Saturday, July 17, 2010
Say My Name, Say My Name
If, as Samuel Beckett said, words are all we have, then artists represented within the gallery system have very little.Today, I received an email from a well-known and respected curator. He was promoting a giveaway of an artists' print. To communicate the artwork's value, the curator described the artist as museum-level. It reminded me of a high school or university grading, where students' levels of achievement are noted not as numbers but as credit, distinction or high distinction, except the curator's terminology was colder. Referring to an artist merely as museum-level conveys they are valued within the traditional system but not enough to receive more fulsome enthusiasm. I got to thinking about the terminology used elsewhere in the art world. The words used by art dealers to describe artists are a mixture of financial jargon, touchy-feely euphemisms and derogatory metaphors. The same words are adopted by artists to describe themselves – maybe because they are too often desperate to ingratiate themselves with art dealers. Like a horse-breeder, a commercial gallery has a stable of artists – and any artist that joins the gallery becomes part of that stable. It's a common expression, used without embarrassment on many commercial gallery websites. Unlike race horses and domestic animals bred for show, artists aren't labeled according to age but rather potential value. They're described as emerging, mid-career or leading. The very best are not always called masters but thoroughbreds. Of course, the dealer's perspective is no different to a stud farmer's or trainer's. The work of an emerging artist is sold at an entry level price. However, unlike race-horses, who earn their categorisations by age and early on, only ever race against their age-peers, the age or price point at which an artist ceases to be emerging is relative to the then-current market and can be entirely arbitrary. The term is often dismissive: emerging can be art-speak for newbie or worse, rube.An artist graduates to being mid-career when their work is regularly sold on the secondary market through art dealers and auction houses. It's a kind of no-man's land, expected to be achieved only after working hard for a couple of decades. Most professions offer some kind of recognition for such dedication. Not the art world.A leading artist is, as the name suggests, a front-runner, a pace-maker, a winner. Leading artists' works sell for large amounts and their names carry and enhance the status of everyone – dealer, collector, curator, institution – associated with it. Their artworks are described as blue-chip, the same as stock that sells at a high price because of public confidence in the issuing corporation's long record of steady earnings. Buying (and selling) the work of a leading artist is also akin to backing a winner in a horse race. Incidentally, those collectors who buy art as an investment are called punters, the same as bettors at a race track. Those who buy poorly are mug punters.Euphemisms abound in the traditional gallery system: patronising, pseudo-parental terms like nurturing, supporting, and developing. They imply care - worse, they imply that artists are unable to care for themselves. Galleries always proclaim that they nurture the artists in their stable. But giving an artist an exhibition – and often charging emerging artists a higher commission rate – doesn't equate to helping to develop artistic talent or further a career. Art dealers nurture prices, not artists. When an art dealer or gallery supports an artists' work, it means they bid for it anonymously at auction to ensure that the price point at which the gallery retails the work remains stable or increases. Auction records are available to the public. However, the details of the buyers are not. In an attempt to stop price-ramping, art galleries selling their artists' work at auction must declare their interest. But buyers always remain anonymous. Sometimes the buyers are collaborative dealers – or rich spouses. Early on in my career I was advised by an art dealer to find a wealthy man to marry, one who could support my work, both its production and its price at auction.The term support is also used when an art dealer has exhibited and sold an artists' work. It implies a favour, a good deed, rather than a business arrangement. I have even heard it used as a kind of emotional blackmail: a dealer telling an artist, "I supported you for years!" Which is to say that he displayed and sold the artist's work, took a commission and charged ancillary expenses from the proceeds – and still couldn't return their phone calls.Words don't just define meaning. They create it as well. The words used within the traditional art system are inherently demeaning to artists. Yet artists – who, by definition, delve into meaning and symbolism every day of their working lives – use the same words to describe themselves and each other. If we are ever going to become more independent and better off, we need to find a different terminology with which to think and talk about what we do.It's the very first step we need to take if we're to challenge and change a system designed to oppress and profit from us.