“we would have known and surely would have predicted that the General Motors of the art world – the museums and universities – would ultimately seek to alleviate their post-market status and control the means of production … Within 10 years, the art world was on its way to becoming a transnational bureaucracy. Everybody had a job description and a résumé … I was face to face with a generation of well-educated and expensively trained young artists whose extended tenure in art schools appended to the art world had totally divorced them from any social reality beyond it.”
David Hickey quoted in Gordon Burn ‘Make it New’ Guardian October 14th 2006
Hickey is talking about the 1970′s in America but just as we have lagged behind our unweildly offspring in so many things since WWII – armaments, planning, social movements, music so too we have lagged in Art Education. Hickey’s words are echoed by sculptor Richard Serra who called it ‘Floor and drawer art’ – referring to the fashion for conceptual, documentary and installation work. ‘Plus ca change’. Here we are in the late naughties playing catch-up again but this time the implications for an art-world on brink of overload are severe. What has this to do with the offspring of our munificent academies toting their ‘cutting-edge’ wares before us on a sunny evening at Angel Row? Well everything and nothing…..
To explain I have to tell you a little story……
Once upon a time there was an Irishman and an Englishman and they both dreamt of America….one ended up there studying at Yale with the same Richard Serra and one made it across from the hinterland of Birmingham on a Fullbright. What both of them ingested as well as a respect and understanding of American academic practices and art-scene was an understanding of the new world that was emerging. No more cosy provincial art-schools with their tired old life-drawing rooms and quaint practices. No they saw a golden vision of a big brash new world and they weren’t going to let the old feudalism dent their dreams. The history of post WWII propagandist use of art movements such as Pop and Abstract Expressionism as examples of ‘democratic American freedom’ is well written. Far more subtle and really only apparent now years later is the influence of the free-market on the art schools of Britain. In an unholy alliance academics with left-wing sympathies who were able to earn right-wing lifestyles found that the ‘freedoms’ of a free-market in education gave them prestige and their bosses higher turnover and profits. Locked together ‘Art Education’ and ‘Commerce’ factors danced like there was no tomorrow.
The Irishman was Michael Craig Martin and in his pivitol role at Goldsmiths he ushered in the YBA (Young British Artists) phenomenon. The other character in my story is John Newling of Trent University ( formerly Polytechnic). At Trent Newling has overseen a similar if less glamorous drive towards both improving standards and building the new University’s reputation in the arts. It is the nature of what that built upon that I am interested in..those words of Hickey and Serra came back to haunt me as I moved around the Angel Row in the evening sunlight……are we witnessing the evening shadows lengthening on the day in the sun promised by the YBA circus…I think we are…..
As a student Trent had already a growing reputation, Goldmiths too but nobody could have predicted the sea-change in the arts that they have overseen. At Hornsey College in 1980′s I witnessed a full scale attack on the bourgeoise notions of craftsmanship, artistic talent and skill as ‘new arts’ performance, installation and digital swept all before them ..this a full 5 years before YBA’s. The students of the 1970′s had prospered and brought their own practice to the art school corridors..out with the old and in with the new. In the art critical wilderness voices opposed to this turn around were berated as hopelessly conservative..Peter Fuller who had started his published life on a left-wing press was berated as a closet fascist. The art-war was over…progress had won and as the numbers of students swelled ( fuelled partly by a government which had become a dab-hand at closing down all else especially manufacturing) and the money flowed in and the old ‘Polys’ blossomed into cathedrals of light and regenerated beauty who could argue? In Nottingham’s case the University actually built a new business school on the site of the old Raleigh factory. There was never a better time to be an artist and the YBA cash cows were the icing on the cake……..things could only get better and better…couldn’t they?
20 years on and the cracks in the facade have started to appear. The new Unis have been very succesful for those lucky enough to be within their privileged walls..and increasingly the proportion of ‘overseas’ students is climbing in direct relation to the falling numbers of U.K. students unable to navigate the fees fiasco or convince their parents that the art lottery worth playing. Meanwhile the Further Education colleges take up the old boring mundane training duties for ‘real work’ the hairdressers and bricklayers who would have trained on the job in the old days. It not only the working class feeling the pinch as Grayson Perry noted even the middle-classes beloved of Blair are examining the fine print carefully these days before committing their hard earned cash. The art-world today has been transformed and here the nub of my story……what we seeing is a generation of ‘Floor and Drawer’ artists….our clean, bright lovely ‘New Professionals’ who could have easily gone into medicine, architecture or been vets…the art-world has been ‘scrubbed up’ for the naughties..it had to be to carry on…anarchists, hairies, yippes of old need not apply…..solid artworks and intellectual rigour only…if it is weird it is safe ‘weird’. Which brings me back to my reverie in the late sun in the soon to be ‘upgraded and cleansed’ Angel Row. Where has all the fun gone..the anarchy, the dare I say it ‘revolution’ and as for ‘social reality..you ‘avin a larf guv’nor?………..
Oh dear am I being too old-fashioned for you dear reader?
Parade 3: Curated by Leo Fitzmaurice (who incidently has some fairly slight squibs on supermarket posters in the entrance) is the final act in the three-ring circus that was Parade – an attempt to showcase the brightest and most ‘urgent’ art from the sunny East Midlands.
