Kate Moss and the death of British art
17.04.2006 The Guardian
Lingering outside the celebrity enclosure ... Kate Moss painted by Stella Vine (detail). Photograph: Stella Vine/PA
Marc Quinn's sculpture of the supermodel was unveiled this week, the latest in a series of portraits of her by some of Britain's leading artists. So what does it tell us about contemporary art? That it is mediocre and enthralled by celebrity, says Jonathan Jones.
A really bad artist can say something about the times in a way that often eludes genius. While the good artist gets lost in personal obsessions, the trite and sentimental hack has a way of showing us what we're all thinking. With his sculpture of Kate Moss, unveiled this week, Marc Quinn has done it again. And what he tells us is that we may as well put up our hands and confess that beneath our thin veil of modernism we remain an artistically conservative nation. British art has returned to its origins, we see on these pages. After all the sensations, after the brilliant careers and after the fire, we have arrived by some cyclical divine joke in 18th-century London, where portraiture is god and the leading artists of the day compete to depict Mary "Perdita" Robinson, Emma Hamilton - and Kate Moss.
A decade ago, when British art was interesting rather than merely famous, Gary Hume painted the first iconic portrait of Kate Moss in a Warholian mode (on the cover of this issue of G2) - well, it was nearly iconic for nearly 15 minutes. It was based on a magazine image, and her face became a disturbing void. Hume's painting remains the best that has been done of her, because it is not soppy about its model. On the contrary, her polished metal mask is a cruel mirror of the year it was painted - 1996, the Britannic pop eve of New Labour's victory.
A lot has happened since then. The fame of British art has increased as the reasons for defending it critically have, one by one, been made to look naive. Moss is an index of the changing relationship between our artists and celebrity. Several British artists are now nearly as famous as she is. She has gone looking for them, as intrigued by their stardom as they by hers. It began when she let it be known that she would love to pose for Lucian Freud - and our old master obliged. By portraying Moss nude, Freud and Sam Taylor-Wood appear to give us intimacy with celebrity - exactly the same illusion as a gossip magazine provides.
The decline is intellectual. Freud and Quinn have abandoned any critical distance from their subjects. They are no longer serious artists looking from their sombre studios at the spectacle of fame, at once fascinated and enraged by the banal delights of Vanity Fair. They are famous themselves, too involved in the banality to realise it is banal. Isn't it nice to be a celebrated artist and meet Moss? Has Freud ever painted such a vacuous work? Perhaps he has. His flat greed for her is so lacking in thought or real feeling it makes you doubt your own admiration for his earlier paintings.
But that is not fair. Freud shares British art's decline, as you realise when you look back at the great series of portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery that he painted nearly 15 years ago. In the early 1990s, British artists - including Freud - achieved the most creative relationship with popular culture that art has enjoyed anywhere since the Warhol 60s. In the last 10 years, this strand of popular British art has become a parody of itself as, instead of the avant-garde transforming the way we see, the way we see - our lumpen common sense - has manufactured an avant-garde in its image. So we flatter ourselves that we are being modern when we admire the profoundly conservative art of Quinn, a very cosy portraitist under the pseudo-heroic veneer - a sculptural blend of Leni Riefenstahl and Lord Snowdon.
Quinn's portrait of Moss is the kind of monstrosity that, if it were exhibited in Tate Britain as 150-year-old period puce, would give us a good laugh at the bad taste of the Victorian bourgeoisie before modernism came along to clear the cobwebs. But hang on - oh no! - this time we are the conservative public who mistake worthy content for worthwhile form. Quinn is an emotional guy, you see. He cared about Alison Lapper and he cares about Moss. His characterless artefact won't make any sense when her current notoriety is forgotten; a future art historian will have to dig out old newspapers to discover why this smooth, bland object was ever invested with meaning. Yet it seems at this moment that he is saying something about stuff that matters - that perhaps Moss is just a vulnerable person thrown out of shape by tabloid hate. Oh, it's so moving I want to cry. No, really, I want to cry. I used to think British art was going somewhere.
There's something so mediocre about the rage to portray such a slight figure. All the lamentable nothings - who have turned out to be the beneficiaries of a populism that had once promised so much - line up to meet Kate. Stella Vine and Sarah Morris are pathetic wannabes lingering outside the celebrity enclosure. Perhaps one day they, too, will be transfigured by fame's Neoplatonist logic into stars such as Taylor-Wood, whose Kate Moss floats beside her in the pantheon along with her videos of David Beckham, Robert Downey Jr and Ray Winstone. How many footnotes will the future art historian need to explain that lot? It will be like looking at a painting by Gainsborough and having to find out what was so special about Henry, Third Duke of Buccleuch ("known as a man of literary tastes").
Few of us bother. In the end, all the bewhigged Hanoverian celebrities look alike. Yet it is gross flattery to compare any of the artists on these pages with Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney. Even in society portraiture, this is no golden age.