London: the place for a painter

This article is essentially a follow-up to a piece by The Jackdaw’s editor David Lee, published in The Times on July 25th of this year. In it he detailed just what a fiasco the Arts Council’s contribution to an otherwise successful Olympic year was with £5.4 million spent, and nothing to show for it.

“Twelve months on,” he noted, “[and] we can evaluate more clearly what we received for a sum that approaches the council’s entire visual arts budget. The short answer is nothing; nothing memorable or of enduring merit – it was all frittered away on trivia. Not a single painting, print, sculpture or ceramic in any gallery. Not a mural or stained glass window in any civic building. No worthy public sculpture. Not even a sprawling installation or soporific video destined for a gallery warehouse. The sum total is three crocheted lions at Twycross Zoo and a boat made from 1200 donated wooden objects currently moored… somewhere.”

As he also noted, it’s remarkable that this series of abject failures has generated so little concern. Clearly no one is going to be held responsible. The standard reaction, in the cosy world of Britain’s culturati, has been a shrug of the shoulders and a murmured aside: “Poor things, they didn’t really have that much to work with – they did their best.”

Much of the support material for the Arts Council’s Cultural Olympiad is still up on the Council web site. What one notices about it now is a certain jolly Blue Peter quality, a note of “won’t this be fun for the kiddies”. Also, elsewhere, a note of Pooterish self-satisfaction. This is how the Cultural Olympiad was originally heralded:

“The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be a global event with enormous potential to help deliver our mission of great art for everyone. We have been closely involved in the development of the Cultural Olympiad programme since the bid stage. As a result of our investment, we hope to achieve three things: increased participation in the arts; increased profile for our artists on the world stage; and new collaborations that push boundaries, and leave a legacy of a strengthened sector.”

Yeah, sure – look at the results: fiasco on every count.

The context within which this failure, or series of failures, took place is fascinating – also in many respects bizarre and unsettling, though it gives some room for hope. The top end of the market for contemporary art remained strong throughout the early years of the global recession, though some elements are now showing signs of weakness. Sales in China are down, despite a continuing push by major auction houses to find new clients. In mid June, Christie’s announced that it would be the first international fine art auction company to be given a license to operate independently in mainland China. Their first sales in Shanghai will take place this autumn. “In addition to fine art auctions,” they announced, “we will also bring exhibitions, art forums, private sales and other exciting events to Shanghai, offering collectors in China a more direct access to our global network and expertise.”

The big international art stars, some of them British, on the whole continue to flourish, supported by what one can only describe as warehouse collectors – hoarders and accumulators of work by a relatively small group of ‘approved’ contemporary artists, though it is increasingly noticeable that most of those who reliably make huge prices are now safely dead: Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat. There was a delicious incident last May when the extremely rich London diamond dealer Laurence Graff (net worth $4.3 billion according to Forbes) fought off considerable saleroom competition to buy a Lichtenstein canvas entitled Woman with Flowered Hat for $56.1 million including fees. The painting, dated 1963, is in fact just a fairly faithful copy of a Picasso of the same title dated 1939-40, though now with cartoon-strip dots. The Picasso itself probably wouldn’t have fetched quite as much.

There are, nevertheless, a few signs of cracks in the cement. Damien Hirst, once a darling of this market, is opening a hugely ambitious exhibition in Qatar this coming October, even bigger and grander than the one he held in Olympic Year at Tate Modern. However, as Jonathan Brown, once a big fan of Damien, reported in The Guardian in November of last year: “According to figures from the international art company Artnet quoted in an article in Bloomberg Businessweek works by Hirst produced in his most lucrative period between 2005 and the £111m direct sale of his art in 2008 have sold for nearly 30 per cent less than their original purchase price. Since 2009 one in three of the 1,700 pieces offered at auction has failed to sell at all.”

There are other indications of stress. Hirst has parted company with the powerful Gagosian Gallery, which used to represent him worldwide. Recently, both the press and the Internet have been strangely silent about Hirst’s project for a personal museum in Vauxhall. This was announced with a great flourish of publicity in May of last year. It is meant to open in 2014. The most recent mention I can find on the Web dates from as long ago as October 2012. There is currently no mention of the museum on Hirst’s elaborate personal web site, either in the News section or the Projects section, or elsewhere.

Meanwhile the Tate, which was quite a faithful supporter of Hirst during the boom years, and which owns a not inconsiderable number of examples of his work, though usually fairly trivial ones, has been seized with a huge enthusiasm for Performance Art. One can quite see the rationale for this – it is in intention populist. No inconvenient legacy of objects is attached to the programme – one gets the impression that the Tate’s storerooms are bursting at the seams. Each Performance Art event is just that – an event, which supplies a springboard for another burst of publicity, and makes the institution look active not passive, virtuous and involved with society.

