Can the Rich be Trusted to Make Art?

Sam Robinson

The question, even if the answer turns out to be yes, is unavoidably accusative. It contains both qualitative and ethical judgments. It contains a potentially proprietorial tone: art belongs, it might imply, to the proletariat and not to those whose view of the world is filtered, softened or distorted through a prism of privilege; all of this within a supposedly democratised art world where subjectivity’s stock is at an all-time low. The question might seem dated and divisive to some, mawkish even. It does seem important to avoid the temptation to respond with an instinctive, vitriolic ‘no’, however it also seems important not to obediently resist polemic.

To begin with it should be accepted that some of the rich might make good art. In fact, that they apparently have a long track record of doing just that, given that most art is the art of the wealthy. Aside from the connections money creates it also buys the kind of time necessary to make art. It buys the education necessary to complete an impressive CV; professional amounts of studio space; better materials which signify ‘quality’. Do these factors, which create confidence, amount to legitimisation and amplification for the mediocre? Or do the rich actually have, via their lack of anything much else to worry about, access to planes of thought closed to the rest of us?

Significantly, and in direct contravention of this idea, there is a long and telling history of the rich themselves implying some cosmic disconnect between money and the making of art—or of being an artist. They have often felt the need to hide their wealth, and still do. They have come to art as a means of escaping the ‘shackles’ of privilege. Choices of personal style and opinion speak of the disavowal and avoidance of traditional class definitions; working class artists have tried to follow suit—but have they really been allowed? All this denial, the apparent alienation of the rich from that which in reality defines them begs the question: why do they want both money and the heightened version of cultural capital that comes with producing art? Couldn’t they be satisfied with simply buying art, like their deck shoes and their pinkie rings? Why do they need to be artists too?

Today, little reference is made to successful artist’s backgrounds—in interviews, in press releases. Why might this be? Are we to believe that disparity, post the 60’s, has been ironed out? It is genuinely hard for the self-aware working class artist to see fine art (that is to say an autonomous gallery based art) without conditions and barriers. Hard too to see a way in which he/she might fit into this version of what art is. Is our faith in the canon—and a trance-like attraction to slick gallery spaces—just masochism? Is it damaging to self-esteem? Could an obsession with the evils of the high art world be stultifying or self-righteous—and equally damaging to self-esteem? Are we looking for success on the wrong terms? For all its problems, or neuroses, the question remains valid, because if, in the title of this essay, we substitute ‘rich’ for ‘working classes’, the answer often seems to be a flat no.

Breton famously encouraged us to ‘leave everything’, he mentioned wives, mistresses and children (in the woods) explicitly, but not money. This would have sounded too callow—and for his purposes too pragmatic. However money has often been histrionically betrayed by artists from wealthy backgrounds (fortunately it is quite happily cuckolded and waits in the wings). If bohemianism has traditionally been defined by lifestyles which run counter to conventional bourgeois priorities, it is often itself just another such bourgeois priority. It was they who needed the myth Wilson (2003: 3) describes by closely linking the idea of the bohemian to that of the individual. They are closely linked, in the sense that both are delusional and exist in apparent ignorance of the glaring paradox that they are utterly dependant on wider dialectics to form and define them. Bohemia is so utterly reliant on the haute-bourgeoisie, from where it draws its population, its patrons and indeed its antonymic means of definition; its sense of self—that it can never claim autonomy from it. The end goal of bohemia’s apparent rejection of class is in reality the denial of the importance of money (easy to say when you have plenty). It implies the vulgarity of money, but is in itself vulgar. It may have set out to alienate a wealthier bourgeoisie, but by extension it paints the working classes as somehow desperate and grasping. Bohemia is conscious of, and reliant on, the fact that it is being watched from all directions: engendering shock, admiration and envy.

