BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 13 SEP 13
Featured in
Issue 157

Conservative Party

Can old ways be better ways? Or, Irony, playful ambivalence and fixed meanings

BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 13 SEP 13

‘Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.’ This line, spoken by Patrick Melrose, the brittle and dissolute anti-hero of Edward St. Aubyn’s novel At Last (2011), has been nagging me. Why give up irony? I like ambiguity, depth, multivalent meaning. That’s what I signed up for on the first day of art school. It’s the messy stuff that keeps us talking and laughing. An art of fixed meaning is an art for grey academics ‘concerned about’ definite-article topics such as The Digital and The Social. It’s for control-freak artists who can’t abide interpretations of their work that differ from their own. It is one-liner art, or what are coyly referred to in the art trade as ‘conceptual jokes’, which have the artistic longevity of a mayfly and are rarely funny.

Death is still irony free, and it’s hard to be ironically pregnant, but I bet someone, somewhere, is working on those. Ironic distance allows for an abdication of responsibility, ‘not to be there’, as St. Aubyn puts it. Slavoj Žižek argues that: ‘Cynical distance is just one way […] to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.’ You say capitalism is exploitative so you make a performance in which you exploit people. You talk about how painting is dead but thank a collector for hanging your painting the right way up in their bathroom. Perhaps you just can’t make up your mind or you simply enjoy playful ambivalence. Far worse – and a much dirtier secret to be hiding as the culture around you celebrates innovation, radical schism and criticality – is that perhaps you actually like things just the way they are. If irony is the bedrock of cognitive dissonance, maybe, deep down, you’re actually conservative.

The topic of conservatism in contemporary art is like that of religion: to be kept at arm’s length. Conservative is something other people are; to be examined with extreme criticality. Sure, we know there are big-‘C’ Conservative people in contemporary art – dodgy hedge-fund guys and retired arms dealers, or the odd wealthy artist who admits he votes Republican. We all furrow our brows about conservative economics too; the spectre of The Market and how it’s to be resisted, perhaps in the form of a project at an art fair or the published transcripts from a symposium. But there are other sub-circuits of conservatism wired deeper in the contemporary art mainframe.

Conservatism runs counter to everything that is supposed to be interesting about contemporary art. According to the picture on the box, art’s a place where ideas and radical forms of expressivity can exist freely. It’s a community where no one will judge you on your gender, race or sexuality. The assembly instructions tell us it’s supposed to lean to the Left and that the cash to oil the wheels must come in ethically clean, unused notes. But that’s false advertising. Contemporary art’s industry-standard is white and male. Just look at a recent survey of London galleries by the East London Fawcett Group, about which Louisa Elderton reported in The White Review: ‘of the 134 commercial galleries in London that were audited, which collectively represent 3,163 artists, 31 percent of the represented artists were women’. Conservatism stares the contemporary art world in the face every day.

‘It’s art that looks like art’ is a put-down I often hear. It suggests off-brand fashionable resemblance to a more legitimate, genuine form of art. (Unlike art, fashion has no problem admitting it is interested in fashion.) The success of this real-deal art can often result from metastasizing consensus. Contrary to what art conspiracy theorists think, there is no committee that decides that X artist is going to be flavour of the month. Names just creep into circulation. First you see a small solo show, or perhaps read about a particular artist in a magazine review. Soon a colleague mentions that they’re thinking of including them in an exhibition they’re curating. Next thing you know they’re all over every biennial like a rash, a monograph is published, and there is much hand-wringing about inflationary market prices. These days we are timid of saying ‘no’ – everyone wants to be liked and immaterial labourers need work – so consensus tends to breed more consensus. For some in the art world, St. Aubyn’s irony-free catastrophe of fixed meaning might take the form of a professional dilemma. (To play the game, it’s often more politic to be like Patrick, ‘in two places at once’. Always mindful of who they might have to work with next, cu­ra­tors can be amongst the most equivocal of critics.) For others, the consequence of abandoning irony and facing fixed meaning might be suffering tear gas in Gezi Park in Istanbul, or occupying the Cooper Union in New York.

A steel rod of conservatism holds the art histories of Europe and North America in shape, where the achievements of Philosophically Exacting Minimalists, Critically Rigorous Conceptualists and the Landmark Exhibitions they were in are presented as incontrovertible fact, repeated until you believe in them. Due reverence is paid and it is often overcharged. When attitudes become form, forms can calcify, and there are days when postwar art his­to­ry starts to sound like a Classic Rock radio station. Beuys, Judd, Smithson and Weiner. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. You might appre­ci­ate they are ‘important’ and ‘his­tori­cal­ly significant’, but you certainly tire of hearing that every day.

None of us wants to become like Mick Jagger, the ancient rocker declaring admiration for Margaret Thatcher. But you grow old, the world changes and you sometimes wish it hadn’t. In New York, people lament how unaf­fordable it has become, no longer shared by an economically and ethnically diverse population but colonized by trust-fund 20-somethings and bankers drinking in bars decorated like pseudo-1920s speakeasies. Old ways can be better ways, and youth is not a guarantee of radicalism.

Towards the end of At Last, Patrick starts to think about metaphor. ‘“Only a metaphor!” Patrick howled. “Metaphor is the whole problem, the solvent of nightmares. At the mol­ten heart of things, everything resem­bles everything else: that’s the horror.”’ So much for catastrophes of fixed meaning.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).