We're artists not fat cat bank boardroomers!
A collaborative rant by our cultural critic Heston Rufus Gollightly and Alex Chappel from Decima Gallery.
Traditionally, the art world has been something of an elitist world in which to live. What is art (or what is good art) was decided only by those who could afford to buy or commission art works - royalty, heads of state, heads of business and landowners. The class divisions were broadly between those who were with art and those without, while artists themselves were either impoverished, lunatics or on some aristocrat’s payroll in constant fear of being beheaded.
Things have improved through the generations, and today art is something that can be accessed by all, no longer do the higher echelons of society alone decide what is art and what should be made, but through the democratic process of electing statespeople, NGOs, through the advent of mass-reproductions, public gallery spaces and through our mass media and academic institutions, we all potentially get a stab at seeing, owning or making art - and ultimately making the decisions about what art should surround us.
Hidden beneath this liberal veneer however, exists a stark divisive world within the art world itself, a culture which mirrors the wider Conservative dream of a society in which the monied feed off the exploited. There is a winner-takes-all mentality for artists and dealers who “make it”while other, often more talented and interesting artists, fall by the wayside, guilty only of second-guessing the mechanics of the cultural economy, or just simply being unwilling to take part. As the National Lottery slogan tells us, “you have to be in it to win it.” It doesn’t surprise me that dealers are this way: after all, they are the conduit between rich collector and (traditionally) poor idea-haver, so it is necessary to be able to speak the language of capitalism. What surprises me is how whole-heartedly the artists themselves have bought into this world, often making no apologies about pandering to the bling demands of mayfair, not even in irony, but in a shameless attempt to become richer, more powerful, and to further distance themselves from the largely impoverished creative epicentre bubbling below their feet.
So how does this happen? Well let’s take the two most obvious examples: Emin & Hirst. Both children of the YBA boom, their careers since the late 90s have gone galactic, making squillions for themselves and for their dealer Jay Joplin and thrusting them into household name celebrity status. They are amongst the highest-priced artists alive today. But does this make them the best artists? The cleverest? The ones with the greatest business acumen? Sadly no. It doesn’t work like that. Though they are indeed artists with considerable talent, it is through a number of media stunts and partnerships with collectors, dealers and the press, a massive heap of luck, and through enfant-terrible public personalities, these two artists have been nothing more than anointed as the “chosen ones” by no more than a handful of greedy businesspeople.
Everyone likes to be admired and praised for what they do, and the fragile ego of an artist is one cat which loves to be stroked. But when you manipulate the media and then begin to believe your own press, you also begin to believe that you somehow deserve the utterly disproportionate gains gotten from your work. It’s a shame, I always think, that the status quo, the very thing it is these people’s job to question, is nothing more than perpetuated by this star system amongst artists.
Little is written about this, save for the triumphantly fascinated tabloid tattle, unashamedly endorsing the “truism” that the only valid emotion towards the super-rich art kids is envy, while sidestepping any question of interrogating the phenomenon. Gawping at rich peoples’ antics sells lottery tickets, conservatories, world cruises and quilted bogroll, as the masses have something to aspire to, seemingly completely unaware that all this mind-set is really doing is keeping them enslaved so that they carry on working for - and filling the pockets of - the rich.
The only other time we see modern art in the mainstream media, is when we are told to be “outraged” that our taxpayers money has gone into an art piece that Sun-readers can’t get their head round, or a piece that may question the media themselves, or their treatment of stories such as Madeliene McCann, or Mira Hindley, as if any artist that would touch the subject are as good as paedophiles and murderers themselves. Anti-capitalist or anti-sexist discourses are dismissed as sour grapes from those who cannot afford a playboy / it-girl lifestyle. In the meantime, the tacit syphoning off of public funds by private collectors and dealers and ultimately artists themselves continues unabated and unchecked. Money that was ideologically meant to enrich the lives of the great unwashed, ends up shouting the champagne and caviar, yachts and staff, and swelling the private bank accounts of art world royalty.
On the eve of a “major survey” of Damien Hirst to be held during the Olympics at the Tate (sniff sniff? what is that I smell?) the majority of Joplin’s artists have had work bought by such public institutions, with our money,and prominently displayed alongside the greatest masters in history, in order to perpetuate their mythological status in the minds of 9-year old art students and veteran academicians alike: this can only do one thing to the price and saleworthiness of their art.
We’re artists not fat cat bank boardroomers. Of course everyone needs to get paid but you would have thought that artists were the last bastion of hope, and if anyone should be resisting the temptation to strive for glamour, fame, celebrity and riches and instead be sticking to the truth it should be them - apart from anything else it is far more interesting. If anyone doubts it’s possible, look at how thecareers of Bob & Roberta Smith, Mark McGowan, Gavin Turk, Billy Chilish, the Stuckists and Laura Oldfield Ford have gone from strength to strength whilst flying the flag for their varying brands of anarcho-socialism. Even ostensibly commercial galleries such as Residence, George & Jorgen, L-13 Light Industrial Workshop, Vegas or Hales get away with having a heart and a soul while still (apparently) turning a profit. It’s just about having the courage to not be a sheep.
Joplin’s private views sum it up. In the most hilariously blunt illustration of such a divisive approach, openings at the White Cube are far from an exclusive affair, and are generally advertised openly. Everyone is allowed in to see the show. But scratch the surface. Next time you are herded outdoors amongst the oncoming traffic clutching another free bottle of beer in the freezing cold, look up to the third floor at either space, and see the champagne set, quaffing and looking down on us, quite literally from their ivory tower, and dream that one day you will be.... invited. When that day comes, you can leave the rest behind.
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