Commentary - Make it strange, make it new

George Walden, writing in the <em>NS </em>last week, lamented the inertia of our contemporary cultur

Art forms have to take their turns in the sun. Cultural studies departments and the weekend supplements might have us believe that the arts are some kind of homogenised, easily consumable whole, but history tells us that different arts flourish and decline at different moments.

Take contemporary Britain. Painting, if you believe George Walden, is meant to be senile, if not dead. Poetry has become a second-rate performance art. Yet British theatre, after more than a decade of moronic Lloyd-Webberisation, is regaining vitality. And a handful of British architects have been designing buildings which might just be the most original this country has produced since the 14th century. The novel, meanwhile, which enjoys a curious, perhaps undeserved primacy in British cultural life, has fragmented into genre. The grind of the corporate publishing machine has turned fiction into the literary equivalent of Victorian hack painting. Aga sagas and historical novels replicate the popular success once enjoyed by shaggy cattle in Highland landscapes and tiddly cardinals playing leapfrog, leaving the big names of so-called literary fiction seemingly incapable of finding the new forms, or even the will, to confront the elusive complexities of contemporary life. The great British postmodern novel remains resolutely unwritten, perhaps even unpublishable. Yet anyone still mad enough to attempt it could do worse than seek inspiration, not from contemporary fiction, but from the one art form that has found a language for dealing with millennial realities in a new and dynamic way: sculpture.

Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Rachel Whiteread and the rest of the young(ish) British sculptors presently sunning themselves on the beach towel of international fame are, as we know, a controversial bunch. Sceptics dismiss Hirst and Quinn in particular as latter-day freak showmen whose work is yet another fatuous manifestation of the Britpop fashion industry. Duchamp has done it all before, they point out; and doubtless they regard Hirst's baleful partnership with restaurateur Marco Pierre White as final confirmation that this was nothing more than a passing triumph of style over content.

Yet there are people who think these artists are for real. Sure, Duchamp has done it all before; sure, there is an enormous amount of hype involved (the contemporary art world thrives on little else). But anyone who saw Whiteread's House before it was pulled down, or Ron Mueck's Dead Dad at the Royal Academy's Sensation show (which is currently the talk of Berlin), or Marc Quinn's polyurethane Stripped hanging from the rafters of a disused brewery must have recognised that something interesting was happening.

While contemporary novelists such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan retreat to the comforting circumscriptions of the detective and thriller genres, contemporary British sculptors are grappling with authentic existential dilemmas: bodily disintegration (Hirst's formaldehydes); the process of dying (Quinn's organic self-portraits); the death of memory itself (Whiteread's cast voids). And they are doing so not with description, but with three-dimensional metaphors of unusual simplicity and power. So at a time when the British novel is becoming ever more feebly prosaic - the very term "literary fiction" is an admission of defeat (can you imagine House being called "arty sculpture"?) - contemporary sculptors have used the rawest materials of life and death to make a new kind of metaphysical poetry.

After all, as Rilke once observed, poem means "made thing"; and these pieces with their dynamic use of new "unartistic" materials, do have a quality of "madeness" that sets them apart from the lifeless white gallery spaces they inhabit. This is not just a matter of style. Hirst, Quinn and Whiteread have created completely new forms of art, which appear as exhilaratingly incongruous as Duchamp's ready-mades and Epstein's Rock Drill must once have appeared in the 1910s.

There is nothing new in this. Early 15th-century Florence produced Donatello, Brunelleschi and Masaccio, but no lasting vernacular literature. Compare the dynamic modernist response of artists such as Wadsworth, Nevinson and Nash to the first world war with the Georgian traditionalism of the "war poets". Britain might have dignified its dead with some uniquely beautiful cemeteries, but it can't boast a fictional monument to the conflict that compares with, say, A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front or Celine's Journey to the End of the Night. Unless you read Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915) as a prescient metaphor for the war, the events in Europe from 1914-18 utterly defeated contemporary British fiction as a subject. Will the closing years of the 20th century defeat it in a similar way?

Duchamp once said that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than another painter. Perhaps British novelists should invert Duchamp's cue and listen to Michael Craig-Martin, inspirational tutor at Goldsmiths' College: "Make art that has something to say, make it in a new way, and engage in the contemporary world."

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians