Argument: The corruption that infects the art world is not one of the heart, but one of control. The liberal condition has become one that hides decision making and takes constructive criticism as an attack. The malaise in the community arises from accepting that, because there are more choices and more artists, the culture is necessarily healthy, inclusive, diverse and meritorious. In fact the opposite is true.
The career paths in the art world are, for several reasons, rigged against community artists to such an extent that to be a community artist is to be a loser, even when one sells to the local, art loving buyers. For selling in and of itself is not success, it is who you sell to that matters for your future as an artist. You can retreat into your own creativity and purity of your unique expression but you delude yourself if you think you are being an artist. Once something is created it belongs to the world – and individual artists should wonder why the world isn’t being told about them. It cannot be because they are not artists. The reasons the system is rigged are almost banal – they are the same reasons that corrupt every system humanity creates: personal vanity, private wealth and the search for status amongst one’s peers.
“Behind the artist in the act of creation stands the collector. His piggish eyes are gleaming, and his right hand firmly clutches the bulging money bag at his belt.Greed, as the 16th century drawing ‘The Painter and the Connoisseur’ by Bruegel makes clear, has always been a part of the world in which art is made. But the dizzying expansion of the world art market over the past five years has created hothouse conditions for the growth of speculative collecting, and many of the old illusions are being crowded out by the new jungle-style trade.” (Jane Addams Allen: Speculating; A Fine Art March 1986).
The Academies fell because they dictated to the nations what art was, based on a graded scale, and completely failed to recognise the possibility that there was art being made outside of their definition. Art that was better. To be fair, the first exhibitions of the Impressionists did include several Academic works so there were painters who recognised the sensibility, dynamism and skill in the new works. But in the main, it would have been impossible for the Academies to have encompassed a Picasso, let alone the realities he dealt with in his Dada, Cubist, Symbolist and Surrealist excursions.
However, while they lasted, the Academies ruled their art world and what they said was art, was art. The four stages of art, like badges in the Scouts, were the proven ranges of skills requisite to be known as an artist. They did not wholly fall by the wayside when photography began to gain ground. Those who did not engage in photography did not accept the photograph as an art form while those that did, championed it as an art form from the beginning. But systems have a tendency to make people within them myopic. And today, people living inside the creative world of self-expression and exploration, have a tendency to believe they are necessarily free and unconfined. They are not. They are defined by the arguments that define the cultural system in which they work. Every cultural system that has ever existed has come to a stage where it needs to be broken. Why? Because human thoughts evolve and with them, creativity itself and while human beings have tried valiantly to destroy each other, artists have produced from the blood-soaked soils the only thing peace ever gives us: the tranquility to think.
Today, in the wake of a hundred and fifty years of art history charting the fall of the Academies and the rise of ‘just about everything else’, we have the endless worship of the ‘new’, the machine-made ready-made, installations and conceptualism so rampant that art critics like Waldemar Januszczak can say we are all intrigued by the Turner Prize. Really? All? I know he feels he founded the Turner Prize in its incarnation with Serota and Channel 4, but he doesn’t speak for the nation, just the urban nation and even then, not all of the cosmopolitans spend their afternoons in any of the Tates. Not because they don’t like the objects on display as much as they find their art outside the diktats of that new Academy; the Arts Council. That Government quango which defines what art is and who is an artist with every grant it gives to the visual arts.
The Arts Council became the new Academy the moment it started to fund buildings and then to grant aid those who filled them with the Government’s liberal agenda: inclusivity, gender-blind relevance, diversity, audience development, etc., even to the point that they have an ‘Exceptional Talent’ category. (The only reason we have an Arts Council is because no critical eye exists that can determine the best talent in any generation. The William Hazlitt’s of the country are few). These are the mantra’s of anyone who is not an artist. Artists are exclusive thinkers waiting for the generation that will accept their ground-breaking cultural analysis. Artists are thinkers who speak through their work of a world that is not yet born. Unyielding critics of the established where it leaves communities and people behind – which has always been the political inheritance of the status quo. Artists are philosophers beyond philosophising on the metaphysical because they deal with the relationship we have with objects, with each other, with nature, with the joy dug out of the pain of living. They teach us about space, how to interpret shared experiences, the coinage of insight and the heat of constructive criticism. The creative spirit understands frustration and knows anger and the endless drivel of liberal consensus, teaching by being led by the student, gearing all learning towards prostituting one’s talent to the highest bidders is not the way of the artist. It is the way of the ‘creative’.
The Arts Council, working as the new Academy, is only interested in what brings in the audiences. That is why art has been infected with the narrow vision of being ‘new’ with no pretensions of being universal; of being controversial with no appetite to talk to generations to come; of being marketable to a ‘whatever next’ syndrome with no attempt to delve deeper than the surface statement, the casual observation or the deconstruction of skill into the clever joke, affected sex, practice pieces put out as the finished work and so forth. It debases language itself and had led us to the brazen denial of facts, to marketing as an end in itself, to celebrity actually being an aim for an artist. There was a time when an artist, finding their creative tour-de-force, lost themselves because they became part of the conscience of the human race. A place of personal sacrifice to keep alive the collective hope that we can do much better than we do, as society and as individuals.
No artist of worth ever created anything saying ‘I must make this relevant to Blacks and Whites’ because the very premise is absurd to them. Politics, not art, defines differences that have all the relevance of Platonic ‘attributes’ – in other words they do not get to the heart of true definition; they are merely passing references. No matter the colour we are all human beings, no matter the disability we are all thinkers, no matter the gender we all share life. Artists pointed out the ludicrous nature of anti-Semitism five hundred years before the United Nations Human Rights Charter (The Merchant of Venice), and two hundred years before the founding Fathers of America artists railed against anti-black racism (Othello). Who can forget Iago’s final silence when asked why he betrayed his commander. The silence of the bigot who does not wish to be defined as a bigot. The Romantic Poets of the eighteenth century scorned chauvinism. None of these artists was liberal, what they were was liberated in their minds. What they were was elite.
