Monday, 13 March 2017

There's more to art than the art world...

Today I read an interview on Hyperallergenic called 'Goodbye to all that: Why do artists reject the art world?'

'Everyone I know thinks the art world as it's set up now, and as it has evolved over the last half-century, is a deeply flawed system, and these artists [those being discussed in the interview]- diversely, sometimes at self-sacrificing cost and sometimes to their benefit - highlight that fact or call it out. Whereas most of us develop our own variant on "oh well". It's possible that the idea of walking out of this world at all, where there's an unspoken assumption that everyone engaged in cultural work is a de facto lifer, strikes some people as "mad"'.

If this was an academic essay, I could go to town on this question. Who do you mean by 'artists'?; are they all doing the same thing?; which art world are you talking about?, what is 'the' art world? etc etc. There's definitely not one art world, and people use the term to mean many different things.

Here are some of the ones I'm aware of, in hierarchical order... At the top, there are galleries where no-one expects anything to sell; where the host space has already bought the work and put it into a collection and is simply putting it on display. Then there are galleries that sell to big investors, because there's an investment market. Then there are galleries that sell to people who are not necessarily looking for an investment, but which take up space in an expensive part of town and charge very high prices. Then there are galleries which try to represent artists who don't sell in the either of these first two types of gallery, which sell at more reasonable prices. There are also galleries who look primarily for things that will sell to tourists and passersby, who don't try to represent anyone in particular but simply want to find what they can sell the most of. And then are various types of online art site, where anyone can post anything and sell to anyone who finds them on the internet.  All of this could be see as 'the art world', and much more that I haven't mentioned.

However, when people refer to 'the art world' in something like the interview above, they're referring to something a little more specific.  This is what I would call an (albeit highly varied)  establishment art world.  That an establishment art world exists is the first thing that confuses me, because I thought that art was meant to be quite a wide and free kind of thing, existing at least in part to mock and challenge institutions and establishments. But as far as I can see there is definitely an establishment thing going on.

It operates and perpetuates itself through 'top galleries', and also through the institutions we know as art schools/colleges. Where you go to learn how to be a free artist, right? Well, no, actually, not really. Art schools are educational institutions. Whether or not you realise this in your first flush of youthful hope and desire (I'm talking here about people who want to be 'fine artists', which in the past would have meant a painter, or sculptor, but which now means something much wider...), you go to art schools to be schooled.... in some version of the prevailing institutional/establishment views about what 'art', or 'contemporary art practice', is. To learn, amongst many other things, what is allowed and what is not allowed in 'serious art'.

When I went to St Martins, London, in the late 1970s, if you were serious about becoming a painter, there was an unspoken rule which said that you could not go anywhere near the life room, or do any other kind of work 'from life'. The real/proper/serious students all worked on very large canvases, and everything they did was abstract.

More recently, I was interested to see in an article on 'Ten Threshold Concepts In Fine Art' that one of the assumptions of a fine art art education in 2011 was the need to move your students from 'aesthetic to conceptual awareness'. There's nothing unreasonable about this idea, and it's perfectly in line with the aims of 'higher' education.

But let's consider it for a moment. Your students most likely arrive with a love of the aesthetic; a desire, perhaps, to work with colour and paint and line and shape... propelled by a big, unexamined soup of visceral and emotional responses to the world. According to the threshold concepts article, it's your job, as their art school lecturer, to shift them away from the soup that brought them to you and teach them:

' understanding of the creative process as one which requires critical thinking and idea development through research and reflection conducted using a variety of approaches, methods and materials.'

And there's nothing at all wrong with this. It's exactly what some people want. But this statement reflects a particular view, not only of the purpose of higher education (to develop critical thought etc), but of art as a primarily conceptual affair.  No problem, in principle, unless this becomes an orthodoxy. And that is more or less what has happened; the idea that 'the creative process' should be conceptual  is a highly prevalent institutional/ establishment view. I'm not trying to get into a discussion about what art education should or should not be, my point is that there are certain ideas that are acceptable within current institutional/establishment thinking, and certain ideas that are not.

In the context of higher education institutions, and presumably the preoccupations of different forms of conceptual art (both of which are concerned with how you think ), what is often not so acceptable are things associated with the messy feelings and urges of the physical body (and, dare I mention, the yearning spirit?). I don't mean ideas about the body, which can willingly open themselves up for a wee bit of postmodern deconstruction and contestation. I mean the actual, visceral experience of getting messy with paint. The intense, physical yearning to make marks or form symbols, often without knowing why. The sensation of standing in front of a painting and feeling worlds open up inside your chest. That kind of stuff.

When I left art school and started working abroad, I began to discover some new and different purposes and orientations towards colour, and making, and images, and art, to those I had been schooled in.  In India, for example, I saw that a great deal of art was not made for the purposes of self-expression; it was not something that you made because you were special and had a calling; it was often not made to sell, and in many contexts it was produced without a sense of individual ownership, of either the process or the final product. People were making art everywhere, in temples, in cities, in villages, in shops, on roadsides, in the dust, onto cow dung, into mud. It was the same in Bali. Everyone was making things, for all sorts of different purposes. Art in these places was aesthetic, it was narrative, it was symbolic; art was visceral, and it came out of and affected people's bodies, often in the service of things that were not so physical.

Thirty years later, after living and working in Italy, North India, Japan and Australia, I started to paint again. No-one was more surprised than me. Not only that I was painting, but with the images that started to appear.

'It's also the case that nobody begins with a withdrawal [from the art world], or without somehow 'earning' the right to leave

Strangely, I did. I began with a withdrawal.  And though I did almost no work for those thirty years, somehow my connection to image and colour and texture and paint only went to sleep, it didn't die. I wrote a story when I was 16 called 'Stuck in Thick Red' which was about a man who got into a bath of paint every day just for the joy of it. Aesthetic, visceral, emotional, bodily. Completely unfashionable then, and pretty much still unfashionable now.

I never tried to join the establishment art world, and I don't want to join it now. I'm not interested in whether or not I'm moving art history on, or whether or not someone in a New York gallery thinks that my work will 'fit'.

I'm following a breadcrumb trail, and at each step, it satisfies me to share what I find, with anyone who cares to look.


No comments:

Post a Comment