BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

Debit and Credit

How to stop worrying and love the ‘content crunch’

BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 01 NOV 08

You are worrying about the credit crunch. You wonder whether you can keep up the mortgage repayments. You are wishing you hadn’t paid for that holiday in Vietnam with your credit card and had just gone camping in Wales instead. You are considering trading in your 4x4 BMW for a second-hand Golf. You put on a warm jumper, rather than the central heating, when you are cold. Your partner’s funding application to curate an exhibition of all the photographs ever published on’s ‘Scene and Herd’ blog has been turned down, and they have sunk into deep depression, questioning whether they’re even interested in art anyway. You are anxious that people may stop buying your modish paintings of Bauhaus lighting fixtures. You are … wait – why are you concerned that people may stop buying your modish paintings of Bauhaus lighting fixtures? Is it because you feel your recent use of impasto oil paint has compromised the conceptual relationship between the subject matter of Utopian Modernism and what Clement Greenberg described as ‘the ineluctable flatness of the support’? Or is it because, deep down, you fear you’re heading not for just one credit crunch, but two?

What’s the second credit crunch? It’s the content crunch. It’s when the lights go on at the end of the party, and you notice the smoke machine and mirrored walls, that the beautiful people you’ve been dancing with have grey skin and cocaine confidence and that the great DJ was just someone’s iPod on shuffle. It’s when it becomes clear that meaning in your work only resides there on credit, and that all the chatter around your career has been about everything but the art itself. Debts are being called in on all those borrowed references and strategies. People stop wanting paintings of The Fall’s record sleeves – they’d rather just listen to The Fall. Staying in with the new DVD box set of The Wire: The Complete Series, seems to promise a far deeper cultural experience than watching a bad video art restaging of the series using amateur actors in a fashionably gritty part of town that has very real problems all of its own. Making screen prints of Andreas Baader shooting a cop doesn’t seem quite so cool when the stark reality of economic meltdown is banging on your door in the shape of the bailiffs.

Your first glimpse of the content crunch was a conversation you had in which someone described the looming clouds of economic recession as ‘probably a good thing’ for art. What did they mean? That person had been working as an artist in London during the last recession in the early 1990s. They remembered there being fewer of everything: fewer artists, curators, galleries, magazines, art consultants, private foundations. They remembered all those empty industrial spaces and the artist-run initiatives that inhabited them. They were nostalgic for cheap rents but liked the fact there were so many more people coming to see their work these days. They recalled how everyone talked a lot more about theory back then and wondered whether that had something to do with the economic climate. They remembered when newspapers and television talked about art rather than the art market and how dynamic or corrupt it might be. You nodded in agreement, as though outwardly to acknowledge – or try and convince yourself – that you were both real artists with serious long-term aesthetic problems to solve, and that fewer parties, art fairs and biennials would allow you the period of quiet, intensive studio time you really needed. Then you reached for another free glass of champagne.

From that point on you notice the content crunch snapping at your heels with increasing frequency. You try and read some of the endless articles about Damien Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction but can’t see anything other than a bunch of astronomically large numbers and wonder what it all means for you. During a talk you attend, a famous graphic designer observes how the members of a younger generation are highly adept at ‘positioning’ their work in the broader cultural context of history and reference, and that for them this is just a natural way of operating. You feel there must be a radical way forward in that approach but can’t figure out what it is, because you’re too busy fretting over whether your own positioning is good or bad. You read opinion pieces about how critics don’t have any power any more and how the market dominates everything, but you can’t reconcile them with how hurt you felt after that negative review of your last show. You see your name in lists of artists – on e-flux, in magazine advertisements – and wonder if the frequency with which it crops up is all anyone needs to know about your career. Where once you believed your own press releases – enjoyed thinking you were challenging bourgeois values and tearing through boundaries (why does no one ever want to build boundaries?) – you’re now not so sure. You go to your studio and look at the glossy, immaculate surfaces of your signature Bauhaus lighting fixture paintings. All you can see in them is the reflection of your face, so you daub the canvas with a treacle-thick mess of oil paint and, although you don’t know what the hell it means, it makes you feel better.

But when it comes to the crunch, if you’re really worried about any of the above, you’ll probably be fine.

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).