BY Dan Fox in Features | 12 MAR 09
Featured in
Issue 121

A Serious Business

What does it mean to be a professional artist?

BY Dan Fox in Features | 12 MAR 09

‘Where’s the fucking stipend?’ read the postcard delivered to the artists Edward and Fanny Wadsworth.1 They had been supporting Wyndham Lewis with a monthly allowance throughout 1924, and the money had not turned up. Spiteful gestures were the quarrelsome Vorticist’s stock-in-trade: he was ungrateful, uncouth – jump ahead four decades and you might even say ‘unprofessional’. According to the rubric laid down in 1969 by Gilbert and George in ‘The Laws of the Sculptors’, artists should ‘always be smartly dressed, well-groomed, relaxed, friendly, polite and in complete control’. 

Leap forward in time again to north-east London, 2009. Forty years on from provoking the flower children with their smartly tailored suits, metallic faces and lost nights with a bottle of mother’s ruin, every evening Gilbert and George walk past the end of my street, marching the three miles between their home in Spitalfields and the Mangal II Turkish restaurant in Dalston, where they sit at the same table for their dinner. Whenever I catch a glimpse of them, I can’t help thinking that their look – that of respectable English gentlemen, commonly taken to be an ironic counterpoint to the sexual and scatological themes of their work – appears to communicate a sincere statement of intent: of always being ‘on’, still 100 percent committed to a total life project begun in the 1960s. I wonder what they make of today’s contemporary art scene compared with that of their art school days. Despite the astronomical price of property, the east London they inhabit is reportedly home to the highest density of artists in Europe: there are some 54 galleries in this part of the city alone (for the last ten years, a sign painted by students in the style of Bob and Roberta Smith and affixed to a house on east London’s Hackney Road has declared that ‘EAST IS THE NEW WEST’). London is also, of course, home to Tate Modern, one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, and every autumn the city hosts a number of high-profile art fairs: Frieze, Zoo, Scope. This year may turn out to be the year in which gallery closings are the new openings and ‘told you so’ schadenfreude is the new market optimism. But could Gilbert and George, as young men at St Martin’s School of Art in the late 1960s, have imagined a time such as now, when the word ‘creative’ is used more as a job title than as an adjective?

Keith Arnatt, Trouser-Word Piece, 1972/89, Photographs (Originally a catalogue intervention in Anne Seymour's New Art catalogue), 1x1 m each. Courtesy: Tate Gallery, London and the estate of Keith Arnatt.

Over the past decade – until, at least, global credit began to crunch our fun – the art world has developed into a high-turnover, high-visibility international activity that everyone wants a slice of. It’s an exponentially expanded system of artists, audiences, art markets, dealers, galleries, curators, critics, collectors, museums, institutes, foundations, biennials, triennials, quadrennials, fairs, auction houses, art schools, prizes, books, magazines, journals and consultancies. Language, design, architecture and codes of behaviour wrap these activities in increasingly complex and synergistic ways while government policy wonks and sociologists talk excitedly of the economic contribution made by the ‘creative industries’. In recent months, though, this expansion has been tempered by anxiety. The tighter the credit crunch grips us, the louder you can hear the gloating of those who think a drop in auction prices and a swathe of galleries going under will somehow result in the disappearance of the present art system and the resurgence of some kind of prelapsarian art paradise unfettered by the evils of capitalism and what they perceive to be cultural con-artistry.

In some ways the Wyndham Lewis generation had it easy, attacking the establishment and seeking to meld art with life – this, after all, was what radical artists were given licence to do. (Yet so uptight was 1920s’ English society that Lewis was warned by his friend Harry Melville that he needed to make the effort to wear a boiled shirt at least four times a week, ‘for the sake of your career!’2) Our own expansion and integration of all these spheres of activity – from making art to exhibiting it, curating, writing, teaching, thinking of imaginative ways to document art or advertise it, sell it, use it to sell other things – has generated an image of consummate professionalism, the feeling that everyone knows exactly what they are doing and how to behave. To an extent this is true, and having to approach art with a degree of efficiency has partly been necessitated by the demands of the art world’s high-production, high-stakes activity. But many arts professionals would also acknowledge – perhaps off-record, over a free beer at an opening – that there are shortfalls between the way the art system likes to present itself and the reality of working within it. For instance, ‘art-speak’ may have an air of authority but often masks vagueness, perpetuates outmoded ideas or simply confuses communication; the exquisite architecture of a commercial gallery may suggest financial propriety but glosses over work sold cash-in-hand and shipped on an Easyjet flight in a gallery employee’s hand-luggage, while the dynamic image of an ‘international curator’ plying their labour in Stockholm one day and Cairo the next doesn’t speak of the stomach ulcer caused by the daily economic worries of their precarious freelance existence.

