October 21st, 2005


Contemporary art: "confidence trick" or "necessary anomaly"?

The Frieze Art Fair opens in London's Regents Park today and runs until Monday. A day pass will cost you £15, which makes it more expensive to visit than the Venice Biennale (€15), despite significant subsidy from Deutsche Bank. Unlike the Venice Biennale, the Frieze is a commercial art fair, and uncurated (although I believe there is some complex backdoor curation system by which curators nominate galleries, and there are talks, like the one in the photo below, a presentation by Austrian artists Gelatin at the 2003 fair). In other words, it's a lot of tented booths in which individual galleries and dealers are trying to sell their wares and make industry contacts, a bit like the Frankfurt Book Fair (which continues until Sunday).

The Guardian has two pieces on contemporary art in today's edition. One covers the Frieze fair, focusing very much on investment opportunities, and telling us that the fair is "an indicator of how the arts scene in Britain has been commercialised along American and European lines. Fifteen years ago, there were only about five commercial galleries dealing in contemporary art in London. Now there are 10 times as many." I find that very hard to believe; I lived in London 15 years ago, and there seemed to be five commercial contemporary galleries on Cork Street alone. I suppose it depends how narrowly you define "contemporary". But it's certainly true that art has boomed in Britain in an amazing way in the last decade. In fact, when I came back to London from Paris in 1997, contemporary art seemed like the only reason to be back. I certainly wasn't coming back to enjoy the rat's tail of Britpop; whatever polemicists like Julian Stallabrass were saying in books like High Art Lite, the British art world's warmed-up pop art, minimalist and conceptual tropes were, to me at least, fresher than Britpop's warmed-up Kinks and T.Rex riffs.

It's nice to see The Guardian devoting more space to contemporary art, and it seems appropriate in a nation in which more people now attend culture events than see live professional sports. But much of the coverage, even in supposedly liberal papers like The Guardian, still has a depressingly anti-art tone to it, reminding us exactly why it took Britain so long to catch its artworld up with Europe and the USA. A particularly fusty note is struck by political correspondent Simon Jenkins in the other art-related article today, Skip the secular rituals of the Turner Prize for a real radical. This article is weird in a lot of ways. First of all, why unleash a political correspondent on art exhibitions in the first place? Does The Guardian send their wine correspondent to cover boxing matches? Secondly, why send an outsider to bash somebody else's domain? Does the education correspondent get sent to the City to bash the stock market? Thirdly, that title: skip secularism? What, you mean become religious? Is Simon Jenkins telling politicians to skip secularism too? Of course not! So why's he suggesting it in his amateur arts coverage?

Unfortunately, there's quite a tradition of this kind of thing in the British papers, and it's usually related to the Turner Prize, which makes a lot of people who aren't directly concerned with the art world angry because they have to pay attention to it. A few years ago The Observer sent the BBC's political editor Andrew Marr to review the Turner show, and got a piece in which Marr told the world he "hated" the contemporary art audience. "They are in their twenties, probably lovers, certainly unmarried," he stereotyped (with a somewhat weird interest in marital status). "He wears a thin grey jersey and leather trousers, with carefully maintained stubble and wraparound shades, despite the dim light. She is Japanese, dressed in a bright plastic jacket, child colours, unsmiling. They are standing among a scattering of domestic electric detritus on a polished floor. They exchange a look, impossible to interpret. The man mutters and they move on, glancing at a book he holds... All around there are people like them, all part of a modern tribe, a vast nomadic group, mostly young, urban, clever, a little intimidating, given to expensive hodden clothes and rimless glasses." Kick these people out of the art galleries, Marr concluded, and let's fill them up with "the rest of us" (meaning, presumably, some alliance of public school Oxbridge types like himself and "the masses").

Jenkins is in a venerable English tradition that links Tony Hancock's art satire The Rebel with the values of the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. He loves Samuel Palmer's paintings (currently on display at the British Museum) but says "I do not share Palmer's religious vision or his reactionary politics. His opposition to the 1832 Reform Act and his view that England should revert to a medieval idyll of rustic shepherds, toiling farmers and fruitful hillsides was silly." Palmer's idyll would, of course, reverse economic growth, so Jenkins' head tells him it's "silly". But, like a suburbanite who wants to live in the country but still be able to catch the 8 o'clock train to the City, he keeps the Romantic vision in his heart.

Today, though, that distinction between heart and head is unsustainable: artists have a deplorable tendency to realism. "Artists no longer create," Jenkins complains, "but "raise issues round..."; they "ask questions about modern consumerism" and "concern themselves within the encounter between viewer and work." This week a bicycle with a rocket taped to its wheel "caught the attention of the judges". A contestant does not paint but "interrogates". This distancing of art from the public is sure sign of a culture that has lost its way." Jenkins laments the fact that Jim Lambie's Turner installation (my tip for the prize) will go into a skip when it's finished. (The other article, the one about art as a mere investment in objects which can sometimes triple their value in a year, might alert Jenkins to why such uncollectability is a virtue in art. But he'd probably agree with the art-as-investment man from Deutsche Bank, who says that non-material art is a 70s phenomenon, and that its artists are forgotten.... Isn't he aware that Joseph Beuys—a performance artist—is generally considered Germany's most important post-war artist?)

Jenkins calls the Turner event "one of the greatest confidence tricks in history". Tate director Nick Serota (one of the most hated men in Britain, if you read the UK newspapers, and yet responsible for the huge success of Tate Modern) gets away with this, Jenkins tells us, only because he has his hand "rammed deep enough in the taxpayer's pocket." Implication: the market would sort him out, and erase all this silly "art" stuff quickly enough.

Jenkins might well be right about that: curator Philippe Vergne says, in an interview with Eyeteeth:

"Art provides a social contract—with audiences, with artists, with content, whether it’s coming from visual art or music or philosophy or films—that doesn’t find an obvious channel in everyday life. An art center provides a venue for something that won’t be on television, won’t be carried by major music distributors. Look at [Ellsworth] Kelly’s work. It’s tough. What justifies Kelly in a culture informed by the market, by entertainment, by a logic of efficiency? You have to work on that, you have to create an ideal space to promote and support that... What justifies Ellsworth Kelly or Matthew Barney or Kara Walker, or artists in general, is that they’re anomalies in a culture run by Cartesian logic — therefore, they are absolutely necessary. They create the unnameable, and if you don’t make a place for it, the coefficient of civilization goes down."