Cultural Olympiad launch

The problem is that this initiative, though it hasn’t fallen quite as catastrophically flat as the Cultural Olympiad, has failed to catch fire with the public. If you are looking for ‘official’ successes then the German-Punjabi (but born in Britain) Tino Sehgal, who did an ambitious interactive performance piece at Tate Modern last year, is the hottest thing there is: Golden Lion at the current Venice Biennale, nomination for the Turner Prize, five-star review from The Guardian. Yet major public enthusiasm has been lacking. Maybe the reason for this was nailed down in another (but only three-star) review, by Alastair Sooke in the Daily Telegraph. “There is an atmosphere of ritual, “ he said, “but the rules of the game are not apparent.”

This, perhaps without the writer being completely aware of it, puts a finger on an aspect of contemporary art that I find disturbing. It is well on its way to becoming a substitute religion, with museums as its cathedrals (Tate Modern, Pompidou, MOMA in New York), curators as its priesthood, and charismatic or would-be charismatic artists as its shamans and miracle workers. The process started with Joseph Beuys and reached a recent peak of publicity with Marina Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Random visitors to the show were invited to sit on a hard chair directly opposite the artist, seated on a similar chair, and to stare at her for as long as they liked, though they were forbidden to talk. Many of the participants – but not the artist – were so moved by the experience that they burst into tears.

Today you don’t have to go barefoot and in rags to make a useful reputation doing this kind of thing. Living in a modern capitalist society you can retain your charismatic aura while wearing Prada and Armani. You can make serious dosh without having to hide the fact. No need to paint the stigmata on your palms with a bit of red nail polish. Abramovic, for example, sold a Soho loft for $3.2 million in June 2012, and this year a two-family townhouse in the same trendy part of New York for just over $3 million. Nice work if you can get it.

Given what has just been said here, it may seem surprising when I go on to say that London seems, at the present moment, to be the most vibrant art city in the world – a present day equivalent of Paris in the 1920s. One reason for this is that it has the most complete roster of facilities – world-class museums, major commercial galleries, art fairs catering to every level, from the big names to artists just at the beginning of their careers, who are trying to find representation. It also has other necessary facilities, though some of these are under threat. Artists can still find affordable studios in the less popular parts of the capital, because London is so spread out. This situation is, however, under threat – there is a growing exodus. There are major art colleges in London, but often staffed with people who are better at theories expressed in immaculate art-speak than they are at passing on skills. In fact, in some institutions there is hostility to passing on skills of any sort. The cry is “Oh, we have to let them find themselves!” Do the mentors now, after several generations of this kind of thing, have any practical skills of their own to pass on?

Nevertheless, when one looks at London it is visibly better equipped than possible rivals. Berlin has cheaper studios and a city government that encourages artists to settle there – but not a strong commercial scene. In New York, the once vibrant Soho art scene is long gone. Its loft apartments, smartened up, are in the hands of A-list film stars, escaping from Hollywood, or the heroes and heroines of high-end couture. Abramovic sold her Soho town house to Ricardo Tisci, who designs for Givenchy, and her loft to Melissa Ormond, a president at Madison Square Garden Entertainment. Artists are lucky if they can find a place they can afford in some corner of Brooklyn or the Bronx. As for Paris, where’s that? It’s hard enough to find a French artist who is a major contemporary figure. Harder still to find a real community of younger artists in Paris. There are still some older ones who live in the Bateau-Lavoir, though most of it burned down in 1970.

The really fascinating thing when one examines the London art community is the way it diverges from the official or bureaucratic view of what is happening, or ought to be happening. The Arts Council may lust after a certain kind of populism, framed in their own, unconsciously condescending terms. Tracey and Damien may still be capable of causing a flurry in the tabloids, or be ready to star in an issue of Hello! Their credibility among the younger generation of London artists has long departed. It’s not so much that their juniors dislike what they do – it’s more that they feel no real connection with the once dominant YBAs. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” as the novelist L.P. Hartley once said. In this case a country where the 1997 Sensation! show looked  wonderfully new and exciting. Three years from now there will be kids starting in art school who weren’t born when Sensation! happened.

It’s the fate of all once-established avant-gardes to be overtaken and left behind. The one constant in the art world we now have is a perpetual appetite for change. Radical change is what seems to be happening now. Zavier Ellis, of the gallery Charlie Smith London, who is the best informed person I know when it comes to surveying the younger end of the London art world, and I have been preparing an iBook called 100 London Artists. For reasons of space and convenience,‘100 London Artists’ has been divided into two volumes, each featuring the work of 50 artists, mostly in their twenties and thirties. It should appear in time for the upcoming Frieze art fair. These fifty artists are all painters – not because we have any particular bias in favour of painting, as opposed to other forms of visual expression, but because there is now such an abundance of gifted young painters at work here in London. So much so that it has been really difficult to choose. Zavier and I are the technological radicals, choosing to make a digital book rather than something in print on paper. Our subjects have found something new – to be exact, many new things – in this most traditional of mediums. Far be it from us to contradict their radically creative impulses. This number of painters also implies the existence of solid, if non-official, financial support. Much of this isn’t British. London has found a new way to sell to the world.

Edward Lucie-Smith