Then there is the issue of cakes being had and cakes being eaten, of living in thrall to the great bohemian dream of the art world but also having to lock down and be in ‘complete control’ of every element produced under the sign of glamorous dissolution. As any bleary-eyed gallery assistant who has been up half the night with a demanding artist trying to find a bar that’s still open at 4am will tell you, these elements are often hard to reconcile. Today bohemian libertinism exists largely as a myth, albeit a useful one when it comes to marketing – take Dan Colen or Dash Snow, for example, two mediocre artists who have recently benefited professionally from sanctioned excess. The art historian Hal Foster argues that the artist’s ‘free expression implies our unfree inhibition, which is also to say that his freedom is mostly a franchise on which he represents freedom more than he enacts it’.3 Or rather, as Simon Martin observes in his film essay Carlton (2006), these days ‘artists look like everyone else, worry about their weight, book foreign holidays’. Some artists love the cut-and-thrust of art world politicking; they thrive on intrigue and attention. Others despise it, finding it upsettingly at odds with their ideals.

The art world is a little like a second-hand computer: its exterior a desirably minimalist, Jonathan Ive-designed casing with titanium curves and winking lights that suggests high-speed processors able to deliver any number of creative experiences at the touch of a button, its interior a mess of circuitry that has been rewired and crammed back into the casing so many times that no one can begin to understand it. And there’s no manual to tell you how it behaves – or how it ought to behave. Why there might be lacunae between expectation and experience in the art world is worth further thought. Read any mainstream newspaper or certain hand-wringing jeremiahs in the art press, and you’ll be told that market forces are to blame. Certainly money is a massive factor – capital, in order to keep itself liquid, needs to create plausible costumes in which to go about its business – but the art market does not tell the whole story. Even before the cold winds of recession began to bite, Sarah Thornton’s account of high-powered professionals in Seven Days in the Art World (2008) was felt by many to describe only a tiny part of the picture. As Sally O’Reilly wrote in her review of the book in Art Monthly: ‘To take [Takashi] Murakami as the subject of the studio visit chapter is rather like offering Turkish Delight as a typical foodstuff.’4 Only a relatively small percentage of the art world sees anything like the kind of money and glamour Thornton describes so breathlessly, and now her book seems, if not like ancient history, then at least a demonstration of how fragile the image of success built on cultural commodities can be, perhaps because she forgot that the art world also comprises audiences of all shapes, sizes and degrees of interest, producers and commentators who struggle to make a living wage, and individuals who work tirelessly in museum education departments, in community outreach programmes, in art schools, in academia or as technicians and fabricators.

The art world is like a second-hand computer: its exterior desirably minimalist, its interior a mess of circuitry that has been crammed back into the casing so many times that no one understands it.

Rather than following the cash all the time, would it be illuminating to observe the more nebulous details of art world self-perception? In The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (1989) the historian Harold Perkin wrote that ‘the entrepreneur proved himself by competition in the market, the professional by persuading the rest of society and ultimately the state that his service was vitally important and therefore worthy of guaranteed reward.’5 Do the arts persuade in similar ways?

The first place you might look is your immediate environment. Contemporary art is, by and large, an urban pursuit. Jonathan Raban noted in Soft City (1974) that here ‘we are barraged by images of the people we might become. Identity is presented as plastic, a matter of possessions and appearances’.6 The modern city is a testament to the ways in which contemporary art, design and architecture have constructed the look and feel of our surroundings. List the design vernaculars that art galleries share with, say, clothes boutiques or penthouse property developments: minimal, tastefully understated monochromaticism, so as to let the product within be appreciated without distraction. Fittings made from brushed steel, floors from poured concrete or bleached wood, the windows from frosted glass – materials of classic Modernist architecture. They can be combined in ways that suggest futuristic, corporate efficiency or post-industrial melancholia – an old winch or section of timbering preserved as a nod to past use.

Exteriors of London commercial art galleries, 2009. Photo: Jonathan Griffin.