A central paradox of Bohemianism is its fetishized idolisation of poverty allied with the brief that no experience should remain unexplored. The true artist’s life, it suggests, should consist entirely of yesses. As Rose (2002: 442) points out, working people cannot run to this kind of permissiveness; for the rich it is money very well spent. To poet Clare Cameron, from a working class family in the East End of London, the kind of Bohemian parties she began to be invited to were mystifying and occasionally painful (Rose, 2002: 440). Firstly, there was the inevitable lack of shared reference points. There was also the feeling of betrayal, guilt at the shame she felt when comparing the continental, ‘progressive’ homes of her artistic contemporaries to that of her unworldly parents. Similarly, her clothes (the wrong kind of shabby) provoked in her an almost adolescent sense of self-loathing. An intelligent and mature artist is reduced to an insecure teen, not so much by her own frailty, but by the reflected shallowness of others.

Bohemians [Willi Bongard, Gottfried Brockmann] 1922-5, printed 1990 August Sander 1876-1964 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AL00106

August Sander (1922) Bohemians

Rose (2002: 441) notes that working class writers, marginal to these scenes, have been able to capture their hollowness very accurately. But this journalistic opportunity is small reward for those who have hoped to have genuine involvement in the arts; insufficient recompense too for the feelings of inferiority and vulgarity that bohemian power-games have induced. The wealthy on the other hand, or those from backgrounds of cultural capital, have consistently been granted access to the private rooms of art. This has occurred in a very literal familial sense, quite informally and with the assurance of social equivalency. Early in his career Ben Nicholson, son of painters, visited Mondrian’s studio and soon set about making his own Mondrians (Rose, n.d). It was casually dropped into a recent biography of Robert Wyatt that as a child his mother arranged for him visit Braque in his studio (O’Dair, 2015: 25). The value of this exposure cannot be over-stated. Its worth exists not so much in intellectual terms but in the confidence, legitimacy and self-esteem it instils. If we are fashioning a more honest ‘theory of creativity’ then Rogers’ (1954) locus of evaluation is secondary in importance to a locus of emulation. The door to this might be circumvented, but by chance or initiative. Vlaminck famously claimed to have met Derain on a train; correspondence course scholar Philip Guston had to spy on Stuart Davis. It took them some years to produce work that existed on its own terms, though they unquestionably did. Nicholson himself remains plagued with accusations of pastiche and good-taste (Graham-Dixon, 1993).

Bohemians1

Dan Steffan (2014) Bohemians

Conveniently, bohemians had, and still have, little real interest in politics; whilst they have at times flirted with socialism they have been equally absorbed in drug use, sex, mysticism, spiritualism, theosophy, religion, existentialism and organic food. They have immersed themselves in cultures notable for being a world away from their own. Their gaze is always suitably glazed and distant. Stover (2005), on the other hand, gives the newcomer advice on which kind of bathroom, lampshade or outfit might be most bohemian. To some this might seem like an awful hollowing out and misappropriation of what has been a fluid and edgy repost to wider societal priorities. I would argue that bohemians have always been interested in lampshades and outfits (be they shabby or even non-existent) just as much as art or literature. Stover is mistaken about bohemia only in the sense that its rules should never be spoken or written down, let alone published. It has been easy to commodify bohemia because it was a shallow creation to begin with.

To a painter like Cedric Morris, who had studied with Leger in Paris, and was heir to a baronetcy, the landscape post WWII was as welcoming as that of the Suffolk he painted (Morphet, 1984). Painting was not perhaps of greater priority to him than his other interests. His paintings are fittingly casual in subject and mannered in treatment—much like Alex Katz’s. Paintings like The Eggs (1944) are stylishly Spartan, but Morris’s eggs were bountiful, not rationed. His life was a model of what we might now think of as middle-class priorities, and probably not so different from Nigel Slater’s (whose paintings are yet to appear). Rambling Suffolk houses like Morris’s Benton End are now home to Sadie Coles, Sarah Lucas and Ryan Gander. Before these (now old) young Turks appeared Morris was important as an arbiter of British painting; his East Anglian School of Art gave us amongst others Lucien Freud and Maggi Hambling. We shouldn’t necessarily hold this against him. It is notable that these painters adhered to a certain bohemian and conservative model of painting and the painter long after it should perhaps have disappeared. But, without wanting to sound too objective, it is also true that painting survives (or should) as a broad church, within which there is disagreement, disillusion, alienation, identification and occasionally, loathing. This division of meaning, of what the medium is, is more apparent in painting than in younger media where an unspoken consensus, a kind of intellectual demilitarization, exists.