In concept it draws on a large amount of networking events and in-house collaboration between artists chosen because they already ‘performing’ across the ‘Critical Network’ i.e. a post degree infrastructure that effectively promotes more of the same and excludes just about everybody else from the show. Imagine a Circus tent that pitched up in town and when you arrived 90% of the acts were clowns and when asked ‘where are the horses and elephants and even the jugglers’ you were told sorry by official decree only the clowns can take part the rest have been deemed too ‘reactionary, conservative or just too old’. The factors causing this state of affairs are tedious and would take a book to explain but art as instrument of social policy, art as regeneration symbol, art as education and most importantly artists under 30 as keys to unlocking European Funding have all played their part. Factor-in a developing network of self-promoting across the land and you have a virtual ‘alternative art scene’ but is it ? What is mind-numbing about this series of shows is how ‘safe’ it really is and how old-fashioned it all looks. The new underground drinks lattes, shops at Muji and uses their arts council grants as deposits on houses…capitalism must be quaking in its boots. One artist ( the oldest in show of course) actually has a thread of the real rebel in him and it shows.
Another reviewer noted the air of ‘inconsequantiality’ about this third show and he nailed it. This is Sunday supplement wannabe art. It affects an air of defiant rebelliousness but it no more real than a Peter Docherty ‘poem’ or Tracy Emin Sunday column. Art has been divorced from its social setting and artists starved for years of funds and attention are more than happy to dance to the piper’s tune. In an area like the East Midlands where there virtually no private sales system that means Academia and Subsidy…….they are all on A&S (the medical overtone there correct) without it most would have withered on the vine years ago or got proper jobs. So what is ‘Joe Public’ (conspicuous by his absence of course) to make of this Parade in his name?
I could list every artist’s name but for a fuller overview please read Mark Patterson’s incisive account in the Nottingham Evening Post (which incidently in response to public clamour for art coverage recently reduced said coverage by half in order to print more dating ads…). I am just going to give my honest appreciation of the work as it shown. I know only one participant and that is Paul Matosic whose floor piece of dismembered computer parts got a a thumbs up from Mark Patterson and which I agree is a highlight of the show. Another piece which caught my eye immediately was Hessing’s assemblage of multiplugs…concise and a formally inventive and clever piece that had real ‘sculptural’ precsence. In the same room Godfrey’s magazine excerpts were Foundation level smartypants, ( ditto Davis …so you took these symbols of capitalism and contemporanity…and you ‘broke them down” …..how exciting……..) Jamieson’s envelopes were a good joke…Sol Lewitt for the poor? Ayling and Conroy I leave to an anonymous comment I ‘overheard’ …” art for the front page of Frieze only it will never make it’…..it looked like Jeff Koons on a bedsit budget… if they’d aimed lower like the neatly formulated ’96 tears and 96 eyes’ they could have got frontpage of A.R. publicity literature instead. One thing I cannot fault though is the premise of lo-fi, reusing objects as defined by the overall curation….it is stuff and sometimes it is happening but mostly it isn’t.
Stuff that could have enjoyed development included Stevenson’s signage…nicely done and could progress, Hessing’s ‘re-modulations’ and maybe Fisher’s other work although HAL was a bit too pop culture referential to have any real bite but full marks for a laddy reinvestigation of traditional laddette materials. Kirshnir’s morse code was a good idea badly presented.
Stuff that emphatically, ‘oh god why bother’ didn’t happen for me and quite a few others, included Gubb’s amplifier…yawn….and Danica Maier’s soft (literally lace..but from abroad…not Nottingham you understand…) pornographic cartoon. Nothing trembling there. By coincidence the two most lethargic entrants have the academic seal of approval….and if Norman and Mayer continue like this they will soon join them.
Stuff Happens..was sort of Ok in a five out of ten way….to return to the vegetable metaphors then this was more like a street barrow at 5pm on a Saturday and whilst most of it was well past sell-by date intellectually ( pace 1970′s and 1980′s conceptualism and assemblage) there were some still fresh bargains to be had and at least the curator/barrow boy tried to showcase as much as possible…i.e. throw enough against wall some sticks ….rest flog it cheap mate..
So what does any of that have to do with the first part of this extended ‘rant’ or ‘diagnosis’ depending on your age/social background and access to those barrow boys and girls of benevolence….A.C.E.?
Well members of the jury my prognosis is simple. What has happened with our art education system is directly reflected in the quality and the depth of the work these artists display. Too many older artists in the East Midlands have tried to reinvent themselves in recent years to gain access to these charmed circles and in doing so have jettisoned any credibility and development for a handful of silver. Amongst the younger artists the ‘wow factor teaching’ has left them polishing old ideas in ever decreasing circles and now ever decreasing funding. The golden eggs are no longer going to be dished out for fourth rate art and I’m afraid the only gold will be hanging around athletes necks. The system of professionalisation has left us with a glut of pretentious semi-curators with more and more artists of variable talents to ‘curate’. Academia is the ‘safe-house’ where the avant-garde can sleep safely and all the while the ‘social reality’ remains a late-night bus ride away. There was not one reference in any of this work to the actual area of the East Midlands. That ‘social reality’ simply didn’t exist. The ivory towers have not got any taller ..they have just got thicker walls.
Once upon a time there was an Irishman,an Englishman and a Scotsman and they dreamt of America…they dreamt of revolution. of turning the world upside down…where is Tom Paine or Burns when you need him most?
To quote a singer in a band..Jefferson I think we’re lost…..
All we have now after the Parade has passed are a handful of beans and a golden goose….oh and a lovely, lovely square…
Editor’s note: Apologies to Alexander Stevenson for an honest mistake re. his and Kirshnir’s work. In the speed of writing I mistakenly assigned his (positive) mention with Kirshnir. This has now been rectified and a heartfelt apology to both. My only defence is it a genuine mistake and my incredible age. Even with proof-reading sometimes things slip through. Amended version now online.