The art world, and particularly how we foster and develop it in Britain, is in a period of crisis. And if you haven't noticed that, then it's a worrying testament to the way we debate and celebrate the creative processes in this country.
Not only are institutions struggling to reprioritise their cultural direction on the back of major funding cuts (and fearing more to come), but they are also stifled by the cult of artistic celebrities, which is in turn limiting opportunities for broader cultural development. Further to this, we also face the prospect of a new exam system, the Ebacc, which excludes setting the arts as core subjects and could have a major impact on our cultural economy in the long term.
The fact that Tate Modern's Hirst retrospective this year was the most successful show in the gallery's history is both frustrating and very telling. A centre-piece for the exhibition was his work 'For the Love of God' - more than 8,000 flawless gems set in a platinum cast of a human skull. It fetched £50m in 2007 when it sold to a consortium of investors that included Hirst himself. Its setting - displayed in a blacked-out box placed theatrically in the cavernous Turbine Hall, lit only by spotlights - was emblematic of the myth that Hirst has built up around himself, that if you say something loud enough then people will think it's important.
Jonathan Jones in The Guardian wasn't deceived, saying Hirst is a 'national disgrace', who abandoned his early promise to 'focus on raking it in'. But perhaps we are all complicit in allowing him to do this.
This past week, the debate that Hirst personifies went into overdrive - celebrated American culture critic Dave Hickey announced he was quitting, saying the art world has become 'too obsessed with money and celebrity' and was fundamentally 'nasty and stupid'.
And on this side of the pond, many prominent figures have also spoken out, saying that works by artists such as Hirst and Tracey Emin are the result of 'too much fame, too much success and too little critical sifting' and are 'greatly overrated'. Some have questioned if the Young British Artists generation dominate the galleries solely for the huge sums their works command, rather than for the artistic value.
The debate has been well-articulated by the BBC's art critic Will Gompertz who said, 'Money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore'. The former Tate Media director suggested a collusion is taking place between artists, dealers, galleries and curators, to maintain the value and status of artists by always promoting their work as excellent, thereby quashing open debate on art.
Today, consultants help rich investors to buy what they are told is great art, not that which moves or inspires them. The super status of investable 'celebrity artists' is limiting the new generation's access to the upper echelons, and more importantly, to the public's consciousness.
This year, London staged a number of blockbuster exhibitions. As well as Hirst, Lucien Freud and David Hockney also had major retrospectives at The National Portrait Gallery and The Royal Academy, respectively. For many, they were the must-see cultural experiences of the year. And whilst the Hockney and Freud shows were both exceptional, the media became too obsessed with which exhibition was better. The focus was on direct comparisons, rather than a serious debate on the art.
One of the reasons for this has been a desire to define artists in very simple terms. For some time, it was widely portrayed that Lucien Freud was our 'greatest living British artist'. Indeed, I was involved in an early draft of a foreword for the book of his exhibition, which made this reference. Luckily this was changed, as he tragically died before the exhibition opened. The mantle then passed unquestioned to David Hockney, who has dismissed the title as 'mere newspaper stuff'.
These shows are backed by huge marketing drives, with promotional posters resembling the latest film releases. This is built on the need to be increasingly competitive, as such shows provide much-needed income for the major galleries and in the case of Tate, helps ensure the permanent exhibitions can remain free and even expand. (It is very gratifying from an educational perspective that Tate has just announced a new programme of acquisitions of modern and contemporary African art to further broaden its collecting beyond Europe and North America.)
The marketing also helps ensure such shows can attract backing from canny corporate sponsors, which derive considerable brand reputational benefits, as well as employee and client engagement opportunities.
It is understandable that some of the larger galleries have focused recent major exhibitions on well-known artists who are front of the fee-paying public's consciousness, but it is also exciting to consider that the Royal Academy's 2013 programme includes shows on Mexican and Australian art; subjects less well known. I hope that their promotional work and the media coverage is able to help steer the public away from the celebrity to such educationally-exciting shows. I also hope more corporates start to see the value in not only backing these shows but also smaller, more-challenging cultural experiences, especially those outside London where the lack of funding is severely limiting many people's access to cultural experiences.
On a regional level, we may start to see the rise of more arts co-operatives and co-ordinated regional programming, perhaps led by the larger regional institutions. An example of successful collaboration can be seen in East London thanks to Create, which presents, produces and commissions projects that connect artists with the community and thereby ensures must-see experiences can take place on a local level - highlights have included a touring bouncy castle shaped like Stonehenge and a brilliant pop-up cinema that emerged under a Hackney flyover.
Create is built on a premise I fundamentally believe in. It states: 'Our conviction is in the power of art to offer new perspectives on community life, provoking healthy debate and encouraging constructive change and social progress.'
To ensure everyone can have access to such vital experiences, we also need to ensure everyone is given the opportunity to challenge their understanding of art. As Gompertz says, 'We need artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way - to start challenging preconceptions instead of reinforcing them'. The annual Turner Prize has always worked towards this end and this year's shortlist has been described by one critic as 'the most demanding and thoughtful yet'. But whilst this will help to push the boundaries, we may need some middle ground if we are to provide an accessible alternative to the output of the celebrity artists many have been told is the pinnacle of Britain's creative output.
Back to Hirst then and his 22-metre statue of a naked pregnant woman, 'Verity', is now in situ in Ilfracombe harbour, despite much opposition. The aspiration is that the statue's mere presence will draw visitors, attract investors and turn the fortunes of this small Devon seaside town.
If art's purpose is to help us chronicle ourselves, then our obsession with Hirst is in itself a vital commentary on our society today - celebrity-fuelled and in need of guidance. It is up to all of us to ensure Britain's cultural calendar stays vibrant, and that means changing the way we communicate art's fundamental value, both socially and economically.
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