London, New York, Berlin, Paris, Milan, Beijing: the look is an internationally homogeneous design vernacular, with minor local variations. Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube (1976) famously analysed how the ‘white cube’ affects our phenomenological reading of art, but it also indirectly sensitized us to all the little bits of detailing – the height of a reception desk, say, or whether you need to be ‘buzzed in’ or can simply stroll through the front door (also functions of contemporary art’s professionalized self-image). In Lucky Kunst (2009), Gregor Muir’s misty-eyed memoir of running with Young British Artists in the 1990s, the following description is given of London’s changing gallery scene: ‘Galleries stopped being cosy shops where soft transactions took place in carpeted rooms. The gallery of the Nineties was more likely to be an international brand, employing a bevy of upper-class slaves on reception and airborne sales teams […] They were more corporate in approach and more professional in appearance.’7 The artist Seth Price, in his essay ‘Dispersion’ (2002), observes how ‘much in the same way that quasi-bureaucratic administrative forms were taken up by the Conceptualists of the 1960s, design and architecture now could be called house styles of the neo-avant-garde. Their appearance often simply gestures toward a theoretically engaged position, such that a representation of space or structure is figured as an ipso facto critique of administered society and the social, while engagement with design codes is seen as a comment on advertising and the commodity.’8 Again the cake is to be both had and eaten; the professional art worker can enjoy both the look of contemporary design and its cultural encodings. With the revolution in desktop publishing that began in the 1990s control over those codings was in many more people’s grasp: the presentation of invitations, posters, magazines and catalogues began to assume a slicker edge. We fell in love again with radical design partly because, as Michael Bracewell wrote in his razor-sharp cultural history of the 20th century’s final decade, The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth (2002), ‘the point about the gentrification of the avant-garde, however snooty one might want to be about the debasement of radicalization by commerce and fashionability, was that it was irresistible. Aesthetically gorgeous, it flattered one’s better conception of oneself as a culturally aware, urban and urbane kind of person.’9

A high premium is placed on signalling this culturally aware urbanity and theoretical engagement, rather than necessarily enacting it. If the modern city displays, as Raban puts it, ‘a pornography of taste’, these signals are crucial to our recognition of the art professional’s authoritative self-image. It is a form of subcultural recognition, which can run from the micro – two students, for instance, who might each clock the fact that the other is wearing the current male art school uniform of deck shoes, waxed Barbour jacket and 1940s-goes-1980s short-back-and-sides haircut – to the macro, such as the way an art magazine squares up to its readers. Interviewed in Thornton’s book, the former Artforum editor Jack Bankowsky observes that ‘You have to understand the pieties […] Seriousness at Artforum and in the art world in general is a commodity. Certain kinds of gallerists may want the magazine to be serious even if they have no real co-ordinates for distinguishing a serious article from the empty signifier of seriousness abused.’10You have to understand the pieties: the weight of an artist’s monograph or how many times their name crops up on e-flux announcements; someone’s preference for reading October rather than frieze; the internationalism of the contemporary art world – some romantic residue of the idea that, if you travel regularly by plane, you must be high-powered because your business reaches far outside your locality; artist names exchanged as collateral by those jockeying for position in the marketplace of curating or criticism. These are the little curlicues that adorn the edifice of the professional arts establishment.

Pieties also lie deep within language itself. Art’s authority is perpetuated by specialized terminologies derived from philosophy, history and sociology. Specialized vocabularies are helpful tools for specialist thinking but, almost by dint of their dazzling technicality, they also imply consensus models for talking about art. Working for a contemporary art magazine, I get sent a vast amount of press material each day, almost all of which employs a strikingly similar tone of voice. Most common is the one of academic solemnity infused with a barely veiled aggression, as though art were engaged in some cultural ‘war on terror’. Words such as ‘forcing’, ‘interrogating’ or ‘subverting’ occur with incredible frequency. Boundaries are ‘broken down’ and ‘preconceptions challenged’ so often as to make subversion and radicality seem like a mandatory daily chore rather than a blow to the status quo. They perpetuate old-fashioned notions, such as that of the artist visionary liberating the masses from mental enslavement by bourgeois values. Overuse has made these words sound strangely toothless, for what’s at stake in the art is often less important (but not necessarily without value) than the language suggests.

