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Seth Freedman

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When Art Becomes a Four-Letter Word

Posted: 24/02/2013 23:00

In today's climates of austerity, with belts tightening and non-essential pursuits branded frivolous and unnecessary, pursuing a career in the arts is becoming increasingly tough. Government funding has been slashed, private sponsorship is on the wane, and - perhaps most importantly - communal support for budding artists is declining to alarmingly low levels.

Such a situation might seem justifiable, given the buffeting winds of recession swirling around the country at present. But even in the upper echelons of society, where money is far less of an issue, would-be artists are finding themselves harassed and harried away from their chosen field. "There is a pathology of needing to have a profession", says David Breuer-Weil, whose mammoth exhibition Project 4 is currently gracing the underground tunnels of The Vaults beneath Waterloo Station.

He knows first-hand what it means to swim against the tide of familial and peer pressure to settle for a safe, respectable career such as accountancy or law, with the crushing struggle swathing him in depression in his mid-twenties. That he doggedly pursued his dream and is now a highly successful artist, with his work put on public display in Hanover Square, Chatsworth House, and beyond, is testament to his determination rather than to any serious societal encouragement.

Breuer-Weil lives in Hampstead Garden Suburb, one of London's most exclusive neighbourhoods, and sees the next generation being equally discouraged to nurture their creative sides as he was during his teens. I also grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, and share Breuer-Weil's views entirely, with the first half of my novel Dead Cat Bounce devoted to laying bare the Suburb's rotten core.

"Lots of talent, but no flair", was how I described the suburb to an interviewer recently, decrying the perversity of those for whom who the richer they are, the more scared they become to let their children do anything other than be corralled into a life of private schools, corporate careers, and insular existence in the same gilded ghettos in which their parents live.

Breuer-Weil tackles the problem in a series of paintings called Suburb. The dramatic works lay bare the hypocrisy of the area, and others like it, depicting the yawning voids between the perfectly-manicured streets, with some residents succumbing to the darkness and hurling themselves over the edge and down into the bottomless depths.

Breuer-Weil scoffs at the way in which his art is treated by many of those around him, who initially affect artistic admiration, but then inevitably swiftly reveal their true interests in his work. "They say, 'wow, I love the show - how many have you sold?'". The commodification of art is a particular concern for him, not because he believes artists shouldn't make a living from their work any more than lawyers, doctors or surveyors, but because of the way money has usurped all else in people's assessment of their own, and others', worth.

He draws a scathing comparison between today's nouveau-riche and that of Viennese society in the early 20th Century. "The writer Stefan Zweig said that once the immigrants in Vienna had made their money, it was then considered the highest calling to be an artist or a musician... but that has not translated to the current generation here". He muses that the problem could be the media and public's obsession with the monetary value of art - "the news is when it sells for ten million pounds, the news is not what the painting means" - or that the lack of ideology in the modern-day west has had a seriously detrimental effect on the arts.

Certainly both issues had a marked impression on the wealthy individuals around whom I grew up and also worked with in my City broking days. Art was treated as simply an asset to hoard, with mega-rich magpies piling up as many Warhols or Modiglianis as possible, simply as a way to express their prosperity rather than their artistic passion and taste. They'd corral their children onto the corporate conveyor belt with a venomous zeal, then become patrons of the National Gallery or Serpentine and not see any discord between the two actions.

Breuer-Weil's pessimistic take on the Suburb, and the world beyond, looms large in many of his gargantuan works, and will strike a chord with anyone disturbed by the precarious nature of modern life and the self-centred attitudes of those at the helm of both national and supra-national institutions. But while he is happy to hold up a mirror to society, he knows that much of his criticism will fall on deaf ears - precisely because those affecting to appreciate his and others' art are actually incapable of decoding the messages within.

He says he is comfortable living within the Suburb's confines, without having to conform and follow the herd, and from an aesthetic point of view, it is easy to understand why living in such a verdant, luxuriant environment would suit an artist's taste. But also, as with my own experience of living there and then putting my dissatisfaction down on paper, perhaps being up close and personal with those with whom he is so at odds actually acts as a stimulant to his artistic nature, greatly benefiting his work.

The problem is that for every one of him, there are hundreds of would-be artists growing up in the Suburb and other wealthy neighbourhoods whose potential will never be realised, precisely because recent generations have relegated art to the level of triviality, there to be admired in cash terms but never truly appreciated for its own sake. With rampant capitalism set to dominate the political landscape for decades to come, the chances of the clock turning back to art's heyday are growing ever slimmer.

 
 
 
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