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Unpopular Culture

Questioning the value of popularisation

The Turner Prize signals that point in the year when the general public is reminded of the existence of contemporary art. Initiated by the Tate Gallery, brokered by Channel Four Television and monitored by the national press, it works as a kind of blind date between recent art and a wider audience, producing the usual array of mismatches, gaffes, bad jokes and awkward silences typical of such encounters. But however embarassing it may turn out to be in practice, the principal is generally held to be a good thing. While the particular structure, timing, organisation, and coverage of the prize is constantly criticised, revised, re-examined, re-interpreted and re-presented, the founding idea - that it is virtuous to bring current art to the attention of more people - is rarely questioned.

But what exactly is the value of popularising - or trying to popularise - contemporary art? What, or rather who, benefits from this ritual? The artists? The public (whoever they are)? The Tate? The press? Obviously the last two stand to gain something in terms of visitors or readers and one artist gets a decent cheque out of it, but that really isn't the point. Such quantifying exercises may mean something to administrators but they say nothing at all about art and people's relationship with it. Why is the prospect of more people going to art galleries assumed to be, in itself, a positive development? Why and how is it better for art to be, or to be seen to be, popular?

Modern art of the last 150 or so years has not generally been very popular; moreover, it is a commonplace that modern art has in part defined itself in opposition to conventional taste. Certainly artists have exploited popular sources in a number of ways - from Courbet and Seurat to Warhol and Koons - but this has had little to do with courting popularity. It isn't necessarily that artists have consciously set out to defy 'the public' so much that this largely imaginary body has been irrelevant to the development of art. The point is that art has been subject to exactly the same forces that affect every other meaningful activity in modern culture: the forces of specialisation. It always strikes me as an odd complaint that modern art is difficult to understand. Why should anyone expect it to be anything else? I have never heard the same charge levelled against science, mathematics, mechanics or dentistry. It is accepted (if not welcomed) that these subjects are 'difficult'; that in order to understand them it is necessary to read some books, got to some lectures, learn the language, and so on. When art is 'difficult', abstract, not-immediately-accessible, it is labelled 'elitist'.

It is probably a condition of saying or making anything significant in our culture that it will be said to or made for relatively few people. General truths are for the most part empty words. Léger wrote in 1913: 'Each art is isolating itself and limiting itself to its own field. Specialisation is a characteristic of modern life, and pictorial art, like all other manifestations of the human mind, must submit to it.' Pure modernism. But the point for Léger was that this condition 'results in a gain in realism in visual art'. That is, for Léger, modernism was the realism of the 20th century, not its imaginary other. 80 years after Léger observation, there hasn't been a noticeable easing off in the process of specialisation. Yet still there's a deep resistance to art's inevitable position in the modern world.

Not only the art becomes an increasingly specialised activity, it has also sub-divided into a series of sub-specialisms. Art criticism, at least in the 'specialist' journals, has become increasingly bound up with its own methods and means and increasingly autonomous from art. The same is true of art history which in some instances seems to have abolished the connection with art altogether. It is telling and ironic that at least as many - and probably most - complaints about the 'elitism' of modernism come from these sub-specialist areas as from outside art. It is not the first time art has become a scapegoat for other's professional, social or political insufficiencies.

The psychological condition which tends to accompany specialisation is paranoia. As we become more and more dependent on 'experts' to mediate between the specialist and the non-specialist, we have to take a lot on trust, and trust involves the possibility of being taken for a ride. Art, it seems, has become a focus for the paranoid anxiety which is inherent in our relationship with modernity in general. This being the case, any self-appointed mediator between art and the public - the Tate Gallery or Channel Four for example - has their work cut out. The danger of doing exactly the opposite of what was intended, of intensifying rather than dissolving public doubt and cynicism, will always be present. Add to this the recognition both that a significant amount of art and art-talk really is pretentious and self-satisfied, and that a rather more significant proportion of the media act wholly in bad faith - and then ask whether it's worth the trouble. Certainly if the trouble amounts to a small annual four-person exhibition and a couple of short TV features, then no one should be surprised when absolutely nothing noticeable changes.

The point is not that 'the public' doesn't matter, but that it doesn't exist. Like the-silent-majority, people-in-general, and the-man-in-the-street, it is a self-justifying fantasy of politicians, civil servants, administrators and journalists. It is a mythical creature with invisible interests on whose behalf people claim to speak, so as to disguise the self-interest of their own actions. It's one of the great self-deceptions of our age. Artists have a responsibility to art, not to anything or anyone else. So much for bringing contemporary art closer to 'the public'. It's a blind date with a ghost.

Issue 20

First published in Issue 20

Jan - Feb 1995
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