“Screaming head” 2006
Because art has now become viewed as a progressive and loosely ‘intellectual’ practice, where new methods and media of expression are a pre-requisite to it being considered as serious, young student artists have tended to work in any medium except those that have a traditional craft base. This is not a new development and this ideology has become so ingrained into the art education/production/market system that it has further reinforced itself over the last forty or so years.
It has now been possible to produce art of critical acclaim that involves ideas as diverse as tinned shit (Piero Manzini), wrapping an existing canonical art object in string (Cornelia Parker), a gallery light repeatedly switching on and off (Martin Creed), accumulations and presentations of ‘found objects’ (Marcel Duchamp), textual descriptions about art (Art and Language); to the point now where it is fully accepted within the public mind that art can be, and now indeed is, absolutely anything. However, the key ingredient in successfully establishing these works as accredited ‘art’ is not the art work itself or its reception in the public sphere. Invariably the success is manufactured through either the intellectual theorising that underlies the work, or more commonly, the intellectual theorising that arises critically after the display of the work.
This critical response is the key manufacturer of the current stasis in the methodologies of contemporary art production and the important thing to understand is that this critical response is neither independent nor disinterested. Despite their protestations to the contrary the critical elite are feted and indulged to deliver a positive and exclusive account of contemporary art that matches an equally exclusive market controlling and feeding an art collecting oligarchy. This is maintained by an exclusive and limited core of galleries who are in the main just like any other wealthy businesses. It is this reality that is frequently displaced for an assumption that their owners must have a peculiarly prescient critical eye. As with any other business that is essentially a shop front for extremely exclusive and expensive luxury items they feed a market that is driven by an incessant necessity for the fashionably new as a substitute for absolute exclusivity.
A gallery with this peculiarly wealthy collecting base will trawl a few, safely established ‘radical’, colleges for any apparently new idea, regardless of its merit aesthetically or intellectually. To support this new find a critical treatise will be formulated that uses an intentionally obscure combination of ambiguous art clichés and references to previously established safe canonical artist’s work.
Then the art machine is initiated. First the artist is flattered with inclusion in commercial exhibitions with the established gallery artists to add critical weight by association. Then, after a while, the eventual ‘long-anticipated’ solo show, first displayed through a private exclusive show of the wealthiest and most predictably acquisitive collectors. If the work has not actually sold then it is not unknown for the mystical red dots to appear anyway, to create the impression of a potential lost opportunity to other buyers. At some point following this auction houses will also be manipulated (neither are the auction houses themselves innocently unaware) and will take bids, sometimes openly, from the gallery owners themselves – needless to say this is solely a purchase on behalf of a third party that was unable to attend (or mysteriously never bought directly from the gallery earlier) and it is only a side benefit that it raises the market value of the artist. One other key ingredient, at the most prestigious end of the market, is to arrange for the kindly donation of a significantly expensive piece of work to be donated to an equally significant national, public collection. This of course instantly raises the value of the remaining stock of that artist’s work still in gallery storage, including those pieces previously assigned red dots without an actual purchaser.
The artists are happy because they can afford to live and work without having to resort to that uncivilised dead-end of taking a ‘real’ job. The collectors are happy because they have not only acquired a degree of one-upmanship amongst their peers (who may still be collecting last year’s name), but they have work that will have a cultural stamp of quality and may even (should they be fortunate enough to repeat the exercise over a sustained period of time) have their name forever associated in history as a connoisseur of their time. The galleries are happy too, for not only are they making the money, they are instantly assigned a historical, cultural kudos that follows no other shop keeper.
Throughout the process, this select band of galleries will invite critics to the most exclusive opening nights, to meet the wealthiest patrons and arrange the introductions to those creating the most ‘relevant’ work. And unlike a thousand other exhibitions of unknown artists, in even adjacent galleries, those critics will attend; for fear they are struck from the list of those driving the cultural Zeitgeist. They can then take this air of being on the inside of an exclusive world to their commissioning editors, justifying their positions as the arbiters and reporters of national cultural taste.
This situation is not necessarily wrong, it’s just the way it is. Also it is not a new affliction or even particularly hidden. It is very likely the last legal unregulated market place left in the world, probably because, at this level, it deals with that strangely intoxicating and unreal notion of national cultural identity.
However, despite their own consideration of importance within this system, in general the art critics do not deem what is artistically worthwhile; why should they bite the hand that feeds the machine?
Neither do the artists; they just work at, and after, college in the hope that they will be ‘discovered’. Perhaps there will be the occasional student who will attempt to engineer their work to meet where they hope the future art market will be, and the lucky few who will naturally meet it by accident. But most will just be ignored. Very occasionally there will be an artist who can use the mechanics of the market, perhaps through a fortuitous meeting of a relevant contact, to launch themselves into this rarefied environment; they are the exception.
The general art buying audience has little input into who achieves artistic recognition in the high-art stakes. The small audience that constitutes the greater mass of significant spending are led to their trough. Clearly this is the safest route otherwise they would be risking not only their potential returns but perhaps even their capital (and at this level art is a most significant investment), not to mention their credentials of impeccable cultural taste.
The true taste-makers are the small circle of gallery owners that choose the new art at source, and they choose to primarily feed a market that, like all modern markets in non-essential goods, needs novelty.
I suspect that we cannot put this genie of novelty and shock-tactic art back into its bottle unless we change not only the art market, but the economic system that has brought such a wider buying public into the potential of affording non-essential, luxury items. When the luxury item exists and it is used by its purchaser as a supposed mark of exclusive superiority in taste amongst peers then there will always be a need by another collector to have the next, the better, the more expensive, the more exclusive, the stranger. The current elite-gallery system is the natural provider for that commodity in such a system.