Hot on the farcical heels of the Booker Prize being shared between two authors (Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo), this week the painting & decorating equivalent, the Turner, was shared between all four nominees. I so wish it was a case of the quartet inadvertently receiving the same number of votes, as infamously happened in the four-way-tie of the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest; but bless my boom bang-a-bang, no. The artists themselves made a decision to share it. All being of an age to have been raised in an educational environment that frowns on open competition and preaches the ‘everyone’s a winner’ mantra, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani and Lawrence Abu Hamdan were making a ‘statement’ – and guess which side of the divide they were making it from, folks!

The reasons given for their decision are peppered with predictable buzz-words – ‘patriarchy’, ‘toxic political environment’, ‘climate chaos’, ‘hostile environment’ – and one of them even has the gall to compare their stunt to the two American athletes who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. No. Tommie Smith and Walter Carlos were putting their careers on the line by expressing solidarity with a radical political movement that was almost viewed as ISIS-like by the US establishment of the time; they were consciously going against the consensus held by the majority of the American public, the governing body of their sport, and the general powers-that-be – and they paid the price for their actions. Neither Smith nor Carlos was ever picked to represent their country at an international sporting event again.

By contrast, the four artists in question are consciously boosting their profiles by allying themselves with the consensus; there is nothing remotely brave or daring or career-threatening about their stance, completely the opposite. They are expressing solidarity with the media establishment, and virtually every public face of the creative industries. Their stance is akin to The Sex Pistols acting as Max Bygraves’ backing band on a special Silver Jubilee edition of ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’ in 1977. It’s really about time the outdated falsity of artists being renegade desperados operating on the cutting edges of society was shown the door; this quartet has demonstrated once again that most artists today are conservative, conformist and about as dangerous and subversive as your average edition of ‘Songs of Praise’.

Surely if they really were what their PR paints them as, they’d all vocally advocate Leave; nothing could isolate you from your peers and elders in the Arts quicker than that. The ensuing blacklisting and backlash such a shocking move would entail could cast them as genuine outsiders within their Woke world, i.e. actual bona-fide rebels. Of course, that’s not the case. One of them apparently wore a pendant proclaiming ‘TORIES OUT’. Ooh, how outrageous! This is pure ‘Rik, the People’s Poet’ stuff.

Moreover, the real deal wouldn’t even have accepted being nominated for the Turner in the first place; YBA Sarah Lucas, for example, has turned it down at every opportunity – just as David Bowie refused to sanction the notion of a knighthood whenever it was pushed his way. The four were so quick to compare themselves to Tommie Smith and Walter Carlos, but perhaps if they had done what Marlon Brando did when he won the Best Actor award at the 1973 Oscars and sent a representative of the persecuted minorities they seek to align themselves with to say ‘up yours’ to the entire awards ceremony industry by refusing it, they might have earned a bit more respect beyond the smug, self-righteous echo chambers of Guardianistas.

It goes without saying that the political opinions of the winning quartet will inevitably bleed into their work; wherever they stand, they have an absolute right to declare it through their prime vehicle of personal expression – as artists always have. But please drop the pretence of contemporary artists being in the tradition of the disreputable thieves and vagabonds that have peppered the creative firmament for centuries – particularly when your point of view is entirely in line with establishment thinking. When more or less every notable figure to have emerged from the Arts over the past couple of decades is promoting the consensus, one would imagine a young artist would instinctively go against the grain, to distance themselves from the old guard and create their own agenda that gets up the noses of their predecessors. But perhaps that’s a redundant concept now. And maybe that’s the problem for those of us who grew up in an era when ‘rip it up and start again’ was the maxim, when cultural creativity was engaged in a cycle of constant reinvention that meant each new generation alienated and aggravated the one before it.

Lest we forget, however, money is a big issue here too. Artists today are careerists, in it for profit as much as any other businessman or woman. But art is more than that. You don’t choose to become an artist; it chooses you and it won’t let you go, even if you desperately need to eat or sleep and are down to your last quid. It’s routinely dismissed as not ‘a proper job’ by philistines whose concept of work is doing something you hate for 40 years; anything remotely creative that could have moments of enjoyment is regarded as a hobby. Bollocks. If it’s in you, it’s what you’re alive for. No, it’s not a job; but it’s not even a vocation – that is too gentrified a term to describe what is closer to an incurable medical condition.

Actual cutting-edge performance artist veteran Marina Abramović put it better; in response to wannabe artists who approached her with the aim of becoming rich and famous, she told them that is not the reason to make art. ‘Those things are just side effects that you may be lucky enough to achieve,’ she said. ‘Your reason for doing art should be much deeper. You know you are an artist if you have to do art – it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.’ But she also recoiled at the way in which artists have capitulated to the demands of millionaire art dealers treating expression as an investment. ‘The success of an artist is generally measured by how much he can sell his work for, especially in America,’ she said. ‘This is shocking to me. How can you measure people like that?’

I recently read the autobiography of record producer Joe Boyd, an entrepreneurial American who came to the UK at precisely the right moment in the 60s. He effectively discovered Pink Floyd when running London’s legendary Psychedelic nightspot, the UFO, and then went on to oversee Island Records’ impressive roster of artists to have emerged from the British folk scene – Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn et al. But he was also a sound engineer at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan delivered a resounding ‘fuck you’ to the humourless folk puritans by turning his amp up to eleven and bringing them the electric future. Nobody today would react in the way they reacted to Dylan’s groundbreaking move in 1965 because nobody would care when music, along with the Arts in general, has been downgraded to the level of a ringtone rather than a matter of life and death. Well, some of us would; maybe that’s why I’ve penned a post highlighting just four more virtue-signallers in an already overcrowded marketplace of charlatans and hypocrites.

This year, my day-to-day life has largely followed a dismally familiar path of acute anxiety, crippling depression, and all their myriad offshoots – with the vital exception of those feverish outbursts when my benign creative juices have been flowing. I think I finally understand the purpose this serves for me now, for whilst I haven’t had much fun, I have produced two novels, a children’s book, and two collections of poetry as well as compiling four volumes of ‘Winegum’ essays. And though I barely made a penny from any of them, that wasn’t the point. Like I said, it chooses you. And it singles you out probably because it knows you have very little else. Art can save lives.

© The Editor

One thought on “ART FOR ART’S SAKE

  1. As a congenital non-artist, I am nevertheless unstinting in my admiration of those who possess those art and craft skills which stimulate my wonder. Not all of them, obviously, as with most philistines ‘I know what I like’ is the measure. But if ‘artists’ get their kicks by doing other, sometimes madcap, projects, that’s their decision/obsession/compulsion whatever – as long as it doesn’t scare the horses, that’s OK by me.

    But everyone has to eat and it’s only a small proportion of ‘artists’ who can ever make a reasonable living from their art: they may not be the best ones, more likely they’re just the lucky ones who happened to hit the lucrative zeitgeist, but no matter how committed one may be to the art, filling the stomach and paying the rent score more highly in the survival stakes, so compromise becomes the necessity for most.

    What raises my hackles is if, as a tax-payer, I’m expected to fund the parasitic lifestyles of the terminally useless simply because ‘the establishment’ thinks it’s good for me. If opera can’t pay its own way by charging enough for its seats, then I shouldn’t have to subsidise it: same goes for any other ‘artistic’ endeavour, it has to earn its own place and fund its own existence by appealing to willing clients, and that’s not The State, which is actually me in disguise.

    As for the multiple Turner ‘winners’, they should perhaps be known as the ‘Toenail Four’ – so far up their own precious arses that only their toenails are visible.

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