Culture in Crisis: A breath of Fresh Air

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“I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property or between art and state property... Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop any further... I find the function of art criticism...serves to uphold the art market... Thus, today I am more tolerant of those artists who are reduced to being largely destructive.” Writing in 1979, John Berger highlights the contradiction between art and private property as the global art market boomed, driven by the expansion of art fairs and so-called ‘art biennials’ — art auction orgies every other year. The commodified nature of this art reduced much of it to simply another item in investment portfolios for the super-rich.
This art world became part of the financial bubble, globalisation and neoliberalism. It was in the 1980s and 1990s that the wave of YBAs (young British artists) hit the scene embracing and celebrating the market in stark contrast to the rebellious art of the 1960s and 1970s. An international art world of galleries, celebrities, high fashion and bling came to dominate the art scene. This world has been thrown into crisis with the lockdown, the contradictions described by Berger opened up by the double whammy of global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) rebellion. Art workers are on strike fighting job cuts at the Tate while political art and activists’ art has returned on a scale not seen the 1970s. Whenever there are deep political and social upheavals it has immediate effects on art. The BLM movement has opened up questions about the racist nature of the art world and directly led to a several artworks related to the BLM movement.
The virus and the economic crisis have hit public galleries hard since they have become largely dependant on tourism, their content and exhibitions driven by attracting cash from overseas visitors. It is far from certain that the emergency funding from the government, explained by Richard Bradbury in the paper following this one, will save all of them. At the very least, the era of grand galleries, a feature of the past two decades with every city wanting its own world-famous version, is coming to an end. Spectacular galleries designed by famous architects (Bilbao, Dubai and so on) or converted industrial buildings have been a feature of neoliberalism, but the SOCIALIST REVIEW | SEPTEMBER 2020 | 25 intertwined health, economic and social crises threatens this.
As world art fairs for the dealers and super rich grind to a halt the billionaires will turn to the net to buy the prestige art outputs of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and the like. Large art dealers like Sothebys will survive, if on a smaller scale, but many small galleries catering to the middle class may not. It’s also likely that the art produced for this social elite to buy will continue. This prestige art has become little more than brands, like Gucci or Bentley. Works are often not made by a specific artist but by art workers, working in a factory with the named artists as copyright owner — art work as franchise. What artistic value the work has is secondary to its role as an item of bling to show off.
For example, the British health minister, Matt Hancock, was always careful to place himself in front of his Damien Hirst when broadcasting to the nation during lockdown. But of a completely different nature has been the effect of BLM. The movement has had a direct impact on many artists be it Banksy or Marc Quin’s statue to replace the statue of the slaver Edward Colston torn down in Bristol. Gavin Turk is one of the more political and interesting artists of the YBAs of the 1990s. He has become involved with the climate crisis group Extinction Rebellion (XR), getting arrested in 2018 as part of their blockade of the bridges in London. His work has often been about political figures of the past (his sculpture of Che Guevara he claimed was removed from the Millennium Dome as it might upset arms dealers using the space at the same time).
Unusually for a YBA his work is not about himself. Both he and Banksy have long become known as political activists, Turk associated with XR and Banksy with Palestine solidarity campaigns, and so it is not surprising that BLM has led to them responding. BLM has opened up the question of racism in the art world, questions which have been slowly rising to the surface for the past decade or so. In America, for some time there have been efforts to expose racism in the art world. The vast majority of art curators and gallery owners are white.
Accusations of racism at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) by staff and ex-staffers led to the resignation of a deputy director and ongoing rows regarding the racists ways in which the institution treats its black employees and work it shows. In recent years we have seen the rise of black galleries seeking to create black spaces in what they see as white supremacist galleries and art.
The Long Gallery of Harlem and Kendra Jayne Patrick Gallery also in New York are two examples. The black art dealers Alonzo and Dale Davis, founders of Brockman Gallery in Los Angeles, also look to create black art spaces as does Lynda Goode Bryant with her gallery, ‘Just Above Midtown’. This was founded in 1974 in order to exhibit black artists finding it impossible to get white-run galleries to show them. Previously, many black artists could only get shown in local community centres. Just Above Midtown became famous for promoting a whole series of black artists who have gone on to fame and break into the mainstream art world. It is planned that in 2022 the Museum of Modern Art in New York will hold an exhibition devoted to the gallery and its black artists.
The fact that such a gallery was needed demonstrates the institutional racism of the art world which has been evident over the past century. The historic exclusion of black art led to the setting up of the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, Texas, established as long ago as 1926. That it and others like it are still needed is a condemnation and illustration of the persistence of racism to this day. In 2019 a racism row embroiled the Guggenheim museum in New York when it’s first ever black curator, Chaedria LaBouvier, curated the show ‘Basquiat’s defacement: the untold story’. The exhibition took as its starting point the painting The Death of Michael Stewart, informally known as Defacement, created by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1983. The work commemorates the fate of the young, black artist Michael Stewart at the hands of New York City Transit Police after allegedly tagging a wall in an East Village subway station.
LaBourvier described the experience as “the most racist professional experience of my life”, listing the racist and condescending attitudes of the Guggenheim hierarchy. Today, major art institutions have been at the front of those superficially supporting BLM. How sincere these statements of support are, and how they will shape which artists they show and how remains to be seen. But even in this rebirth of black art in America, along with the new political art of the street the dead hand of the market remains. The black artists face just the same contradictions that Berger outlined back in the 1970s. Given the added problems of getting seen in the art world through the normal channels as a result of its institutionalised racism, many black artists are emerging through non-official routes like street art and the dance scene. One such artist is Gianni Lee who expresses himself through street art, as a DJ and designer of clothes. His street art is known for its skeletal figures.
Like many young black men he has experienced police harassment. In 2017 he was wrongfully arrested, and spent three nights in jail, whilst DJ-ing in LA. His experience triggered his work, ‘The Scoured Back’, a work that predates the BLM movement. He has made similar works since. His artwork and clothes designs remain vital and vivid, occupying a position on the cusp of art and commodity production. As we will continue to explore in this ‘Culture and Crisis’ section of the Review, in every sphere of artistic production between the working artist and the audience sits capital, with pressure to produce a commodified art on all, simply to make a living.
How artists negotiate this is informed by the social contexts they inhabit and the relationships they are able to develop as the struggle between capital and labour waxes and wanes. This is one of the reasons why the BLM rebellion and the further struggles it portends is on all fronts such a challenging and exciting prospect for socialists. We live in momentous times as the blandness of a modern, dead art, produced to adorn the entrance halls of corporate headquarters, comes under fire from a fighting art from the streets in response and giving voice to the energy and anger of BLM. Like the movement itself this art is vivid, fresh and engaged. Like the movement itself, it is a breath of fresh air.