Rhapsodising about Kapoor's impressive but deeply conventional sculptures reveals how little we understand about contemporary art
Anish Kapoor's colonisation of British public space continues. Today in Middlesbrough he unveiled Temenos, a huge web of steel wires slung between two giant hoops – the first of five grandly scaled sculptures he is to create in the north-east. At the same time, he is of course very much in the news for his winning bid to design a monumental viewing tower for the London Olympics. As the success, fame and apparent popularity of this artist continue to grow, is there still room for a dissident voice?
They say you never forget the passions of your youth – a truth revealed by the Father's Day displays of Joy Division albums that appear in record shops at this time of year – but I think you never forget what once bored you, either. Or at least I can't. That is why I'm fated to be the moaning spectre at the feast of Anish Kapoor's fame.
My problem is that, as a student, I saw Kapoor's early work in an exhibition at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge: simple forms decorated with brilliantly coloured pigments. They weren't bad, but they didn't mean very much to me. At the time my favourite contemporary artist was Steve Bell, whose cartoons in the Guardian mattered because they were about Thatcher's Britain, where we unfortunately lived. Aside from that, I was reading novelists like Alasdair Gray and Martin Amis. But contemporary British art? It seemed very cosy and safe.
In 1992, I walked into the Saatchi gallery and saw a tiger shark swimming towards me through a tank of formaldehyde. For the first time, a living British artist had me by the short and curlies. I am the same age as Damien Hirst and he spoke to me of my life, my feelings, my world – where that of Kapoor had glided past without moving me at all.
Here we are, two decades on, and Kapoor has successfully got his red, horn-shaped surfboard onto the wave Hirst created. While critics now deplore Hirst, we're scared to say anything bad about Kapoor for fear of alienating his many fans. But the truth is that Anish Kapoor is a very ordinary, conventional artist – an art teacher's idea of a radical. His art exhibits a colossal lack of anxiety about its own value, indeed about art's value. He's the artistic equivalent of the first-class honours student who gets a top job straight from uni and never looks back – the artist as an establishment man.
His sculptures do not frighten the horses. They are essentially decorative, often gorgeously so, but they lack all profundity. Compare his use of colour with Mark Rothko's purple murals in the Tate Modern and you will see the difference between Kapoor and a great artist.
The British have discovered modern art, but do we actually have any sense of what modern art is or what it can be – its true danger, bite and depth? The lesson of Anish Kapoor's triumph is that we are still, at heart, a deeply uncool nation.
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