Monday, August 25, 2008

Life Study, Part Two

I had my first solo exhibition a few years later. I ignored one of the art world’s unwritten rules and organised it myself. I sold out the show and garnered some good reviews. Since then, from time to time, I have tried to do what everybody else does – to follow some, if not all, of the rules. And yet I am happiest and most successful when I don’t.
“Only criminals and artists defy the rules,” Denis Diderot, the eighteenth century philosopher, once observed. (I should cop to the fact that I am no different from my peers in today’s junk culture: I sample, I 'appropriate', so my references are second-hand and suspect. I haven’t actually read Diderot. I read an article in which Malcolm McLaren quoted him, and what I know about Malcolm McLaren is that he managed a band called the Sex Pistols before I was born.)
Most artists don’t defy the rules anymore. They just pretend to – or, as the British artist Damien Hirst once put it: “What I really like is minimum effort for maximum effect.” In the developed world, the success of an artist is measured in the same terms as that of a lawyer, stockbroker or entertainer: disposable income, the number, size and location of the houses they own, and the series number of their new BMW. The art itself has nothing to do with it. The most successful artists appear on lists of the rich and powerful in the business press, and as if that wasn’t enough, the art world creates its own lists to massage its burgeoning pile of egos. Last year, Hirst topped ArtReview’s Power 100, overtaking the New York art dealer Larry Gagosian, who managed to hold on to second place ahead of Francois Pinault, the French owner of the British auction house Christie’s.
Damien Hirst’s lust for celebrity was – is – always transparent. Still, I wanted to believe that the women I admired were different. I was once young and naïve enough to hope that gender alone might ensure that the ambitions of an older generation of mainly American contemporary female artists – among them, Cindy Sherman (now aged 52), Jenny Holzer (aged 56) or Barbara Kruger (aged 61) – were less prosaic. But no, celebrity was as much a core of their career plans as it was of Hirst’s. Their work wasn’t about revolution, it was about recognition, about renown.
It only got worse with the next wave, the mainly British forty-somethings such as Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread and Sam Taylor-Wood (who made the savvy career move of marrying Jay Jopling, the famed founder of London’s White Cube gallery, and architect/co-conspirator of the Young British Artists phenomenon). These women figured out that if fame came fast enough, and the money was big enough, it might lessen the impact of inescapable questions about their talent and credibility. Their accomplishments have reflected a triumph of commercialism over art, their successes as reliant on message, positioning and timing as any corporate marketing strategy: art as commodity, artist as brand.
Emin particularly has made it plain that art for her is just a means to an end – she has talked of wanting to be dubbed a Dame by the Queen, but if she’s not careful, her end might be a role as a wicked step-sister in celebrity pantomime at Christmas, the fate of every faded British TV personality and pop star.
There is nothing new about fame and money being intrinsic to a successful art career – during the Renaissance, artists such as Michelangelo were multi-millionaires by today’s standards, as well as being confidantes of princes and popes. I have no qualms admitting that I pursue both.
Today’s hollow, hypermediated celebrity should not be confused with the recognition accorded to previous generations of artists, for whom it was hard-earned and based (with few exceptions) entirely on a substantial body of work. Emin is known for her sensationalist bed installation – itself something of a salacious media construct – but also for being drunk, and for careless talk about her once troubled life, a confessional process that, according to her detractors, has less do with reality than with a kind of performance art. Her prices – and her appearance fees – reflect her ubiquity in the media, her talent for good copy, more than they do the significance of her work.
For those of us who are of a younger generation, it has been important to shift the emphasis back on to the body of work – to seek attention, sure, but to feel that we’ve earned it.
(To be continued)

No comments: