ART / Let galleries go hang: It's 'New Contemporaries' time again. And time for our young artists to strike out on their own

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The Independent Culture
Relaunched three years ago with backing from British Telecom, New Contemporaries is an annual showcase for promising talent, and has already proved itself a springboard to fame - Damien Hirst, for instance, a 1989 NC, is now on the Turner Prize shortlist. This year the show has 22 artists, chosen from a thousand- plus applications submitted by second- and third-year art students. It tours the country: at the moment it is to be found at two venues in Nottingham. It is a handy selection, which offers the public a chance to note what's happening, and critics a chance to recommend to their readers a handful of favourites, with immense thanks to the selectors - Marina Warner, Derek Jarman and Guy Brett - for their massive pre-winnowing. I cannot quite imagine how this kind of thing is done. It must involve a prodigious feat of memory at the least.

But everyone should have refrained. It would have been better if the selectors had declined to give their time, minds and names to this operation. And it would have been better if the thousand-plus applicants had held on to their slides. For what the selectors are selecting, and the applicants are applying to become, is simply a new generation of gallery fodder.

This implies no aspersion on the selectors' judgement or on the quality of the artworks, which, as these things go, is pretty much up to par. And it would be easy enough to say: this one's original, this beautiful, this worthwhile (or, of course, otherwise). But there is the same problem. Critical commendations, if they make any contribution, simply contribute to advancing some individuals through the existing scheme of artistic success: the world of private and public galleries, group and solo shows, accompanying prizes and awards, the career structure this constitutes; while what's needed is for the structure itself to be dismantled. But why pick on a gathering of young hopefuls for this grouse? Well, what are they hopeful for? This show is hardly an end in itself. It's the dispiriting spectacle of 22 bodies of work just waiting to be taken up by a gallery-owner or a curator. And I pick on this show because the change that is needed can only start at the bottom. What's required is a voluntary withdrawal from the gallery system by artists at the start of their careers: a general secession.

As it stands, the gallery system is, at very best, faute de mieux: seemingly the most efficient route between artist and public - but on the other hand a network of weightless environments through which (if favoured) work moves in a futile progress from location to location, never touching ground or reaching home anywhere, until (if very favoured) it finds permanent shelter, which often means storage, in the holdings of a big collection. The contemporary gallery is a site where the 'just visiting' viewer coincides briefly with 'just visiting' art. Artists are hardly obliged to consider who, what or where their work might be for: the only constant audience consists of dealers, curators and critics, and the places themselves are non- specific and temporary. Naturally this infects the art, which becomes more and more a matter of discrete personal explorations and workings-out of problems - with an increasing dependency, its charge or charm working only inside the gallery's neutral air. (I know there is much extra-gallery activity also, but mostly it is the extension of gallery attitudes to more picturesque but equally temporary sites.) This should not be an enviable situation. Artists who work for galleries are no more sensible than artists who say their work is completely private and for themselves alone; in fact the latter probably have a clearer sense of what they are doing.

The immediate aims of a secession would be these: for artists to abandon the gallery system as primary outlet for their art and object of their ambition; to abjure progress within it as the criterion of artistic success; to establish themselves as fully independent freelances, operating individually or in groups, and inevitably addressing the questions of for whom, for what and for where, since those questions are now thrown wide open. Contemporary art galleries then gradually collapse. In place of curiosity value, celebrity, and vague general exposure we have face-to-face approaches to clients and audiences, large, small or very small.

For those worried by the prospect of a general secession, some questions answered:

Without galleries, won't the demand for art just dry up? We'll see. If you couldn't find contemporary art in galleries, would you do anything about it? If so, what?

What about creative freedom, which galleries guarantee? It is only guaranteed at the cost of working in a creative vacuum or quarantine.

What other outlets are artists going to find? They have to work this out, make themselves known: projects for places or individuals or institutions - or maybe themselves. Who or what do they want? Who or what wants them? Exhibitions might even be organised.

Won't there be fewer working artists around? Quite possibly.

What about public subsidy? The state can decide what art it wants, and on what terms it wants to get it. Likewise, artists can decide whether they want to take money from the state, and on what terms.

What about private sponsorship? Ditto. (Incidentally, note that the present sponsor, BT, through its ubiquitous red and blue logo, is responsible for a nationwide visual outrage, for which no amount of arms-length arts sponsorship is adequate reparation.)

I can imagine one final worry. Without the galleries and helpful exhibitions like the present one, how are we going to know who the significant new artists are? Who is going to decide? You are, ladies and gentlemen, if you want to.

Angel Row Gallery and Bonnington Gallery, Nottingham (0602 823823), to 11 Oct.