‘Change is scientific, progress is ethical.’
When people talk about change they’re usually referring to progress. Artists and thinkers might be long over the Modernist assumption that we’re all heading towards some enlightened state of aesthetic equanimity, but scratch the surface and you’ll find that most of us are creatures of a naturally teleological persuasion. For many, change is a word that carries a positive or negative charge – life is basically on a sliding scale from peachy to past salvation. Maybe you think the changes the art world has undergone in the past 40 years or so are ripe with potential, or perhaps you feel the whole sorry shebang is irrevocably screwed. Personally, I tend to side with Lenny Bruce on this one: ‘The “what should be” never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no “what should be,” there is only “what is.”’
This is a crucial point. Now, as much as ever, it is important to ask yourself ‘what is?’ I’m of a generation born in the mid-1970s. I wasn’t ‘there’ to witness paradigmatic post-’68, post-Minimal, post-Conceptual, Postmodern shifts in art and culture. Mine is a generation that has come to an art that is shaped by extreme advances in technology and travel; steroid-enhanced by hyper-capitalism, political populism and the entertainment industry’s time scales. This isn’t necessarily an ideal state of affairs for art, but nor is it insurmountably bad. Either way, it’s not worth losing any sleep over. (Art’s delusions of grandeur have always bemused me: so many daily ‘challenges’ and ‘crises’ that I’m surprised governments haven’t fallen and we’re not all in therapy.) What’s worth serious thought however, is whether, as component parts of a cultural engine, we know what pressures are exerted on its mechanisms, and what we can do to break, fix or oil them.
Earlier this year, Simon Reynolds published Rip it Up and Start Again, a history of post-Punk – the second wave of bands that grew in the wake of the now canonical moment of The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Its central thesis is that many of the post-Punk groups – Wire, Talking Heads, or Caba ret Voltaire, for instance – were part of the continuum of art-school educated bands that stretched back to David Bowie, Brian Eno and Roxy Music, and that the primal grunts of classic 1976 punk were a musically backwards aberrance – more pub rock than punk rock. Post-punk had a bigger perspective on music and art – these were bands who weren’t afraid to be laughed at for asking questions, for a precocious interest in avant-garde composers and Dadaist rabble-rousers, or for committing Punk’s cardinal sin of being ‘progressive.’ Many bands associated with the first wave of Punk were deeply conservative in their antipathy to experimentation and history. There’s a troublesome misconception about young people that they are radicals by nature, tender revolutionaries and eager heralds of change. Yet left denuded of curiosity and with value systems inscribed from birth unchallenged, the young can be as conservative as any blustering retired army colonel.
Maybe more than the privileging of careerism over self-criticality, historical ignorance is a dangerous mindset for young artists. A friend has a dispiriting anecdote about an exchange with a postgraduate at one of the London art schools. The student in question was making work heavily influenced by the striking graphic qualities of Russian Constructivism – not an unfamiliar sight over the past few years. When asked what she found interesting about the Revolutionary-era avant-garde the student looked puzzled. My friend elaborated; what was it about art and its social function that caught her imagination? How did she relate herself as an artist in 21st-century London to the political ideals that motivated the Constructivists, and the tragic ends that befell so many of them? The student replied that she was unaware of any of this, and that she’d just seen the images in a book and thought they looked good. ‘Don’t you think you should have at least some knowledge of the sources you’re using?’ queried my friend. The student became indignant: ‘I just like the look. I’m not an art historian.’
It’s hard enough being an artist without having history breathing down your neck, and I’m not advocating drab scholarly art about dry art historical footnotes. Nor do I care for prissy nostalgia, or an art that alludes to history in order to mask itself with the cloak of vicarious intellectualism. But shackle yourself to style and you condemn yourself to stagnant intellectual conservatism. Whatever kind of cultural producer, enabler or observer you are, it’s one thing to wear the costume and another to actually play the part. Last year, the sociologist Frank Furedi published his take-no-prisoners polemic Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Subtitled ‘Confronting 21st-Century Philistinism’, the book systematically attacks cultural instrumentalism (the use of the arts to further socio-economic policies rather than support them for their intrinsic value); the commodification of knowledge in education and its simultaneous dislocation from serious study (‘… a ready-made digestible product that can be delivered, transmitted, marketed and consumed’) and a culture of affirmation in teaching which eschews pedagogy or challenging criticality for fear of damaging students’ self-esteem. Furedi decries the infantilization of arts audiences by institutions held accountable by cultural mandarins who demand ‘accessibility, inclusion and transparency’ – that meaning should be spelt out, and that if art is not ‘relevant’ or deemed too ‘difficult’ it is somehow elitist and wrong. Rather than answering a bottom-up demand from the general public (after all, no one is demonstrating outside Tate Modern demanding more inclusivity) Furedi argues that this in fact disguises a top-down elitist pessimism about the intellectual potential of the public. If there aren’t enough artists or thinkers coming through who have the courage to ask questions, or the skills with which to devise them, then we’re faced with a worst-case scenario in which the art market’s rapacious hunger for fresh meat will continue to be fed by willing supplicants, and our public institutions will be forced to continue purging art’s complexity in favour of consumer digestibility. We end up with pub rock instead of post-Punk; Status Quo rather than New Order.
People love to fear the worst about art. Nostalgia and doom-mongering are easy indulgences, and sunny optimism is harder to carry off than it looks. Just bear in mind something Andy Warhol said: ‘they always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.’