Waking Up to Tyranny

David Lee
September/October 2020

A watershed moment in the official story of art has been reached. Unlike in the first decades of the last century, when experimental isms followed one another annually, the first decades of the 21st have until now seen no signal change in direction or emphasis: recently, in contemporary art we’ve been living through a period of dreary status quo.

My lifetime has witnessed few moments of paradigm shift. Pop and Op were the first I was aware of. They were part of the same liberating ethos of the ’60s as The Beatles, Emma Peel and drugs. I became aware of the new visual age at boarding school when, in 1964, our dorm curtains were swapped from drab to a bright pattern of pastel bubbles, like magnified spittle – we had nowt like them in Manchester. Ten years later, when ‘sculptors’ started hiking and burying

themselves, Conceptualism swept Pop away. There were no criteria for judging this baffling stuff, we simply accepted it on the supposedly better informed say-so of those who were, one way or another, flogging it to us. Like all allegedly avant-garde developments it was written about in code and as though it was the only thing in existence. Then, in the early ’90s, came the yBas with their publicity seeking and a clapped out recapitulation of Duchamp and Warhol. This frivolous Opportunism was still really just boring old Conceptualism, but at least it had its tits out. Alas, the gene pool of Opportunism was limited, its few ideas thin and repeated, its protagonists squalidly on the make. A re-jigged Turner Prize helped drag out the yBa tendency for longer than it was actually alive. Far from being ‘cutting edge’, as was claimed, this deeply conservative, post-mortem phase outstayed its welcome. Art seemed bogged down, this year’s genius as forgettable as last’s: what could possibly follow the ultimate freedom to do anything you fancy?

The answer turns out to be Politics. During the Turner’s self-composting demise, the emphasis of official interest mutated, virus-like, away from what artists did to who they were, where they came from and what they looked like. But what started as a social engineering fad organised by a defeated Left has now

400 Bad Request

metamorphosed into a fully-formed political party fixated on hatred of the past. This new ism, invented by curators, is inspired by political events and a non-negotiable moral code based on a fantasy of equality. Thus relegated from driving seat to boot, artists either conform or starve.

The rise of the curator is now complete. In 1945 the Tate had one of them, now it has scores dealing exclusively with contemporary work – god knows what they all do. Dire warnings of the inevitable dictatorship that would follow upon “the revolutionary act of public subsidy” after its introduction in 1946 have come to pass. And so it is that the authorised version of contemporary art has evolved into one of Orwell’s “smelly little orthodoxies”.

All careerist curators subscribe to Wokeism. They have to because adherence to the cause is the chief qualification for any museum job. The Wokeist curator believes in “cultural 400 Bad Request democratisation”, a mouthful intended to hide more than it reveals. In practice this means a policy menu giving precedence to gender, sexual persuasion, foreignness, disability and especially skin colour – all characteristics previously considered irrelevant when evaluating artistic ability. Now having attained its full flowering, Wokeism is a self-perpetuating club recognising no alternatives which (whilst ironically preaching tolerance) proscribes debate or opposition. The ease with which Wokeists are provoked to over-reaction by assumed transgressions against their beliefs has become reminiscent of an Inquisition. Indeed, Wokeism marks the first time since the USSR’s Socialist Realism that a political prescription has assumed total control of a country’s art. And like Stalin’s mandates, Wokeism’s flagrant denial of free thought and speech trump any attempt to satirise them.

This state is undesirable for all manner of sound reasons but – the Wokeist march through the institutions now being complete – it’s not easily reversible, so powerful, well-funded and self-righteous is its control. Opposition is made almost impossible because media organisations are onside and those who might object are silenced by the disproportionate consequences of speaking out. This deep fear and reticence, recently identified in an independent survey of gallery staff, is understandable when any even casual denunciation by a prominent Wokeist is likely to mean you won’t work again. Time to stand up and be counted.