In his book, What’s Wrong With Contemporary Art? (UNSW Press, 2004), Peter Timms describes the Australian artist Patricia Piccinnini as a designer rather than an artist. “Her installations remain at the level of concepts,” he writes. “We sense her lack of involvement”. Actually, we more than sense it – she has boasted about it. Her best-known sculptural and photographic works are derived from concepts recycled from the discard bin of Koons’ objective, hands-off ethos. And, like the work of Koons, Hirst and other contemporary conceptualists, her works echo the glossy sheen and plasticity of high-end luxury goods, making it is easier for well-heeled consumers to associate them with more familiar brands – Chanel, Prada, Porsche, Apple, Bose – and immediately understand and accept their relative value. Most of the artists of the generation immediately before mine are designers. Surprisingly, given that they have grown up under the insidious influence of conceptual art, their work demonstrates an astounding lack of intellectual rigour (often taking the form of a simple puzzle or an elaborate joke), and no sense of history. Individual works are so derivative as to be bordering on plagiarism – for example, Emin’s My Bed, 1998/99, is a dull reworking of Rauchenberg’s Bed, 1955 – and if you review this 40-something generation’s work together, it is revealed as obvious and superficial.
Being banal on purpose is no excuse: banality as a comment on banality is … banal. When Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, signed it 'R. Mutt' and exhibited it as 'found art' in 1917, it was revolutionary. Not any more. The old, late-1970s punk ethos of artlessness – of playing and singing badly, sampling randomly and making ineptly – is no longer provocative.The new punk is about raw skill and having something powerful to say. This is particularly important now that digital tools have enabled so many more people to create, even if originality has been over-run by appropriation, and artisan skills by software and processing capabilities that can’t quite replicate the slippery inexactness of the hand-made. The new punk isn’t a twenty-first century form of Luddism, nor is it a rejection of electronic facility for some idealistic, nineteenth century idea of the purity or superiority of the human touch. It’s about a restitution of subjectivity, of re-emphasising the direct relationship between an artist’s interior world and the individual work, and about the value of an artwork being determined by the skill with which the artist conveys that relationship to the viewer. The purely conceptual is not enough.“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” Andy Warhol famously once said. I like money. It enables me to make art all the time. At the beginning of my career, I was told by a reputable gallerist that there were two paths: I could show at artist-run or institutional spaces and gain respect; or I could show at a commercial gallery, sell my work, and be able to earn enough to make art full-time. For me, it was a no-brainer. I chose to show at a commercial gallery, creating the same works I would have if I were showing at a non-commercial space. My works at the time – the works for which I was to become well known – were large, glossy, highly structured and accessible images painted with enamel on canvas (and later on board). Populated with female stereotypes derived from advertising and entertainment, they confronted what bugged me about the increasing commodification of art. They sold well, but the critical assessment was cautious.Two years ago, I had an exhibition at a well-regarded private gallery. At the opening party, an art critic whom I knew quite well admitted that he now saw my work in an entirely different and more meaningful way – simply because it had been presented in a different context. I couldn’t help but think that he was a bit of a prat.I have been making and exhibiting art professionally for almost ten years now. It’s not just a vocation; it’s my way of processing the world. One of my early mid-size works, enamel on board, will fetch, according to the uncommitted circumlocution of one major auction house, “low-to-mid-five-figures” in the secondary market. In the past few years, I’ve had solo and group shows in most of Australia’s capital cities, as well as Tokyo, London and New York. Art is big business. Many young artists – younger even than me – have ended up rich, famous and critically acclaimed very early in their careers. Too often, it all just evaporates. And maybe that’s another reason why I am conscious of walking the razor’s edge between respect and celebrity, even as I work hard to increase my prices and my base of private and institutional collectors. In a hundred years, Damien Hirst will be remembered, along with Bruno Bischofberger, Larry Gagosian and Nicholas Serota, as one of this era’s great art impresarios. Tracey Emin and Sam Taylor-Wood have a shot at being mentioned in a couple of footnotes, the sticky residue of all that high-profile publicity they courted in their lifetimes, but none of their works will be in the canon of great twenty-first century art. Over the last millennium, the few artists acknowledged as 'great' didn’t bow to passing fashion or economic imperative, let alone spend more time socialising – even with royal patrons – than making art. I might be wrong, but I like to think that my generation is less seduced by the money and hype of art that comes easier now than ever before, and that its creators are more concerned with using it to their advantage to make art all the time, and become better artists.Still, when it comes to business, we are also breaking new ground of our own. I used to be represented by important galleries in Sydney and Melbourne. I left both this year when I resolved to try to work outside the traditional gallery system – which, more and more, has come to resemble the stables of champion racehorse trainers, each vying to win a season of million-dollar races. The system has never really worked for – let alone with – most young artists, even if they are making good money. I am still trying to work out whether it’s possible to have an informal relationship with a handful of gallerists in a way that shifts the balance power into my hands, rather than theirs; meanwhile, better established artists – such as England’s Stella Vine – are going so far as to found their own galleries, and to represent themselves.My generation has an advantage: it’s the first to have globally networked electronic media at its disposal. Still, exploiting these is about more than building a website and creating an email list. I use software for client relationship and inventory management, and I subscribe to online services that track prices for my – and my peers’ – old and new work. Email encourages frequency and depth in my communication with collectors and curators, and I am able to coordinate exhibitions of my work in two or three countries simultaneously, and have direct contact with local gallerists and the press. A fronte praecipitium,
a tergo lupi.
Alis volat propriis. In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies with her own wings. When I left art school, I had these words tattooed in an unelaborate sans serif font on the inside of my left arm – a promise to myself to succeed in art, whatever the obstacles. These days I operate as both an individual and a virtual corporation – an evolution of Warhol’s reconfiguring of the artist’s studio as a factory – and the functions of each are discrete. As an individual, I make the art I want. As a corporation, I shift product. Three and half months before my next solo exhibition, thirty per cent of the works to be shown have already been sold. There is reward, after all, in thinking differently.