Art is an evolving language: one that, if you’re not careful, you can unlearn as well as learn
The other day, while trying to take refuge from the twin evils of the news cycle and online articles predicting what will happen in 2021’s artworld, I reminded myself I hadn’t yet made a New Year’s resolution. My rationale had been the usual one in recent times – we might not see the end of the year, so why bother – but finally the listicles and headlines made me slam my laptop shut, and I decided to have another crack at starting the year with good intentions. I flashed back to something an artist told me a couple of years back, when we’d been sitting in his studio and talking about art fairs, those hideous affairs that we may or may not see revivified in months to come. “The people who complain about art fairs are the people who go to art fairs,” said the fifty-something artist, “I don’t. I go to artist-run spaces.” The next time I saw him, it was in Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and so I reminded him of our chat. “This place was founded by artists!” he said. I pulled out the yellow card and waved it in his face. But, true or not, his initial assertion apropos resolving to do better has continued to eat away at me because it’s very easy, in the artworld, to settle almost imperceptibly into a rut, or, more politely, a focused space of exploration.
Maybe, after a certain age, you catch yourself with an autopilot gallery circuit that doesn’t include spaces that opened less than three years ago – or less than 20. Or you notice that artists over a certain age (say, mid-forties), having long ago established their aesthetic territory and being now exclusively focused on nuancing it, don’t go to shows at all (except, maybe, the openings of exhibitions by their friends or things like Rembrandt blockbusters), feeling that there is nothing they might receive from younger artists except the anxiety of incoming obsolescence. You go to an opening and there’s nobody under fifty; you go to an opening and there’s nobody else over twenty-five. (And maybe you don’t go again). You tell yourself, defensively, that the art you’re going to best understand is that of your own generation and, with a little effort, older ones, whereas ‘the kids’ use pop-cultural reference points that you don’t have time to keep up with and aside from that are just imitating their elders. The latter is an easy trap to fall into because we’re hardwired to see patterns: similarities before innovations. A few months back, for example, I – yes, even I – was strolling swiftly round a show somewhere in Berlin’s Wedding district, where the galleries are mostly embryonic, while mentally ticking off ‘post-minimalism… Cady Noland rip-off… generic 1980s… more post-minimalism…’ What was new here, I thought? Well, I was in Wedding. (It had been someone else’s idea.)
Much of the above is entropy in action, and the kind of slippage it might be useful to guard and even resolve against, no matter what your station. Conversely, a little generational unease can be useful as a spur, as can a reminder that every generation looks gauche and superficial to its elders. Today’s greying gatekeepers have it perhaps slightly harder in dealing with contemporary art practice that is frequently in conversation with the past, using it as foundational. But that, to quote Leonard Cohen, don’t make it junk. (Well, OK, some of it is.) And it’s a lot less interesting to skim the cream (or whatever) by visiting established galleries than it is to see the whole picture of an artist’s ascent, from poky space in the ‘wrong’ area to biennales or whatever. Plus, you’ll get more exercise. A while back, I noticed a little gallery in Weissensee, a short distance from where I live, on the way to a picturesque park. My first thought, on passing it, was philosophical: it’s in Weissensee, ergo it’s shit. Then I started to notice the space, open by appointment-only (and, the website suggests, dormant since August), popping up on tastemakers’ lists of must-visit emerging galleries in Berlin. Peering through the window at some sloppy-looking paintings in an unlit room, it’s hard to discern how good something is. But it might be hard for some viewers to get a sense with the lights on too. Art is an evolving language: one that, if you’re not careful, you can unlearn as well as learn.
It may be a Sisyphean process, reminding yourself to consider all the strata of the artworld; certainly a time-consuming one. Plus my wife recalls talking to an older French artist who had taught for a long time, and who said to her of younger artists’ work (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) “at some point you just can’t understand it”. But it’s partly down to you when that happens. Look, for instance, at Calvin Tomkins, who is ninety-four and still writing about contemporary art. Conversely, and whether at New Year’s or not, you may take a long hard look at yourself and decide consciously that, rather than succumbing to inertia, you’d prefer to segue from engaging with the contemporary to stopping the clock. At which point you might transition towards being an art historian, an institutional curator, or the equivalent of that guy in the Netflix show Cobra Kai who drives around listening to 1980s hair-metal in a vintage Pontiac Firebird. (Not necessarily a bad thing.) If not – or not yet – then a key factor in sticking to resolutions is accountability, which is why it helps to have an opinion column. So I could say to myself that this year I’m determined to hit the peripheries rather than go to art fairs, but instead I’m saying it here. And I’m happy to announce that so far, a whole week into 2021, I haven’t been to a single fair; and I haven’t skipped a single exhibition in a Berlin off-space. You may point out that they’re all closed due to lockdown; but, frankly, that’s quibbling.