The rightwing of politics has never much liked contemporary art. Contemporary art is always, in the minds of right-thinking types, liberal, leftish, elitist, obscure and airy-fairy. Such complaints have been thrown at artists for decades, but the best part of the 90s and 00s, they receded into the background, as mainstream culture found its current enthusiasm for art, and as politicians, financiers and developers all got behind what growing popular appeal of contemporary art.
But in a post-Trump, post-Brexit atmosphere, the cultural mood is showing signs of change, and the contempt for contemporary art is reappearing, dressed up in populist rhetoric. Helen Marten, who this week was awarded the UK’s Turner Prize, had some inkling of this in her acceptance speech, when she talked of a swing against an open, “pluralist and liberal outlook”, mentioning the rise of “alt-right groups gaining a very visible and frightening political platform for a xenophobic, homophobic and racist outlook on the world’.
In a post-Trump, post-Brexit atmosphere, the cultural mood is showing signs of change, and the contempt for contemporary art is reappearing, dressed up in populist rhetoric
The Turner Prize has always been something of public punchbag for disgruntlement over the supposed excesses and pretensions of contemporary art. But this year rightwing commentators lost no time in heaping scorn on the prize as symbol of everything that was wrong with contemporary culture. First out of the gate was Conservative MP, former minister and pro-Brexit campaigner Michael Gove, who tweeted to the effect that the Turner Prize was ‘modish crap’. In reply to fellow Tory and former culture minister Ed Vaizey’s defence that the prize ‘celebrates brilliant contemporary artists’, Gove opined that it ‘celebrates ugliness, nihilism and narcissism – the tragic emptiness of now’.
Other Turner Prize-hating commentators were quick to follow. Writing for the Daily Mail, Quentin Letts sniped at outgoing Tate boss Nicholas Serota, declaring that Serota had replaced traditional art like panting ‘with installations so cryptic that most of the public (whose tax money is being abused) is baffled by it’. And while Letts had no problem with Marten’s warnings about rightwing extremists, he still held Marten and her ilk in some way responsible: ‘If she feels that strongly about opposing it, should she not consider creating art that speaks more to the broader mass of our citizenry rather than a recherche elite?’
Work by Helen Marten (installation view, Turner Prize 2016, Tate Britain, London). Photo: Joe Humphrys. Courtesy Tate Photography
It’s not hard to see how the complaint about contemporary-art-as-baffling-elitism chimes with many on the right trying to push populist sentiment in their direction. Writing in the rightwing Express, historian Tim Newark pushed hard on the Brexit metaphor, declaring that ‘you can step in to a gallery in London, Barcelona, Paris or Berlin and you will see the same kind of pretentious art underwhelming visitors. Like EU bureaucrats in denial about Brexit they fail to acknowledge the disconnect between artists and their audience, blaming ignorance or prejudice for a lack of appreciation.’
That analogy, of the disconnect between mainstream audiences and the artistic elite, and voters and the political elite, hits contemporary art where it is most vulnerable, namely, the problem of its ‘relevance’ to the public, and its apparent inability to connect with more than a narrow group of specialists and aficionados. Yet the demand for art to be relevant has often come from liberals and the left as much as the right. Writing for the Evening Standard, a more supportive, liberal-sounding Jesse Thompson nevertheless had to admit that this was a ‘particularly inward-looking year for the contemporary art prize. [Marten’s] speech lamented cuts to the arts in schools and the rise of alt-right groups, but this year’s shortlist was significant for its lack of engagement with what has been a particularly turbulent twelve months.’ ‘For this year’s offerings to feel so out of joint with our troubling times’, Thompson suggested, ‘plays into the hands of the naysayers.’ Thompson goes on to praise the previous year’s winners, the architecture group Assemble, for their socially engaged work renovating housing in Liverpool. For her, art is good when it responds to the social and political world around it, while perhaps being a bit socially useful on the side.
Why should art have to make itself ‘relevant’? It’s a poor standard to judge things by
But why should art have to make itself ‘relevant’? It’s a poor standard to judge things by. And yet the response to the Turner Prize reveals that the culture of contemporary art finds it hard to communicate what artists understand to be good or bad, and why anyone should be interested. Social relevance is easy to explain, but aesthetic relevance is a far harder sell: as Thompson rather self-consciously admits of Marten’s work, ‘unpacking it takes a great deal of time and patience’.
The question of explaining artworks presupposes that the experience one gains should be enhanced from it through ‘time and patience’ – through looking, thinking, discussing, making value judgements. And perhaps contemporary artists have also become too complacent – while they had the support of politicians and governments – to assume that they only need to speak to their own, engaged audience. It is also true that as the years have gone by, showcase exhibitions like the Turner Prize have appeared to present only the work of an increasingly confident but introspective artistic culture, supported by an ever-more stable and professionalised system of commercial and public galleries, who either aren’t interested in what the public thinks, or take its support for granted. Such aspects of the artworld have become easy metaphors for the aloofness and privilege of cultural elites.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the flamboyant and opinionated British artist Grayson Perry, would be one of the few British artists to see the Trump and Brexit votes as a positive thing for artists. Speaking at a creative industries event in London in November, Perry declared that “Voting Brexit and for Trump is a big cry, it’s a big fuck you to us lot.” According to Perry, those Brexit and Trump voters were “fed up of being told how to think and to feel by us lot in our lovely Islington houses doing our media thing, going to our nice parties with free booze.” Perry added that “We can’t keep on peddling our same old comfortable ideas and preach to the already converted. No, let’s go out there and genuinely engage with the majority of the population.”
But going out there to ‘engage with the majority’ could mean many things, and it doesn’t necessarily mean pandering to the perceived opinions of the majority, or giving people art they’re comfortable with or that might be ‘relevant’ to their lives. Making demands of art – whether for it to be socially engaged, or for it to be ‘understandable’ to the majority – are both impositions, constraints on its freedom. But what artists – and their public – should really demand is the freedom to think, make, show, see and argue over what is good as art, not what politics – right or left – thinks is relevant. This might mean that artists need to up the stakes in how they address their public. It might mean rethinking what it is to communicate and makes sense of the challenges and possibilities that face individuals, their society, their moment in time. It might mean artists take another look at how to inspire others to want to understand what isn’t easy, rather than remain the comfortable enclave of an ‘artworld’ that ‘gets it’. In the end, it may mean working out how to reinvent the public for contemporary art, one that is more popular than populist.
Online exclusive published on 9 December 2016.