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The best (and worst) exhibitions of 2018: When did artists become so bland and boring?

Detail of Picasso's The Mirror, a highlight of Tate Modern's exhibition Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy
Detail of Picasso's The Mirror, a highlight of Tate Modern's exhibition Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy Credit: Bridgeman

Where have all the artists gone? I'm not talking about a lack in numbers. Art has become a growth industry everywhere from China to the Middle East to Latin America; there are arguably more artists now than there have ever been. But the idea of the artist with a capital A, as a larger-than-life character who leads the rest of us into radical new territory, seems to have gone out the window.

Never mind the Renaissance, in which that figure of the heroic artist emerged. Even the YBA-era of the early 2000s, when Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin were all over the tabloids with their dead sharks and unmade beds, feels like a different reality altogether. The artist of today is an oddly colourless creature who seems intent on writing him- or herself out of the picture – in every sense.

The Barbican's Modern Couples exhibition (which opened in October) provided historical context for this trend by offering a retelling of the story of modern art in which those who seem to me to be little more than helpmeets and washer-uppers are accorded parity with the "great artists" or "geniuses" with whom they worked – terms which, in 2018's cultural landscape, feel not just passé, but pernicious. Genuine creative partnerships of the Hepworth-Nicholson or Rivera-Kahlo ilk contrasted with relationships such as that of photographer Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, in which the artistic contribution of the lesser-known partner was barely perceptible.

The Turner Prize offered – at least according to the judges – its "most political" shortlist to date. The finalists duly tackled timely themes, from the migration crisis to state terrorism. Yet the over-riding tone of the works – all of which were on film – was wistful and detached, meandering and navel-gazing.

The exception was the favourite to win, Forensic Architecture, which presented an inquiry into killings in a Palestinian village. Now, Forensic Architecture isn't a group of professional artists – it's a band of researchers, architects, software developers and lawyers, based at Goldsmiths College in London. They use cutting-edge technology to solve crimes committed by the state. But is that art, or investigative journalism?

For me, the prospect of Britain's biggest art award being handed to a faceless collective of non-artists (for what would have been the second time in four years, following the 2015 victory for architects Assemble) was like watching art put itself into voluntary liquidation.

Charlotte Prodger, winner of this year's Turner Prize Credit: PA

Mercifully, the prize went to Charlotte Prodger, a filmmaker from Dorset whose modestly scaled work, an odyssey around the far north of Scotland, shot on an iPhone, reflected on her own coming out. Prodger's film typifies the art of our time, being at once unapologetically difficult – with its long takes and rambling narration – and strangely self-effacing. Like something one might post on Facebook, it seems to espouse, perhaps not entirely deliberately, the social media ethos that everyone's experiences are equally valid.

At Tate Modern, the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera took this new equality between artist and audience to absurd lengths, handing much of the responsibility for coming up with an idea for her Turbine Hall commission to a group of local "activists" calling themselves Tate Neighbours. Centring on a gigantic portrait on the hall floor, of a Syrian immigrant – which would only be revealed through "collective action" when enough visitors rolled on its heat-sensitive surface simultaneously – this felt like art custom-made for Generation Snowflake, parading its politically correct aspirations to its target audience. It may have wanted to "include" everyone and "offend" nobody, but it offended me by being bland, unambitious and silly.

New technology, meanwhile, has also allowed the artist to become a sort of programmer, an intermediary between the art and the viewer rather than a creator in the traditional sense, whose digitally enabled work develops in the gallery, changing its character independently of the artist. This approach has been gaining ground for a couple of years, but in 2018 it was suddenly everywhere: from Cerith Wyn Evans's Hepworth Prize-winning Composition for 37 Flutes, a sun-like arrangement of glass flutes that was effectively "played" by the building's ventilation system; to the French artist Pierre Huyghe's digital "ecosystem" at the Serpentine, in which a barrage of images was beamed live into the gallery, via an MRI scanner, from a man's brain in Tokyo. The latter, particularly, gave a welcome sense of going somewhere art hasn't been before.

Yet, despite these apparent shifts in the relationship between artist and viewer, the most well-attended exhibitions of the year – those that people actually paid to see – showed there was no shortage of enthusiasm for art by old-school, megalomaniac geniuses, most of them male. The show of the year, by common consent, was Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy at Tate Modern. Drawn entirely from the Spaniard's output from a single year – when the greatest artist of the 20th century was grappling with the challenge of surrealism and locked in an intense affair with the much-younger Marie-Thérèse Walter – this exhibition offered a new, sobering view of his working processes.

Rather than hopping mercurially between styles and ideas, Picasso here seemed intent on reworking a single image – Walter's squirming naked form – over months, until he had crushed the very life out of it. After churning out 30-odd variations on his theme, the artist's obsessive passion came to seem joyless, even depressing, and tallied with the jaded mood of this year.

Auguste Rodin, another great macho titan of art, received a stunning showing in Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece at the British Museum, which pitted some of the 19th-century French sculptor's greatest works against the Parthenon Marbles that had inspired them. Dramatically lit, this was a sculptural showdown with a genuinely epic feel.

Detail of a wall-hanging by Anni Albers Credit: DACS/Werner J Hannappel/The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society

As if to provide a riposte from the other side of the gender divide, Tate Modern continued its series of shows on under-sung 20th-century women (following Sonia Delaunay and Agnes Martin in 2015, for instance) with the Bauhaus weaver Anni Albers. If Albers didn't emerge as the pivotal artist the show claimed, it was refreshing to be reminded – particularly by her series of wall hangings commemorating the Holocaust – that profound visual statements can be made in what are often derided as "craft" media.

But 2018's most surprising popular success was Tate Britain's Edward Burne-Jones exhibition, a show most critics hated, but which, to my mind, oddly suited the year. A little of the Pre-Raphaelite's whey-faced maidens and faux-Arthurian romances goes a long way, but the exhibition cleverly pointed up the modernity of his immersive approach to painting. Retreating into an aesthetic universe of your own invention and pretending grubby reality doesn't exist, as Burne-Jones did, may not be the bravest of responses to a world in turmoil, but when faced with a daily surfeit of Trump and Brexit, it certainly has its attractions.