The thoughts of Chairman Momus.
There’s a storm in a teacup, a crisis in the art world which might be more significant than it looks because it reflects a wider problem: the problem of the "declining middle", which is the problem of the disappearance of neutral middle-class ground between the precariat and the oligarchs. Inequality has got so extreme in our societies that there’s now a widening problem of legitimacy. We look at things — even paintings — and ask “Who is this for?” And if it’s for someone else — someone extremely rich, for instance — we ask “How should I relate to this?” and “Why should I relate to this?”
Two bellwether texts seem to be addressing this. David Byrne, on his blog, puts a diplomatic question-mark at the end of a piece entitled I Don’t Care About Contemporary Art Anymore? In it, he seems a lot less ambiguous: “I realize that I have begun to view the work [shown in the Chelsea galleries close to his loft] as being either intentionally or unconsciously produced expressly to cater to the 1%. I go into a gallery now and—rightly or wrongly—immediately think, ‘inoffensive tchotchkes for billionaires and the museums they fund.’”
Byrne says that in the past he thought of the art world as a big laboratory, a fearless ideas factory. Even if rich people were speculating with the end result, there was room for middle-class flaneurs who just wanted to revel in the spectacle and mull the concepts. “In my possibly naïve state, I could see a collision of ideas, passion, beauty and pure craziness. Now it’s impossible to see things beyond the hazy, distorting screen of the market. The market and the disparity of wealth taints everything. The art world has increasingly become like one of those party magazines: you flip though the pages and see other people frolicking and living the glamorous life. In this case, we see the oligarchs and Wall Street dudes buying and selling art, going to art fairs and all the rest—the artists tagging along. “
The other piece that addresses this crisis is Dan Fox’s editorial in the new edition of UK art mag Frieze, which just plopped through my door here in Japan. It’s a huge fat issue full of adverts for luxury goods, and of course London is gearing up right now for the Frieze Art Fair, which opens on Wednesday. Frieze — being a major social event in London — is one of the art world’s most oligarchic spectacles. Fox doesn’t mention it directly as a symptom of the malaise he’s discussing (he could hardly do that, as an employee of the magazine), but it looms reproachfully behind his piece, which is entitled “Every Cloud” (here the implied “silver lining” echoes the question mark in Byrne’s piece) and tag-lined “Can’t relate? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone”.
Fox is describing those moments “when I get the alienation blues; when I feel numb to the theatre of cultural self-importance and financial power playing out around art, wondering just who the whole shebang is for. ” Like Byrne, he’s particularly depressed by “insipid abstract paintings made by obnoxious frat boys”. But his main bone-to-pick is with elitism, and the “unrelatability” it fosters:
“There is the unrelatable problem of elitism. This elitism might be financial — or, rather, the messy conflation of art with the people who buy it — or it might be intellectual; art about art, or art which is legible only to those with specialist knowledge.” The caveat there is interesting. Fox seems to be addressing Byrne’s point about the reflex to look at art and see only “inoffensive tchotchkes for billionaires and the museums they fund”. And he seems to be saying, effectively, “don’t mix up the product with the buyer”.
Aye, there’s the rub! How can you separate the product and the buyer when the art market is so extremely money-focused, when the gap between success and failure is so great, and when cities like New York and London have stripped away their flaneuring middle classes, leaving just the super-rich and an army of enablers, suppliers and kitchen staff to serve them? How can you separate the product and the buyer when your search for interesting ideas in the art world is met by supposedly-hot canvases whose main merit is that they fit the decor in someone’s $100m penthouse atop CitySpire?
Some angry defenders of the art world agreed with Byrne’s analysis but advised him to get the hell out of New York (although not in the direction of glitzy art fairs like the one that recently happened in Miami).
My personal solution is to relate to the art world via government-funded events like Documenta, which has announced that its 2017 edition will be curated by the slim and austerely-glamourous Adam Szymczyk. I don’t expect Szymczyk to make art “relatable” to a RyanAir art flaneur like myself. What I want, in Dan Fox’s terms, is for it to err in the direction of intellectual elitism rather than the oligarchic kind.
In fact, Documenta is tackling the “disappearing middle” problem with admirable directness. Szymczyk has titled the upcoming show Learning From Athens, and it’ll take place in both Kassel and Athens — a “successful” German city and the “failed” Greek one it’s been bailing out.
There’s lots to play on here: Sehnsucht, the peculiar German longing for the South of Europe, and the Greek inspiration behind German Enlightenment figures like Winckelmann and Goethe; the supposed-precarity of the European project itself, based as it is on poor nations being so intimately tied to rich ones; the idea of whether the poor have anything to teach us, in other words whether economic failure might be a kind of disguised success, and whether the precariat might have information inaccessible to the oligarchs in the 1%.
One thing is sure about 2017: by then, the gap between the rich and poor will be even bigger than it is today; the trend isn’t reversing. Avoiding that fact can only mean a bigger legitimacy crisis in the art world — and its big, ugly double, the real world.