EXHIBITIONS:The days of whine and poses
As galleries gear up for another year of safe, sponsored shows, a sceptic wonders whatever happened to the artist as rebel
Sunday 08 January 1995
No one will question the importance of such exhibitions, and we're all glad to have the opportunity to see them. They are a triumph of the new art-world. The quality of big public ex- hibitions is higher than it was 10 years ago, much higher than 20 years ago. However, these exhibitions tend to be official, and they are devoted to household names and popular movements like Impressionism and Surrealism. They are devised to attract large audiences; so inevitably the box office makes an alliance with safe taste. The major galleries are becoming shy
of truly radical or innovative exhibitions. They are not inclined to take a risk on contemporary art. So we simply don't see enough new work. Committees rule. I wish we had some exciting impresario of modern exhibitions. I also wish that there were more stroppy artists with a determination to change things.
There used to be such people, but they have disappeared. Here's one way that the art world has changed for the worse in the last decade. Where are the rebels? I feel nostalgia for the days when we knew, for instance, FACOP (Friends of the Arts Council Operative), whose members used to gatecrash ACGB art panel meetings demanding this and that. Remarkably, the tactic often worked. Artists nowadays don't do such things. They are not by nature acquiescent, but they complain rather than protest. Neither do they organise. The 1990s ought to be a good time to form new exhibiting societies - groups of people who have something in common, wish to show together and who find a place to do so. Such societies were invented a century and more ago, in the days of early-modern art. Their purpose was to avoid the official and academic institutions. Today they are needed again.
Who in the boss class, for instance, thinks about putting on a show of contemporary painting? This does not seem an immoderate request. In 1995 we'll see some new work on canvas at the John Moores exhibition in Liverpool, but this much-loved biannual is essentially an anthology. Its selectors are chosen by the Walker Art Gallery to provide "balance", ie. to cancel each other out. I'd like a painting show with more polemical direction, perhaps on the lines of the "Hayward Annuals" that were a feature of art life in the Seventies and Eighties. These were often messy events and they regularly outraged one section or another of current opinion. But they were exciting, and there has been nothing like them since.
When the Hayward Annuals were discontinued the official South Bank line was that their work had been completed. Baloney. Most of us thought that such shows were not viable because no sponsors could be found to underwrite their costs.
At all events, the Hayward Gallery today seems to have abandoned its obligation towards new British art. Its big show this year will be "Art and Power: European Art and Architecture 1932-1945". Here's an important, if often chilling topic. It will make us look again at the world that was peopled by our parents and grandparents. Meanwhile, however, the endeavours of living art are overlooked.
Sponsorship and the recession have changed the art scene, perhaps irrevocably. The patterns of public support are now commercial while the private sales that enable artists to make a living are dominated by caprice and fashion. The art world has no intellectual centre. Its big growth area is in officialdom. The 1990s style of art administration is quite unlike the genteel amateurism that so enraged the members of FACOP. Its inspiration comes from the media industries, especially advertising. All museumsnow have development officers who need not know anything about art. What counts is publicity. Hence the ever-growing number of prizes and exhibitions built around the prospect of a prize, the competitiors often judged by administrators, a compliant critic and the sponsoring firm's public-relations director.
Such awards have little meaning and they seldom go to good artists. I suspect that worthwhile new work is increasingly exchanged in private transactions. The days are long gone when we could follow the career of some commanding artist via a one-person show every couple of years in a dealer's gallery. The last recession finally closed down this type of exhibition. Senior artists (among them the painters Gillian Ayres, Lucian Freud and John Hoyland, and the sculptor Phillip King) now do without a gallery and deal directly with their collectors. Dealers who closed their galleries in the recession buy and sell from their homes. The newest kind of dealer doesn't want the overheads and dull immoveablility of a gallery, though he or she may rent a space occasionally. All that's needed, they say, is a suit, a portable phone and a lot of contacts.
Flashy but likeable, these superkids have abandoned the old ambition of dealers, to sell the work of their living artists to public galleries. They have no interest in museum culture at all. A sale would be fine, but they don't want to work their way through tiers of administrators. Young artists have similar views. How absurd, to wish to be in a museum. Their expectations are impermanent. Recently I've heard artists in their twenties (including a Turner Prize shortlistee) saying that art is quite fun for the moment but that they would go and be successful at something else when the fun ran out. I was a little taken aback, having been brought up on the notion that you signed on for life. I concede, though, that the idea of art as a short-term commitment has its merits. After all, we don't expect everyone who has been to an art school to be an artist when they graduate.
Whatever the changes of the last few years, the art schools remain the bedrock of British art life. They are unique in the world. No other country has such a direct relationship between art education and visual culture in general. If I could see beyond the administrators to the people who really govern art's fortunes I would ask them to show their good faith by creating a new, great art school for the 21st century. I have a site in mind. It's Bankside. The future home of the Tate. No doubt s pace will be cleared for a lot of shops. Let's have room for some art education as well.
Why not? An association of an art school with a major gallery is unusual but not unprecedented, especially in America. Both sides could benefit. I know of no Tate official who has either studied or taught in an art school. Nor do I know any art school with the immense knowledge of historic and recent art that is stored somewhere within the Tate. A new start for the Tate within the realm of education would be good for the health of art generally - and surely would lead to some good exhibitions. !
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