Losing our vision

Richard Cork on why high prices do not inspire great art

By now, six years since the arrival of the new millennium, we might reasonably expect to feel challenged, invigorated and even unnerved by the advent of a fiery new spirit in art. But the zeitgeist of the present decade has yet to appear. Does anyone else share my sense of disappointment about the unfocused character of art today? Where are the young talents whose work is not just promising, but alive with an audacious vision of the world? Who, among this emergent generation, will deserve to be remembered as the artists responsible for setting the pace in the 21st century?

Looking around, I can find no equivalents to the precocious titans who, precisely 100 years ago, overturned all existing ideas about the future direction of art. The young bloods of today cannot compare with the insurgents responsible for shattering tradition and erupting in a blaze of adventure in 1906. Back then, everyone on the lookout for fresh talent was astounded by the high-keyed colour and bold simplification of Henri Matisse, André Derain and their fellow Fauves ("wild beasts"). The Fauves were given their provocative nickname by a critic who condemned their daring. Around the same time, the expressionists were making sure that German art was quickened by an equally rebellious force.

No wonder the 25-year-old Picasso decided to transform his work so violently, reconfiguring the prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon until they became harsh, disturbing and brutally fragmented. Cubism was born in this seismic canvas, which dismayed everyone, including Picasso's close friend Georges Braque. The rest of the decade resounded with the clash of rival avant-garde movements all over Europe and beyond, ensuring that art would never be the same again.

It may seem unfair to judge contemporary art by the apocalyptic boldness of Matisse, Picasso and their subversive contemporaries. After all, the landmark achievements of art in the early 20th century overshadowed much of the work produced during the next 50 years. But there is no point in lowering our expectations and deciding, with a resigned air of defeatism, that today's artists cannot measure up to the ambition of these outstanding forerunners. We should always hope to find ourselves encountering greatness in emergent art, even when we least expect it. And there is no reason to rule out the possibility of another Picasso appearing now, armed with work as eruptive and as far-reaching as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Maybe new work of this stature has been produced already, and is simply waiting for a dealer or curator far-sighted enough to place it on view. After all, even Picasso was so perturbed by his friends' hostile reaction to Les Demoiselles that he left the unfinished canvas rolled up in his studio. Today, it is enshrined at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as an icon of early modernism, and yet it was hidden away like an embarrassing secret for years after its execution. A similar fate may be blocking our access to the most compelling art-work of today.

We certainly did not make any great discoveries when Charles Saatchi opened his grandiose new London gallery at County Hall, the former municipal offices across the river from Big Ben. Here, seduced by the imposing panelled rooms, Saatchi forgot about his earlier enthusiasms and announced the puzzling arrival of something called "The Triumph of Painting". But it was futile pretending that paint had somehow, in explicably, triumphed over all the other media available to artists. Nobody was convinced by this ill-conceived exercise, and it failed to highlight young talents mighty enough to justify Saatchi's promotional onslaught.

The absence of truly outstanding initiatives in the 21st century seems strange. For one thing, the market has never been stronger. Auction records for the work of living artists are repeatedly being broken, pushing prices commanded by the most sought-after individuals to ever more dizzying heights. Extravagant collectors are springing up in countries such as Russia where, until recently, leading western modernists would never have expected to sell their work for such intoxicating sums. Even newcomers can find that, soon after leaving college and before they win reputations with solo shows, their work gets snapped up for substantial figures at international markets as glamorous as the annual Frieze Art Fair (open to the public in Regent's Park from 12 October).

The sums lavished on art by private buyers have multiplied spectacularly since the days when, in the early 1970s, I began to write about the contemporary scene. Appointed art critic of the London Evening Standard at the age of 22, I reviewed the work of my contemporaries with a rising sense of excitement. Conceptual innovation was at its zenith, and the ways of working for young artists were opening out in a heady range of directions. When a selection of my writings on 1970s art was published three years ago, I gave it the title Everything Seemed Possible. Those three words sum up the sense of heretical experiment which galvanised new work during that restless period.

We are still benefiting from its daring today, when artists find themselves at liberty to use so many different materials and strategies in their search for an alternative vision. Looking back now, I realise that one of the most challenging moments occurred in 1974 when the Rowan Gallery mounted an exhibition of Michael Craig-Martin's work. Here, in this handsome all-white space off Bond Street in London, nothing seemed to be displayed. The entire luminous interior appeared empty, and many visitors concluded that Craig-Martin had perpetrated the ultimate con trick. In fact, high up on one wall, he had installed a glass of water on an equally simple glass shelf. With extraordinary audacity, he called this exhibit An Oak Tree. In an accompanying leaflet, he conducted an auto-interview, hurling an accusatory question at himself: "Isn't this just a case of the emperor's new clothes?" - and rebutted the charge by coolly insisting on the artist's right to bring about even the most far-fetched transformation of his raw material.

Over the succeeding decades, new art changed hugely in pace and emphasis. The start of the 1980s was marked by a wave of revived enthusiasm for paint, often handled with a vehemence reminiscent of the expressionists. At the same time, "new sculpture" came to the fore with a generation of practitioners - ranging from Tony Cragg to Anish Kapoor - who re-engaged with making three-dimensional objects. Towards the end of the 1980s, the spiralling cost of art suddenly collapsed. The economic bubble had, for a while at least, burst. That did not stop another generation from asserting itself with immense confidence in the early 1990s, however. Damien Hirst and his friends lost little time in making their reputations after staging their legendary "Freeze" exhibition at London's Surrey Docks in 1988. Using anything from a dead shark in a tankful of formaldehyde to a rumpled, dirty bed, the so-called Young British Artists soon furnished themselves with a reputation stretching far beyond the limits of the art world.

Some of these artists became even more celebrated than their work, and a burgeoning public interest in contemporary art helped to persuade the government of the need, at last, for a fully fledged museum of modern art in London. When Tate Modern opened in 2000, its popularity outstripped all expectations with stunning speed. It now attracts more than four million visitors a year, and has become far more popular than its most prominent rivals in Paris and New York. Its prodigious success has bred such confidence that the Tate Group now wants to erect another museum, on the south side of the existing gallery. Intended for completion in time for the London Olympics in 2012, this £165m building will transform the Tate's ability to display the ever more space-hungry work produced by artists today.

In sum, they lack nothing in gallery space, potential buyers and public attention. So why are members of the upcoming generation so slow to give 21st-century art its own, sharply defined identity? Partly, perhaps, they feel inhibited by the long, expensive shadows cast by Hirst and his most successful contem poraries. Confronted by their colossal celebrity status, and the multimillion-pound prices they command, any newcomer must imagine that it is impossible to vie with, let alone surpass, fame on such a daunting scale.

I also suspect that emerging artistic talents still feel beleaguered, not to say bewildered, by the hugely troubled character of the times we live in. All our millennial hopes were confounded, within a year, by a terrorist atrocity on a hitherto inconceivable scale. The threat shows no sign of diminishing, and may even become a great deal more widespread over the years ahead. Perhaps young artists, like everyone else, are still struggling to come to terms with this protracted nightmare. But I have no doubt that, when their work finally coalesces, it will be darkened by the trauma of the world crisis affecting us all.

"Michael Craig-Martin" by Richard Cork is published on 9 October by Thames & Hudson (£35). The artist will be in conversation with Richard Cork at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 on 16 October at 6.30pm. For more details/bookings call: 020 7887 8888