The reification of a British working class intellectual life in terms of literature at least, was brought about by its own documentation; its own field of study. Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), for example, not only acknowledged the democratization of literature, but legitimised working class involvement in it. This process never occurred for visual art, whose model remained one of hidden trade between artist and individual buyer. There were other means of control too; Szczelkun (1990: 22) notes that the inventions of community art, art therapy and other specializations were necessary in order for there to be jobs (that were not utterly alienating) for the increased number of art graduates from new universities 60’s, but that simultaneously this streaming has also allowed Fine Art, or High Art to remain cloistered, defined as utterly distinct and rarefied. As Fisher points out (in Wallinger and Warnock, 2000: 112) the ‘proletarianisation of art’ where it has occurred has more often meant the conspicuous appearance of the ‘everyday’ than the genuine representation of diverse artists on their own terms. Richard Billingham’s photographs from the series Ray’s a Laugh, which always felt problematic, now appear shocking not just because they signify art’s version of, and aversion to ‘the other’, or because they might be exploitative, but because as an artist, he has disappeared from the high art context within which they were first seen.

A tired and at times embarrassing debate was played out recently in the pages of the Guardian (Mason, 2015) after Chris Bryant, newly appointed as Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary made a call for greater diversity in the arts. The thrust of his argument was that we need to see more Albert Finneys and Glenda Jacksons, less Eddie Redmaynes and James Blunts. The Guardian’s article pointed out for the uninitiated or totally disinterested, that the latter two were educated at Eton and Harrow respectively. Blunt put down his guitar, flipped open his mac book and hammered out an angry response, calling Bryant a ‘wazzock’ and a ‘classist gimp’ (thus entering the canon alongside fellow old boys Shelley, Huxley, Orwell and Anthony Powell). Redmayne, the more Bohemian thesp, wouldn’t be drawn, but it is comparatively easy to find examples of actors speaking out against class and financial inequality in their field. One has to look much harder to find their counterparts in fine art circles. Elizabeth Price’s speech on being awarded the Turner Prize (Waters, 2012) made admirable reference to the iniquities of art education, but didn’t go widely reported. As an aside, in 1991 the prize was £20,000; today it is £25,000. This represents the esteem art is held in when its role as pure commodity is removed. It is a gross understatement to say that sales figures dwarf this amount. The prize comes under attack, but surely represents one of the least controversial faces of the art world.

It often feels as though art attracts the most directionless strain of the rich. They drift there for want of anywhere else; to them it is endlessly forgiving. Under its auspices they can indulge in the kind of care-free sociability that has defined their caste ad nauseum. The social engagement of art-making itself is not enough for them. Output and productivity are of secondary importance; like the wife of the successful businessman (forgive the chauvinism here—it’s theirs, not mine) who is given a boutique to run as a hobby—it looks like a functioning shop, but it only opens on Saturday mornings, once a month, or not at all. As art practices become dematerialised and often devoid of any physical labour, they seem more tempting still. I do not begin to suggest that indolence is the reason behind art’s movement in this direction, but that art may well seem more appealing to the feckless because of it. The door is open. Painting’s relevance is constantly questioned because in the minds of the new bohemian mandrinates, blind to the paradox of their uniform individuality, it is conservative—or indeed bourgeois. As discussed above, painting remains live as a subjective medium—publicly so—and this is why they consistently attempt to shut it down.

