Last Wednesday’s reading group (1/6/2011) set me off on a rather dangerous train of contemplation. What would happen, I thought, if all artists became anonymous? How would the art world get along without ‘Art Stars’? And how would we get along without the ‘big names’, the ‘leading artists’ to show us the way? It seems obvious that we need our visionary leaders … but is it? Do we really need to be led?
By way of example, what would happen to our perception of the current Katherina Seda exhibition at the Millennium Galleries if her name was reduced in scale to that of the other names featuring in the exhibition? I am referring, of course, to the names of the artists who made the drawings. You will have to look carefully, but those names are there, quite subtly and modestly inscribed next to each individual piece of work … not fan-faired at the entrance to the exhibition in 1m-high letters.
This massive banner creates a form of publicity that seems strangely at odds with the documented concept behind the installation, where we are led to believe that the work was created by a community. Obviously, I’m not proposing complete anonymity in this situation; merely the possibility of redressing the balance of equality between authorship and leadership. And, of course, we need to consider the fact that communities seldom record all of the names of those that construct them – except, perhaps, when honouring the dead …
Perhaps this proposal for artistic anonymity is something of an unrealistic, somewhat extreme position. Surely it would rob the whole ‘business’ of its ‘glamour’?
Let’s look at these two words ‘glamour’ and ‘business’ .
Glamour, according to one reference that I came across, comes from the old Scottish and has associations with magic, charm, allure, fascination. In the final chapter of Ways of Seeing John Berger critically evaluates the glamorous images used by the publicity industry. He firmly equates glamour with envy – arguably one of the less ‘healthy’ human emotions – and it’s interesting that we can’t help but feel a certain frisson of envy when thinking of those that were in Venice for the opening last week (we are all subject to anxieties regarding our relative status after all) … but when I saw the photos of Abramovich’s yacht sitting smugly in the lagoon this weekend, I started to wonder wether perhaps my envy was misplaced. All of the semiotics surrounding the art fair reeks of social exclusivity: that alluring, beguiling, bewitching sign-world – from individual toilet soaps to champagne bars – that glamorises the super rich and encourages envy of their status.
Next, the word ‘business’. Although it evidently fits well into the same sentence as Abramovich, it still seems very awkward when applied to art. Strange, because according to a-n magazine, the model that most artists operate on is that of the micro-entreprepreneur. This is one of the strange double-thinks of the artworld, the concept of moral integrity coupled with entrepreneurialism – the last thing we want our artists to do is to ‘sell out’. Hence the elaborate and confusing lengths that exhibitors go to at art fairs to avoid the distasteful business of associating cold hard cash with the sexy product that they are selling through their shops. The truth of the matter is that most international art stars are the figureheads of international micro-brands. Banksy is a particularly baffling example of these double standards.
So, perhaps the answer is not to seek this cosmic alignment with the stars but to embrace the anarchy of anonymity. Either that or create a local alternative that puts art back in its place – as a genuinely inclusive activity that connects with all members of our species (not just the glamorous few) and which provides pleasure, mystery, the opportunity for contemplation and many other categories of delight.
To conclude on a slightly different, but perhaps related, note, I’m reminded of a story about Barbara Hepworth, who went to great lengths to preserve the illusion of hands-on involvement in her work. Barbara didn’t want it known that she had helpers – she wanted people to think that she carved all this stuff herself. Thus it was that Terry Frost, who assisted her at one point, was asked to hide in the greenhouse when some wealthy collectors arrived unexpectedly. After a while Terry felt a very urgent need and was forced to piss in one of the flower pots. Unfortunately the piss overflowed and, guided by gravity, glided down the garden path towards the well shod feet of Barbara’s guests. Fortunately only Barbara noticed … but there were no biscuits for Terry at his tea break for a whole month …