By Peter Dobey
September 27, 2013
Judging by the discussions in the British press this week, it would seem more people are beginning to openly acknowledge just how much the viewing and making of art is being determined by people who have little interest in creative exploration and freedom of expression or even the authentic appreciation of art. As art becomes both mainstream and more obtuse simultaneously, the general public is feeling even more alienated and bored by museums, and it seems that people in the art community are starting to feel their pain. Poignantly, three voices connected to the British art community very publicly directed attacks at the leaders of the art world, accusing them of steering the direction of art away from public awareness and the primacy of the artist and towards a self-serving esotericism.
Speaking last Wednesday at London’s Tate Modern, Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry kicked off the 2013 BBC 4 Reith lecture series with a rousing analysis of art’s interaction with society, it’s move into the mainstream spotlight, and a refreshingly open take-down of the art world and the “metaphysical seasickness” one gets when listening to many of its members speak, especially when they tell you what to think. He is both the first cross-dresser and the first visual artist to deliver the prestigious broadcast series and has dubbed his rendition “playing to the gallery”, a fun spin on a phrase that in common usage would describe the exact opposite of the art world’s characteristically deceiving ethics. His main aim is to give a sense of dignity to a general public that often feels their opinions are snubbed by the elitist art community (they are) and to give an informative look at how the status of art works get established as such within the community that bestows this status. A driving theme is the tension between artistic integrity and public visibility, how an artist gets recognized as one by their peers, and further down the line, how art is entwined with money, hype and the obnoxious art speak that has infiltrated it’s world. The BBC press announcement back in July quoted Perry as saying “The words and the money associated with contemporary art also need examining. I want to talk about my ambivalent relationship with the art world, how I am profoundly grateful to it, yet struggle not to be a curmudgeon or a cynic. In short, I want to talk about what it is like to be an artist, here, now.”
In his first lecture, entitled “Democracy Has Bad Taste”, alluding to the presumptions the collector class has about the populace, Perry admitted to appreciating only a very small amount of contemporary art, deeming most of it “rubbish” that doesn’t necessarily need to be looked at as art just because the art world has said that anything can be treated that way. He pointed out that art world pundits foster the exclusion of the middle class from its realm, and rather than educate, intensify the degree of difficulty for the general public to understand art, lest it turns out the public might actually have something to say about art themselves that differs from what the elitist art chieftains desire to say for them.
In her intuitively acute report on the lecture for the Guardian, Deborah Orr proposed that Perry indirectly asserted that the art world has ostensibly claimed democratic values to be antithetical to the validation of art, and that it’s intellectual and commercial proprietors, taking aim mainly at collectors and gallerists, make sure this status is upheld to maintain their self-established importance as taste makers and trend setters, calling them the “gatekeepers” of the art world who act as “a formidable cartel” that is dominantly influenced by a cash flow that is perpetuated by arts growing prestige. Orr argues that what’s more nefarious still is how this cartel covertly propagates their own tightly knit art market economies by preaching the virtues of public art display. It is nefarious because while art collectors promote public collections, they are disingenuous about why it’s important for works to be made public. For them, it’s to increase the value of the works in their collections by piggy-backing off of museum driven publicity for artists they collect. By celebrating museums while simultaneously objecting to public understanding of what’s in them, they procure the mystique of exclusivity that is needed to boost their art’s asset value.
On the heels of Orr’s article and Perry’s lecture, former Guardian art writer Waldemar Januszczak took Perry’s argument further with a matter that is absolutely fundamental but greatly overlooked, probably out of fear by artists and collectors alike: the art worlds real problem is the hegemonic rule of curators and the atmosphere they have created. Penning in the Guardian on Monday that the art world should overthrow the real gatekeepers of artistic taste, market value, and now artists themselves – the curators. He rightfully insists that money is not the prime agent of corruption, which has inevitably always been in bed with art, and may be necessary for it to exist, but how curatorial czars have effectively tried to steal the show away from artists. He calls on artists and other members of the art world to revolt in order to bring primacy of importance back to the artist.
Should artists and the public fight for the art world back? Or should they leave it to those who hold its keys?