Biography itself has disappeared. We are not inclined, or encouraged, to know the economic background of artists. The Simon Starling Story remains unwritten; likewise, Thomas Hirschhorn’s Memoirs. On the occasion of her show at David Zwirner’s Mayfair space, a press release for the chic, familiar sculpture of Carol Bove tells us only: ‘Bove was born in Switzerland to American parents’. We can fairly safely, if bitterly, assume that they weren’t cleaners in a Geneva hotel. We are obsessed with the lives of artists now long gone. Kahlo for example, sixty years dead, has a new lover (Bidisha, 2015). These cases exist as surrogates because the background of our current artists is often a deliberate mystery. To some eyes this might seem the only reasonable position, but we have no way of knowing if things regulate themselves and work out in any way fairly. We have more reason to suspect that they do not. As a means of control the Arts Council is no use. As Williams knew (1989: 41) it somehow pulls off the trick of being simultaneously bureaucratic and profligate; proscriptive and vague.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that the rich be banned from making art (how would we police it anyway?). And, lest we be accused of class-envy, what of artists who only become rich? At what point should they be stopped? Critical studies programs in art schools, replacing art history modules since the 1960’s, have tended to be firmly of the left; they have often been progressive, revolutionary even. Kenneth Clark is nowhere to be seen. But this is yet to have real discernible impact on the (art) world outside. There often seems to be a gulf between message and audience: to rooms full of art students from wealthy families this kind of theory is the perfect window-dressing for their boutique, but they have no instinct, no reason whatsoever, to want to put it into practice. It might even provoke guilt, who knows? But if it does, it is brief and silent. The rich can very much be relied upon to make art, in fact they can’t stop; whether they can be trusted to is another matter.

References

Bidisha. (2015) The Exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s Love Letters is a Grubby Violation, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/13/sale-frida-kahlo-letters-grubby-violation.

Fisher, J. (2000) ‘The Proletarianisation of Art’, in Wallinger, M. and Warnock, W. (eds.) Art For All? Their Policies and our Culture, London: PEER.

Gale, M. (1997) Dada and Surrealism, London: Phaidon.

Graham-Dixon, A. (1993) Done Up Like a Kipper…, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/done-up-like-a-kipper-ben-nicholson-was-a-victim-of-his-own-caution-even-his-most-impressive-works-seem-tainted-by-pastiche-andrew-graham-dixon-argues-1511780.html

Hoggart, R. (1957) The Uses of Literacy, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Mason, R. (2015) Arts World Must Address Lack of Diversity, says Labour’s Chris Bryant, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jan/16/arts-diversity-chris-bryant-eddie-redmayne

Morphet, R. (1984) Cedric Morris, Uxbridge: Hillingdon Press.

O’Dair, M. (2014) Different Every Time: The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt, London, Serpent’s Tail.

Rogers, C. (1954) Towards a Theory of Creativity’, in ETC: A Review of General Semantics 11: 249-260.

Rose, J. (2010) The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, 2nd edition, New Haven and London: Yale University Press .

Rose, S. (n.d) Mondrian/Nicholson: In Parallel, https://www.courtauld.ac.uk/publicprogrammes/documents/MondrianNicholsonteachersweb.pdf

Steffan, D. (2014) ‘The Frowning Prophet and the Smiling Revolutionary’ in Berger, D and Buhle, P. (eds.) Bohemians, London: Verso.

Stover, L. (2005) Bohemian Manisfesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge, New York: Bulfinch Press.

Szczelkun, S. (1990) Class Myths and Culture, London: Working Press.

Waters, F. (2012) Elizabeth Price Criticizes Government’s ‘Utilitarian Ide of Art Education’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/turner-prize/9721731/Turner-Prize-2012-Elizabeth-Price-criticises-governments-utilitarian-idea-of-education.html

Williams, R. (1989) Resources of Hope, London: Verso.

Wilson, E. (2003) Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts, London: Tauris Parke.

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