This may seem like nit-picking when global capital is collapsing around our ears. Sure, the follies of art-speak are easy to laugh at, but often criticism of it begins and ends with a dismissive chuckle – which ignores profounder problems. Why should academic terminology be the default vehicle for discussing art? Why is there such an emphasis on newness, schism and radicality? Even when the art itself may be enjoyably throwaway, language pins it to deathlessly auratic registers of exchange. This suggests a subliminal fear that, if the subject in question is not talked up as Big and Culturally Significant, then the point of fussing over it in the first place might be called into question, bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down. In an essay entitled ‘The Art World Is Not the World’ (2008) the philosopher Nina Power coins the term ‘Nu-language’ (a play on both Tony Blair’s New Labour and fast-turnover pop genres such as Nu-rave or Nu-metal) to describe a language without referent, a ‘junk syntax [...] characteristic not only of the art world but of business, academia and politics’, a non-grammatical set of abstractions that have the surface appearance of discussion and the exchange of ideas, but which in fact serve only in order to maintain the illusion of communication and creative dialogue. She gives the following illustration of ‘Nu-language’: ‘A recent conference on the idea of “Art after Aesthetic Distance” states as its remit the following: “Their projects mediate the contemporary frameworks of art as service, as social space, as activism, as interactions, and as relationships.” […] To “mediate” “frameworks” as “relationships” … one could switch the terms around with similar effect: to “framework mediations as relationships”, or perhaps to “relate mediations as frameworks” […] The peculiar power of “Nu-language”, as a kind of pure formal currency, has precisely lead to a vapid never-ending abstraction that uses words like “consolidate”, “reconstellate”, “reconfigure”, “enhance”, “articulate”, as descriptors of some mythical “process”, like Georg Hegel’s absolute spirit in a particularly insomniac phase. Nouns, like material products, appear to be out of fashion.’11 

East is the New West, c.1999, Painted wood, Installation view, Hackney, London. Photograph: Jonathan Griffin.

This drift across a sea of abstracted management-speak is problematic because it allows for anything to be subsumed by its rhetoric. Quasi-academicisms have become ‘the empty signifier of seriousness abused’, opening the door to a professional art speak; a communicative shell that allows a massive shortfall to exist between our idea of what a given exhibition or art work might constitute and what that exhibition or art work actually, physically, is. Trouser-Word Piece (1972/89), by the late Keith Arnatt, prefigured this problem of identity, language and authenticity with photographs depicting Arnatt wearing a sandwich board declaring ‘I’m a Real Artist’, accompanied by a text using a philosophical analysis of the word ‘real’ to ask what constitutes the idea of artistic integrity. Two recent artist’s films have also touched on the language issue. Emily Wardill’s Sea Oak (2008) uses interviews with members of the Californian think-tank Rockridge, who describe how neo-conservative politics made advantageous use of a theatricalized, emotional rhetoric, divorced from concrete referents. Melanie Gilligan’s film Crisis in the Credit System (2008), which dramatizes a role-playing workshop conducted by a group of high-finance specialists in response to the economic crisis, features a discussion of how financial instruments can be abstracted from the nature of the material asset, likening the weightlessness of share trading to a language in which words do not necessarily have the meaning commonly ascribed to them: ‘I could say “tree” but it doesn’t have to mean “tree”, it could mean “jet”, and suddenly we have expanded our word-generating profit margin exponentially and we can take profit from more meanings and numerous positions on it.’ 

The seductions of jargon affect artistic production. A word you hear many artists use today when describing what they do is ‘practice’ (or ‘praxis’ – urrgh!), much as you might describe an architectural or doctor’s practice. Occasionally prefaced with the phrase ‘research-based’, the word has faintly scientific, academic and conventional ‘professional’ overtones, suggesting fixed methodologies with quantifiable outcomes. Perhaps originating with the 1970s’ Conceptual artist, it speaks of the rationalist flipside to the old-fashioned model of artist-as-licensed-transgressor, positioning the artist alongside applied artists, philosophers, sociologists or community workers. In ‘Dispersion’ Price cites a term coined by the artist Martha Rosler; ‘the “as if” approach, where the Conceptual work cloaks itself in other disciplines (philosophy being the most notorious example), provoking an oscillation between skilled and de-skilled, authority and pretence, style and strategy, art and non-art.’12 Price goes on to argue ‘the producer who elects to wear several hats is perceived as a crossover at best: the artist–filmmaker, as in the case of Julian Schnabel; the artist as entrepreneur, as in the case of Warhol’s handling of Interview magazine and the Velvet Underground’.13