In our heavily controlled Arts Council world we have decisions taken with no sharing of the reasoning behind the decisions. Recently the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol lost its Portfolio status. So cowed are they, they would not share with the NAE the reasons given for this loss. The Newlyn / Orion was granted another four years secure funding (what Portfolio Status means amongst other things) and the only difference between the two, on the surface of it, is that Newlyn comes with a name that reaches into art history, The Newlyn School and that name confers a status. And who benefits from that status? The artists? We cannot draw that conclusion. We know Nicholas Serota is involved in both, and the Tate St Ives and Newlyn have an interest in CAST in which Teresa Gleadowe (Serota’s second wife) sits as a trustee, as does Karen Townshend who runs the high end retreat at Kestle Barton, also in Cornwall. We also know the Arts Council gave CAST £500,000 before Serota became its Director, therefore avoiding conflict of interest by two years as he is a CAST Board member. While he sits as Board member on the BBC and Teresa sits as a Trustee on Art Monthly. We begin to see how the Arnolfini might not fit into the picture, but we can only speculate about the land-grab going on in Cornwall.
Curators like James Green at the Newlyn Exchange do nothing but play the game they are told to play and win favour because, by so doing, money flows from the Arts Council into Cornwall. Yet they will corruptly deal with those outside their system, such as the NAE, which is a magazine of discussion, a champion of free speech . Free speech, which, we were told in December 2017, is the keystone of university education by none other than Jo Johnson minister for Education in May’s Government. The rules for higher education do not apply to the art world ruled by the Arts Council. Equally the NAE is banned from the Exchange Gallery by James Green and from the Newlyn / Orion over which he holds sway and, in a strange twist, by Penlee House in Penzance where the curator was very favourable to our Publisher Derek Guthrie who knows about the Newlyn School. But the idea of inviting him to lecture vanished overnight and the only reason we can see is that the curator at Penlee House is James Green’s wife. Is this how manager’s treat constructive criticism? How they treat a magazine filled with writers whose knowledge of the modern art world is second to none? Publishing to an international readership from their doorstep. We can but speculate.
It is this lack of transparency that fools community artists into thinking they, too, have a chance to be exhibited and make a name for themselves. That the autodidact can still shine through on their own merits, yet none do. They are chosen. The reasons they are chosen are not shared, all we know for certain is that across the Western world right now everything is art and therefore it is not the art object itself that is important. It is its message. And that message, being always ‘new’ has a short shelf life for nothing is ‘new’ for very long. And what is ‘politically correct’ has nothing but a constrictive effect upon the creative instincts for it engenders a climate of fear. There is absolutely nothing one can say that does not offend someone. Not to offend is impossible. Liberal opinion itself offends far right thinkers and the moment liberal thinkers decide they should not do that, we are all lost. And this administrative control attempts to be absolute. In order to gain the status conferred upon them by administering the Newlyn Gallery, Green sought and attained, the ousting of the Newlyn Society of Artists from their own gallery. And what did the Society do? They looked for a new home. Artists who don’t fight are not artists.
Curators do not go out looking for new artists, look at the Jo Clarke interview in this issue about Susan Daniel McElroy and the Art Now Cornwall Exhibition in the St Ives Tate.
“The exhibition, publication and education programme aim to discuss the major themes that are emerging from artists’ practice in the region and how they relate to the wider context of artists’ practice in the UK. Some trajectories that appear in the exhibition link to various artistic strategies such as Surrealism, appropriation, formalism, interpretation, nostalgia, childhood memories, play and narration, amongst others. Certain works were selected in relation to the gallery space or because of particular formal associations between them, but in all cases new and often surprising dialogues begin to emerge. “ Art Now Cornwall 2007.
All newspeak. Curators get invited along with Trustees and collectors, to select shows in select art colleges. They get invited to those galleries that are in a circuit of the knowing. Doesn’t everyone want to be in that circuit? Entranced by the money to be made, the status to be conferred, the exhibitions to be given? Well no, not everyone does. The community artist does their own thing, looks for their own exhibiting galleries, breaks away from the controlling institutions and immediately makes themselves irrelevant to all but those who find out about them. Social Media helps get some of the message out there but there are millions of artists in the world and serious critics do not derive understanding of art objects from digital images. Without the marketing expertise, paid for by patrons, the community artist stands zero chance of being known to a wide audience.
Unless they make a controversial splash. So this is where we are today. Millions of artists practising, exhibiting everywhere they can, in exhibitions run on a shoe-string or funded by patrons like the Art Council. Everyone is an artist, everyone has a chance, no one can say negative things about the art and be invited to select gatherings – and what is the result of shutting down cultural thinkers? We have the rise of overt fascism in the Western World. My challenge is to say this is because the artist has not been doing their job. But perhaps it is better to say the artist has not been allowed to do their job. They have had to cow-tow to that patron The Arts Council, the political lackey of politicians whose whims are seen to change with every newspaper headline.
We are living in a new era of control and when art history is written those inside this controlled system will not be relevant. Art history will look to those working outside of the chains of conforming-to-values so diffuse they cease to be values, and if you think this is mistaken, write to us and tell us where the greatness lies. Our challenge to every reader – prove us wrong.
Daniel is the European Editor of the New Art Examiner email@example.com
Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 pp 8-11