BY Jonathan Watkins in Opinion | 11 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 160

Art and its Objects

Meaning beyond the market

BY Jonathan Watkins in Opinion | 11 JAN 13

Grayson Perry, The Frivolous Now, 2011, included in ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’, British Museum, 2011–12

The art business is booming in the UK. Art fairs go from strength to strength. Heavyweight galleries from New York are cropping up in and around Mayfair, while local counterparts increasingly straddle London’s East and West Ends, and auction sales continue to break records. In short, the demand for art objects here is stronger than ever. Yet, at the same time, some of our most conspicuously successful artists, through their work, are asserting serious misgivings about the assumptions on which the art market is based. In fact, we could go so far as to say that, through common-sense and philosophical scepticism, they are anticipating the end of the art world as we know it.

In 2012 at Tate Modern, Tino Sehgal undertook These associations, an extraordinary commission involving volunteers, indistinguishable from other visitors, who moved through the vast space of the Turbine Hall telling personal stories. It epitomized Sehgal’s artistic practice overall, asserting the value of what is insubstantial and fugitive. The theoretical underpinning of such interventions is clearly spelled out by the artist: ‘Our culture is hung up on and overemphasizes what can be derived from material objects [...] this is something quite new, over the past 200 or 300 years – that life has become about accumulating material wealth. The 21st century is not about accumulating material wealth like the 20th century. It’s already eroding. I’m not against material things – I just don’t work with them.’

In late 2013, Grayson Perry delivered the Reith Lectures, the series of four talks that are broadcast annually on BBC Radio 4. Perry reflected on ‘the idea of quality and how we might, in an age where we are told anything can be art, appreciate which art is any good’. This statement chimes with his remarkable exhibition, ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’, at the British Museum just over a year ago, which combined work by a celebrity artist – his own – with that of countless anonymous individuals who, from time immemorial, have made non-art objects that occur to us as being as beautiful, poignant and smart as any acknowledged masterpiece. Hot on the heels of this show was Perry’s TV series, In the Best Possible Taste, broadcast by Channel 4, which similarly came to the conclusion that definitions of good taste are culturally determined.

Likewise Jeremy Deller, an artist whose work, radical through its accessibility, featured in his 2012 solo exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, and in the British Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale with ‘English Magic’ (which opens at the William Morris Gallery, London, on 18 January and will tour to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and Turner Contemporary, Margate, later in the year). He consistently tests notions of artistic authorship through collaboration with others who are not artists, knowingly playing off the aura of the museum – and other dedicated art spaces – leading us to the inescapable conclusion that artists are not particularly special, but simply individuals with a brand and job description that suit our kind of society. Like an anthropologist, he is interested in tribes, and clearly the tribal nature of our art world is not lost on him.

Like Sehgal and Perry, Deller suggests that art objects have more to do with fetishic projection than with any intrinsic (artistic) qualities. The conventions of the art world, like those of religion, have grown up around the nothingness that art is – a void that we, for some reason, seem to need – and could not be more at odds with the freedom that art actually has to offer, precisely because of its nothingness. The tendency to treat art objects like holy relics, valuable because they somehow embody the presence of an artist, is at the root of the problem. Art objects are sold to collectors, like indulgences, with the promise of a brighter future because art is good, better than non-art and somehow transcends normal life.

Yet, we also see art as the placebo it is, something that makes a beneficial difference to us because we believe it will. We know that a lot of art is not good, but still cling to the idea that it is good that it is art. On the other hand, there are a lot of positive things – things that make a beneficial difference, that are aesthetically appealing, inspiring, deeply philosophical and so on – that have nothing to do with art. This is a liberating (obvious, undeniable) realization, and a most important fact is that it is now beating in the heart of the art world. Sehgal, Perry and Deller are signed up to a proposition that was originated through Marcel Duchamp’s introduction of the readymade, subsequently to inform the work of many artists up to and including to the present day.

Art objects, unique or in limited editions, are the perfect vehicles for late, very late capitalism, bought and sold with the spin of pseudo-religion. The art market is now giddy with an exponential rise and rise that defies the austerity pervasive elsewhere in our lives. Its embrace of artists such as Perry, Sehgal and Deller, whose work amounts to an effective refutation, doesn’t seem like some neoliberal absorption of counter-culture, but rather a weird self-destructive tendency. Can the centre hold? Will the bubble burst? Here, with our art objects, we live in interesting times.

Jonathan Watkins is Director of Ikon, Birmingham, UK.