Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Artists are a moany bunch of bastards

Glenn Ligon's "controverso-neon" (barf) Warm Broad Glow II
Artists are a moany bunch of bastards.

Let me qualify that.

I don't mean all artists, obviously, but certainly those in the room for the panel discussion on art fairs at Sluice last weekend. To be fair, I'd been taken ill with a nasty flu on Friday evening and was drugged up to high hell, not really in the mood for moaning. What I was in the mood for was an articulate, engaging and inspiring discussion on the forward momentum of a new generation of artists doing things differently from the money-grabbing status-obsessed bastards that came before them. Ostensibly the panel debate was intended to be a discussion about the nature of art fairs. I assumed that because of the emergence of other far more interesting art fairs - Sunday, the sadly now defunct Zoo, and Sluice – Frieze would have lost its cache with the up-and-coming art set, but nope, Frieze still seems to represent the nucleus of the art world’s achievements to many in the room.

I don't want to go blowing my own trumpet, but if there's one thing I believe in, especially as a writer and curator, it’s that supporting one’s peer group is of paramount importance. The people around me, coming up with me (and we’re still working out how we define what “coming up” means), supporting me and vice versa – these are the people whose opinions I care about, not the old cranks exhibiting at Frieze or the entrenched critic writing about Frieze week in the Telegraph. My peers aren’t necessarily interested in the same answers as me but they’re interested in the same questions and these questions are not, "how can I be rich, famous and hanging with the YBAs at the Frieze hyper-exclusive preview breakfast" or "how can I be rich, famous and designing buildings that are exact replicas of my own face". The questions we’re asking are more to do with how can we rewrite the status quo, not try to become part of it.

That's why I was so excited about Sluice Art Fair. In the week when the eyes of the international art world were focused on London, two guys decided to do something a little bit different. They set up their own art fair that wasn’t really an art fair during the self-same week everyone would be in town for the granddaddy of art fairs in order to capitalize on traffic and press coverage (who says you can’t be different and savvy?), but also to comment on the nature of art fairs.*

Some of the art at the Sluice wasn’t to my taste, but I don’t really care about that. From an ideological point of view, Ben and Karl saw something in the art world that they didn’t like and instead of doing what so many artists do and moan about it, they simply started their own art fair. On their terms. Hence, Sluice focused on the galleries - artist-led and not-for-profit – that would never make it (for ideological or financial reasons) into the big art fairs instead of inviting commercial spaces. A success before it even opened, in my book.

Having said that, I appreciate that they organized a panel discussion to situate their own efforts among the broader realm of art fairs more generally. I thought that the panel discussion would be something along the lines of: “Are art fairs essential for today’s practicing artists?” No. “What alternatives are there to the current, though fading thanks to the economy, trend for overblown yet insubstantial art fairs like Frieze etc.?” Plenty, especially the innovative and inspiring alternative models such as Sluice, Deptford X, or unification under the banner of a locale as so many successful Peckham spaces are doing.

And yet, what came out of the discussion panel and comments from the audience was that so many artists who aren’t exhibiting at Frieze or the Venice Biennale – which is the vast majority of practicing artists in this country – don’t wish to challenge and innovate: they simply want to be part of that lofty group of chosen ones making and exhibiting the most embarrassingly ludicrous work the art world has ever seen. They don’t want to define their own measure of success; they’re desperate to be accepted. And that desperation results in petty insecurities that manifest themselves as moaning about what they haven’t got – fame, funding, free flights to every art fair on the planet – instead of getting off their asses and making things happen.

It's depressing how many people in that room appeared more interested in preserving the status quo - in the hope of being part of it - via passive, though pessimistic, acceptance. I can't say that I'm not interested in the "establishment" because it's one barometer against which I occasionally measure my own work (critically analyze), but also because some establishment figures are interesting (e.g. Cy Twombly, muf architects, Dave Hickey, Anthony McCall). My peer group – at least some of them - are demonstrating that it’s possible to make it to the inside, while simultaneously re-defining what being on the inside actually means, so that if (inevitably when) we do become the establishment, I like to think we'll hold on to our inherent optimism and our outsider attitudes when it comes to our work, getting things done and supporting each other, as well as those coming in behind us.

These artists seem so desperate for recognition that many don’t realize that they’re being exploited in order to perpetuate a fundamentally flawed system. I mean when it gets to the stage where some chancer tries to sell a speedboat at Frieze on a two-tier price structure, as art and as a boat, you can tell that conceptual artists can’t see beyond the one-trick pony. But maybe my generation is still in thrall to Warhol. Maybe fame and fortune at any cost is still what a lot of artists truly crave. But for every artist with a speedboat and nothing to say, there are people like Ben and Karl (Cf Holly from Art Licks, Tom Chivers from Penned in the Margins, Victoria Browne from Kaleid Editions, Trenton and Deepa from This is Not a Gateway, Nicola Read from the 815 Agency, Guy and Tom from Son Gallery in Peckham, my own work with SALON (LONDON), the guys over at The Bunhouse, Blanch and Shock, among so many others) who are getting on with the business of making art while asking serious questions about how to remake the art business.

*The opening essay to the Sluice catalogue says that Sluice, “isn’t a critique or a survey, but a modest proposal”. A modest proposal indeed.


Cathy said...

yes there did seem to be a little too much negative moan-y stuff going on in the room. I always think that this is something to be avoided at all costs. Maybe my contribution to the panel wasn't as on the ball as it should have been but I have posted some extra stuff on my blog and Transition Gallery has been trying to do things in a different way since 2002 (and we are still doing our own thing, collaborating with a huge list of artists and organisations) despite the odds being stacked against us in so many ways.

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