All this modernism makes Giles Auty mad

February 10, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON — Giles Auty's life has frequently been changed by abrup circumstance.

It happened first when he was about 25 and a successful advertising executive who really wanted to be a painter. It took a near-fatal car crash to make him confront himself, but he did.

He quit his job and moved to Cornwall. In the 1950s, that was where artists went; it was cheap and dramatically beautiful on the eve of the ascendancy of abstract expressionism and the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

But abstract expressionism was a language in painting unappealing to Giles Auty, which is not to say he was unaware of what modernist artists were after with their abstractions and aversion to figurative or traditional forms of expression.

"They were trying to present some sort of transcendental experience, to portray some kind of spiritual pinnacle in life," he says with a sense of impatient sympathy for all such efforts.

The second abrupt turn of his life occurred in Madrid, Spain, in January 1963. He was haunting the Prado Museum at the time, driven there by the cold weather and drawn by the warmth of Diego Velazquez. "I suddenly realized that we had got this thing all wrong," he said. "What I saw there was better than anything we were doing, better than anything done since. I realized we didn't know what we were doing."

He shifts on the sofa in his comfortable Thames-side house near Hampton Court, and says, "If you can seriously look at Velazquez or Rembrandt and then say we are doing work of equal value, then you belong in a place run by men in white coats."

Of the Prado experience he wrote: "Before that moment, I had fondly imagined, as thousands of muddled young artists still to, that modern art is a link in a grand evolutionary chain; that although the art of our time might look very different, it was simply our own contemporary 'equivalent' of the masterpieces of the past.

"That you will still hear this shallow and unconvincing argument proceeding from the mouths of supposedly imminent figures today does not make me feel one whit better about my own useful lack of judgment."

Another metamorphosis. Giles Auty emerged from the museum possessed of an idea that hasn't let go of him in 30 years. Much modern art, he believes -- abstract or non-figurative painting, or everyday objects such as trash cans or soiled jeans, when offered as art -- is more than silly, or just fun; it is a rejection of the continuity of the historical stream of Western art. It reflects a hatred of the past, a lunatic embrace of the idea of revolution.

When he was 40 he wrote a book, "The Art of Self Deception," which he deprecates now as being simplistic. But it expressed this idea and gave him a -- of fame. In 1984 he landed the job as art critic for the Spectator, a provocative, somewhat cranky but venerable right-wing journal of ideas, politics and the arts. From this vantage he looked out over London's art establishment, decided it was perverse and declared war.

He is not likely to go away soon. Giles Auty is a lively 58. There is nothing of the sour curmudgeon about him. He is a player of sports such as tennis, squash and rugby; he reveres the philosophy that underpins their exercise, the willing acceptance of the rules that make them work. He has an evident need for coherence.

"I don't like being muddled; I like to know why things are done," he says. He hates confused thought in artists, and claims to see it everywhere.

Most frequently he seems to find it in the Tate Gallery. This is one of the world's great art galleries. The Tate each year selects and displays the work of the winner and runners-up in the Turner Prize competition. It is a big prize, worth about $30,000, and is given to an artist under 50. Among its purposes is "to promote discussion of contemporary art."

Invariably the prize goes to someone whose work Giles Auty despises. The winner for 1992, announced in November, was a young man named Grenville Davey.

After Mr. Davey's selection, Giles Auty wrote: "In the eight years since the Turner Prize's inception, no mainstream painter working within the great European tradition of figurative art has made an official short list: a damning ratio of nought to 40. This in spite of the fact that this particular tradition has bred most of the major British talents of this century -- Sickert, Spencer, Bomberg and Freud among them."

Giles Auty, of course, is not the only conservative (some might say reactionary) art critic in London. Frank Whitford of the Sunday Times described the 1992 Turner Prize offerings as "arid, uncritically fashionable, outdated or otherwise negligible in art today."

So what is so different about Giles Auty? Except perhaps for his penchant for life-altering experiences?

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