I am still at the clinic. I have a private room, with a writing desk overlooking a leafy garden and my laptop connected to the 'net via a wireless USB. Between daily appointments with doctors and therapists, I have begun to re-engage with the world, albeit slowly and at a remove. I started opening emails today. The first was an invitation to listen to the high-profile curator, David Elliott, discuss "his upcoming Biennale of Sydney" with the director of a state art gallery. I smirked at the patriarchal ownership of the event but a quote – actually, self-promoting schtick veiled as artistic concept – from Elliot really got under my skin:"For art to be art (a medium of numinous, sometimes symbolic power), it must maintain a distance from life. Without distance, art has no authority and is no longer special." In other words, for art to be taken seriously, it must be seen only in a context – a gallery, an institution – that removes it from life. This is just an ill-considered mash-up of an idea introduced by Marcel Duchamp almost a hundred years ago and adapted relentlessly not only by artists to justify their 'work' but by the entire art establishment to justify their existence. Which is to say that instead of coming up with an original concept for the 17th Biennale of Sydney, of which he is artistic director, Elliot has devised a rickety, out-dated defense of the crumbling traditional system he serves. So much for the Biennale of Sydney being a major art event. Art has been a meaningful part of life for centuries. Art galleries – which separate art from life – are a recent, mid-nineteenth century invention. When, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp bought a second-hand urinal, named it Fountain, and photographed it as sculpture at an art gallery, his idea was that removing an everyday object from life gave people an opportunity to look at it differently. This act made the 'found' object art and it had enormous influence on the development of conceptual art – and the 'importance' of the gallery. The trouble was, galleries, both commercial and institutional, figured out that this was a good way to position themselves – and their curators – as essential not just to distributing and exhibiting art but to defining which artworks and artists should be taken seriously and why.
Now it's the 21st century, not the 20th, and everything is different. The traditional gallery system is dying – soon to be extinct – after a mere 150 years.Starved of funds and struggling to argue their relevance – look at what's happening at London's venerable ICA – both commercial and institutional galleries are being forced to rethink their functions or close their doors. Art dealers are scrabbling to find a foothold in the virtual world (I know of a handful who have resorted to attending 'social networking' workshops taught by other art dealers). As bricks and mortar galleries crumble, the magazines they once funded with their advertising – in return for editorials on their latest 'product' – fold. State-funded art galleries still ignore the virtual world and instead, invest in architectural showpieces to house the relics of the famous dead and dying, while their curators, once feted as celebrities, claim ownership of the exhibitions they assemble, desperate to promote their personal brands and pimp for extra-mural, usually corporate-sponsored employment.Everyone within the traditional gallery system is struggling to retain either full-time employment or a fan-base. And yet the best Elliot can come up with as a theme for the Biennale of Sydney is a justification of this system's existence? It's so out of touch that it fails both as cultural propaganda and self-promotion.Art itself is flourishing outside of the traditional system. Artists are distributing their work and ideas everywhere via the web and connecting directly with those who are most interested in them. More and more, their work is nourished by direct contact with this 'audience'. Artists are also connecting more with each other.The power of curators and gallerists to fence off some art as 'good' (presumably because of its "numinous, sometimes symbolic power" - wank) and dismiss the rest is declining. Artists don't need the blessing of curators and gallerists to be taken seriously. More and more people are becoming interested in art and even better, buying it but they no longer need an outdated, inefficient, elitist system to tell them what is important and what they should like.If David Elliot has gotten one thing terribly wrong it is that art has to "maintain a distance from life" to have authority. He's too old to understand that ubiquity of access not rarity defines value in the networked 21st century. Art is now, more than ever, part of everyone's lives – and hard drives.