One of the Universal Laws of Cultural Production states that: ‘In any given field of creative endeavour, there will always be X number of Phonies who are Y times less talented than you and your friends, but who are enjoying exponentially Z times more success.’ It’s the principle that governs questions such as: ‘Why did he get that solo exhibition and not me?’ ‘Why did she get that prize and not my friend?’ And ‘Why does nobody like my ceramic sculptures of Benedict Cumberbatch?’ On a good day, this rule can shift things up a gear in the studio, drive determination to show ’em what you’re made of. But if you’re stuck in a rut, it can make you want to leave the Phonies to rot whilst you go and live in the boondocks, raise chickens and hope your work will be rediscovered in your dotage. But Phonies come and Phonies go. Just flick through the advertising pages of decades-old art magazines and you’ll see the names of artists whose work was once sold as champagne and which today can’t even be passed off as tap water. Reassure yourself that the same cycles will continue to repeat themselves – all you need to do is concentrate on making the work. And if you’re thinking of quitting, remind yourself that the grass only looks greener on the far side of the hill because someone’s been spray-painting it.
At least, that’s what I tell myself when I get the alienation blues; when I feel numb to the theatre of cultural self-importance and financial power playing out around art, wondering just who the whole shebang is for. My pep talk doesn’t always work and is powerless in the face of questions such as: ‘Why does Jeff Koons’s work leave me with a sense of hopeless emptiness?’ ‘Why are insipid abstract paintings made by obnoxious frat boys so popular?’ And ‘Why won’t Marina Abramović please stop?’ But, directed creatively, a little anger and alienation can go a long way. Surely you can’t always expect everything you see to be relatable?
Ah yes, ‘relatable’. In July this year, Ira Glass, presenter of the popular US radio show ‘This American Life’, used the word to diss Shakespeare: ‘not relatable, unemotional’, was his accusation, which he tweeted after seeing a production of King Lear (1606) in New York’s Central Park. Boos and hisses issued from all corners of the internet forced Glass to admit his remark was indefensible. Rebecca Mead responded in The New Yorker with a piece titled ‘The Scourge of Relatability’, in which she criticized the expectation that a work of art ‘itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer’. Mead observed that: ‘The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her […] To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize – because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy – is our own failure.’
Contemporary art is frequently accused of not being ‘relatable’. ‘It doesn’t look like anything recognizable.’ ‘It’s ugly.’ ‘It’s difficult.’ I don’t want art to be ‘relatable’ to me any more than I want every novel or film to be about 30-something art magazine editors living in New York. One of the joys of looking at art should be that it nurtures empathy and gives imagination a workout. This is how the arts cultivate compassion and understanding between people. Paradoxically, what is so pernicious about the demand that a work of art be ‘relatable’ – which on the face of things seems such a reasonable, democratic criterion – is precisely that it refuses to relate to anyone beyond the person demanding it. (Consider how many wars have been caused by one group of people being unable to find another ‘relatable’.)
Then there is the un-relatable problem of elitism. This elitism might be financial – or, rather, the messy conflation of art with the people who buy it – or it might be intellectual; art about art, or art that is legible only to those with specialist knowledge. In these instances, being ‘relatable’ starts to look more attractive. But there are always alternative conversations to be had, other ways of seeing. Take, for instance, vapid abstract painting. I can’t relate to its current popularity, but it’s given me a greater appreciation for all the other things painting can do: for example, Sigmar Polke’s show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art this past summer looked fresh as a daisy, as did Amy Sillman’s survey show upstate at CCS Bard. Koons’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art left me cold, but it reminded me how much I admired Mark Leckey’s 2004 film Made in ’Eaven (currently on display in his major survey exhibition at WIELS, Brussels) in which a camera circles a steel Koons ‘balloon’ bunny, its reflection absent from the surface of the sculpture – a meditation on how hard it can be to relate to a work of art.
Recently, I came across notes I’d made towards a satirical novel about the art world. The plot involved an exhibition of do-gooder ‘socially engaged’ work that mutates into a monomaniacal religious cult. I never got more than a few hundred words into writing it; satire quickly calcified into stereotype and, for every phony artist or curator I wanted to parody, I could think of dozens of artists and curators I knew working hard to be creative and thoughtful, often with limited means. That’s the thing about alienation: sometimes it’s simply too easy to relate to.
Dan Fox is US editor at large of frieze and is based in New York, USA. His most recent books, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), are both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
First published in Issue 166