuck’s sake – Banksy. Our young revolutionaries are, if anything, even more pathetic than our conservatives; at least our conservatives are aping something genuinely radical.

Not that the situation is hopeless. A small sculpture stood in a room of lithographs. I don’t know its name or that of the artists; it had no red dot or accompanying number; I couldn’t find it in the catalogue. It was as if some gang of guerillas had infiltrated Burlington House at night and left the thing there. A stylised donkey sits on a wooden table, holding a pencil. Turn the wheel: there’s a carefully calibrated creak as its hinges and pistons grate against each other, and it draws another stylised donkey. The pencil shudders along the same route, over and over again. It’s art as artistic criticism: self-portraiture is revealed as a blind mechanical mimesis, the compulsion of made things to repeat their own making. The prints and paintings that surround it are revealed for what they are: they become so many crude pencil sketches of so many mechanical donkeys.

The art of the early twentieth century was so great because the early twentieth century was a time of revolution and possibility, in which art could shamelessly imagine its own future. Our current time is one of reaction, of the hideous mechanised logic of capitalist austerity, in which merely pointing out the mechanical nature of our subjugation passes for a radical act. No wonder, then, that the most profound work at the Summer Exhibition was itself a machine. Maybe if our art isn’t doing what it should, we need a new sort of paintbrush. For a positively articulated vision of the future, you have to look to the outer fringes of the mind. Adorno writes that ‘the sickness of the normal does not necessarily imply as its opposite the health of the sick, but the latter usually only presents, in a different way, the same disastrous pattern.’ As a counterpoint, I’d present the Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition currently running at the Hayward Gallery. Despite the name, which makes it sound like a weeknight offering from Channel 4, possibly something through which Jimmy Carr will foist himself on the nation, it’s excellent. Among the UFOlogists and selfie-obsessives avant le lettre are some genuinely revolutionary works. What unites the best of them is an overpowering sense of hope. There are few apocalypses or jeremiads; instead, these artists thought they were providing the blueprint for a better world. These worlds sometimes veer uncomfortably towards a kind of techno-fascism – William Scott envisages a day when San Francisco will be ‘cancelled’ and replaced with Praise Frisco, a city of ‘wholesome people’ and ‘wholesome encounters,’ while George Widener’s sketched cityscapes of the future are blighted by perpetual gridlock and architecture that has the faint whiff of Albert Speer about it. Still, there’s Marcel Storr, a deaf and illiterate street sweeper who would come home at night and construct impossibly detailed futuristic cityscapes in pencil and ink, looking like something between a Xanaduan pleasure-dome and Blade Runner; and Body Isek Kingelez, who builds playfully extravagant models for his vision of a new Kinshasa from scrap materials he finds around the city. Also on display is an infectious fluidity, a kind of conceptual synaesthesia, the kind of thing that is so sorely lacking at the Royal Academy. MC Ramellzee re-imagines the alphabet as a fleet of spikily armed starships mounted of skateboards, fighting to liberate letters from the tyranny of language. A.G. Rizzoli (my personal favourite) ‘symbolically sketched’ people he knew as fantastic buildings, so that the local postman becomes a sprawling Renaissance palace, and his mother a fairy-tale cathedral. All these were integrated into his masterplan for a new exhibition-city called Y.T.T.E., or Yield To Total Elation, in which the barriers between human beings and architecture would dissolve.

To call this stuff ‘outsider art’ is, I think, to miss the point entirely. Nobody today calls William Blake an ‘outsider poet’ or Friedrich Nietzsche an ‘outsider philosopher.’ Of course, many of the artists in question were mad, or suffered from developmental disabilities, but, as Adorno suggests, sickness does not exist isolated from the society that contains and creates it. Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari saw schizophrenia as simultaneously being the final result of the logic of capitalism and a productive, revolutionary force that disturbs its operation. It’s not the case that in a society that has abolished its own future only the mad still dream of a better world; rather, actually hoping for anything different itself becomes madness, a madness whose limits are defined by the rigid (im)possibilities of our own impoverished existence. In other words, it’s a madness whose creativity is intrinsically bound up with the regimented sterility of late capitalism, as source and foil. Is a man who builds minutely detailed models from scrap paper and beer cans an obsessional neurotic, a holy lunatic, or a respectable architect? Surely that depends only on whether his models are shown in his own home, in an exhibition such as the Hayward’s, or in the atrium of an architectural practice. If this is insanity, it’s not the seething unreason of the id, but instead rationality made to do things that, by ‘normal’ standards, it’s not supposed to do. Alfred Jensen creates number tables in oil paints, their colours and composition influenced by Indian spirituality and the I Ching; there’s a certain ordered stillness in them not too different from that engendered by a Rothko canvas. Widener believes that in the future superintelligent machines would finally be able to decode the mathematical patterns he discerns in the calender; it’s no surprise to learn that he once worked with US military cryptographers. This is, in its own eccentric way, precisely the health of the sick.

Some critics have taken issue with the exhibition’s name. What’s being presented is not, they claim, an alternate guide to the universe, but a small introduction into another world: the private universe of the unhinged. I don’t agree. We’re being shown a possible future, but as Marx knew, every future is ‘still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.’ These visions are built on the foundations of the world we all inhabit now; they are the repressed content of our life. All these worlds already exist. Rizzoli, on seeing female genitalia for the first time at the age of forty, immortalised the moment as an immense Art Deco church. So That You Too May See Something You’ve Not Seen Before, he wrote above it. So that we may experience the wonder and strangeness of something which is immanent but hidden. In art as in politics the productive forces are here; we have only to unleash them.

Thanks to Twitter user @HealthUntoDeath for inadvertently providing the title for this piece.