The journalist’s question came as a surprise. It was blunt but to the point: is the art world full of wankers? I had to think about that for a second… The journo was from a tabloid newspaper and the question was put to me while I was doing telephone media interviews to help promote the first series of The Art Life TV show way back in 2007. Wankers? Hmmm.
The only thing that can be counted on is that not everyone in the art world will agree on anything, least of all whether there is even such a thing as ‘the art world’. A lot of artists would no doubt argue that they wouldn’t want to be in any art ‘world’ that would have them, while others are just happy to be there.
Nowadays we might call this thing we’re involved in, the art ‘community’.
As much as I object to the use of the word ‘community’ to describe any group of people who don’t get together in a school hall on the first Sunday afternoon of the month, you can stretch the definition for the – ahem – art community because the communal get togethers happen quite regularly, and in real life, in galleries and museums and so on. But I bet even some people would disagree with that definition too. So, if we’re not a community, or a world – who are we?
I tend to think of those art world refuseniks as cranky older uncles and aunties who have seen it all and have long memories, and all the high-energy hijinks of their nieces and nephews, those kids with no sense of history, decorum or good taste, are an ongoing embarrassment that must be endured with a stern expression. Older artists seem to me to be mostly daffy expressionist painters, neatly dressed conceptual artists, or criminally overlooked photographers who did important work 30 years ago. They dress well, get into fights with each other on Facebook, and are still quite cross about postmodernism.
The mums and dads of the art community are those artists who have successful mid-careers that allow them to hire assistants, have nice studios, and give life advice to their younger peers.
And like mums and dads everywhere, they remember their time as emerging artists through the prism of selective memories – recollections that have been smoothed out of all the angst and uncertainty, until all they can recall are shiny GOOD TIMES. Naturally this leads to two things: daggy dancing at biennale parties, and ill-advised new work that is the result of wanting to reconnect to whatever it was they were doing at art school.
The kids of the art community are of course the emerging and early career artists with a ton of chutzpah, maybe a bit of talent, and with few regrets (thus far). They tend to be unruly, demand attention, and occasionally produce something that has all the mums and dads, aunties and uncles taking notice. Very often this thing the kids have made isn’t that great, isn’t as good as it should be, but everyone is just so excited by the possibility that the next lot of work will be even better, we tend to lose our heads with pride.
Look what the kids did! Let’s buy it all! Let’s give them a grant!
This model of how the art community works has left out one important sub-group – those distant cousins, in-laws and forgotten uncles. The cliché of the rich Dickensian uncle with a ton of cash who wants to do right by his estranged relatives happens to be true in the art community. How better to explain the need of captains of industry to plant themselves on museum boards of trustees, dispensing favours to a few favoured Oliver Twist waifs just getting out of art school? Curators tend to act like desperate second-cousins who want to be in on the fun, when in fact all they’re good for is a birthday card that’s a month late but comes with $20 taped inside.
Likewise, the broken-down uncles who tend to end up as art critics have really little to offer, except maybe a bag of sweets, or a ride in their car to see some puppies.
So, I was thinking about the journalist’s question: is the art world full of wankers? I said no, not really; there are some wankers, but no more than 20-25 per cent, tops. Of course, I was lying. The fact is we know we’re all wankers, with a terrible tendency to self-aggrandisement even as we tear down our nearest and dearest. We argue and bicker and have fights. Some of us haven’t spoken in years. We’re not a world or a community, but a family – a big, dysfunctional family with more in common than we’d care to admit. We might be wankers, maybe, but I lied because of one simple rule: no one goes against the family.
Published in Art Guide, December 12, 2018