Working in the arts is complicated by seductive images of how previous artists lived. In an interview in 1979 the artist Brian Clarke remarked on how ‘A lot of people seem concerned with getting a studio before they know what they want to do with it when they’ve got it. It’s almost a prerequisite of being an artist.’14 Someone once observed that ‘It was difficult for the Cubists to make work as they didn’t have, as we do, the example of Cubism to help them.’15 Historical instances such as the Impressionists in 19th-century Paris, or the Abstract Expressionists in 1950s’ New York, are part of the popular imagination’s idea of what being an artist is like. As methods of image circulation have expanded, so too has the speed with which more recent periods enter the canon. It’s interesting, for instance, to note how Johnnie Shand Kydd’s photographs of the 1990s’ generation of Young British Artists looked so historical even as they were being made – Bracewell described the UK’s Britpop years as a return to the ‘British Beat innocence’ of the Swinging Sixties. Nostalgia for art’s past – which if this were pop culture, we’d bluntly call ‘retro’ – reproduces and repackages professional career models. This is only amplified by the web:’s ‘Scene and Herd’ blog is one example of a channel that perpetuates certain ideas of what being an artist today might involve – looking, say, at Richard Prince sculptures in the company of Pamela Anderson.

Boom times have failed to manage the expectations of many leaving art school. For recent graduates the art world has never seemed anything other than affluent and eager to snap up young artists. How the current economic climate changes this remains to be seen. But what is expected of recent graduates in terms of ‘behaviour’ when they leave college? This is something that can’t really be taught, only intuited through experience. Nonetheless, the practicalities of making a living as an artist – how to deal with museum paperwork, tax forms, shippers – are seldom discussed. Michael Craig-Martin, who worked at Goldsmiths, London, in the 1980s and ‘90s, was recently interviewed about his role teaching Damien Hirst and the yBa generation: ‘I don’t ever remember discussing with Damien, or anyone else, making money from making art. You’re trying to prepare somebody for an independent life of work in a very short space of time. On the other hand that’s not the same thing as saying there isn’t a world out there. […] There’s a kind of romantic idea that you should shut yourself away from this kind of thing and be “pure”. This is a romantic fantasy.’16

This ‘shutting yourself away’ and other forms of dissent have a distinctly respectable character these days. Those who oppose the ‘system’ are often defined by it. The cultural activist Stewart Home identified, in an article for Smile magazine in 1989 on the historicization of the Situationists and Fluxus, how ‘many people find themselves attracted to the iconoclasm and sense of purpose’ they offered. ‘Related to the iconoclasm groups is the aura of radicality (and by inference, authenticity) that surrounds them. Since much academic discourse is grounded in notions of the “authentic” (and its loss), individuals engaged in cultural and media studies find the prospect of assimilating the “radicality” attached to avant-garde ideas a very attractive proposition’.17 These are now models of art production that are understood and accommodated professionally. The legacy of institutional critique is that many shows today include works that comment on the production of the show or point out its failings and oversights. Artists can enjoy critically respectable careers working with the idioms of critique and dissent – Claire Fontaine, for instance, or Bernadette Corporation. Those who oppose the establishment ‘art world’ can also maintain a position based on romantic ideas of ‘authenticity’ and nostalgia: in the UK the cult figure of Billy Childish loudly decries the state of contemporary art while making neo-Expressionist paintings and dressing like a prewar British soldier home on leave. I don’t doubt his sincerity, only his belief that the past always holds the best solutions for present ills.

How should artists behave? How should we discuss art, build venues to show it in, tell people about it, try and support artists? There is no single answer: each situation demands a different solution. Perhaps, as we are hit daily with dire economic news, what is needed is to remain sensitive to the details, those small elements in the art world that cumulatively exert their own pressures on the ways in which people behave or relate to the making of art. As Raban writes, ‘we are necessarily dependent on surfaces and appearances a great deal of the time, and […] it is to surfaces that we must learn to attend with greater sympathy and seriousness.’18 It depends on whether we wish, one day, to find ourselves contentedly walking to dinner each evening ‘smartly dressed, well-groomed, relaxed, friendly, polite and in complete control’.

1 Virginia Nicholson, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900–1939, Penguin, London, p.18. Lewis’ biographer Paul O’Keeffe holds that this story is probably apocryphal (Paul O’Keeffe, Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis, Jonathan Cape, London, 2000, p.255).
2 Nicholson, Among the Bohemians, p.134
3 Hal Foster, Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes), Verso, London/New York, 2002, p.40
4 Sally O’Reilly, ‘Seven Days in the Art World’, Art Monthly, 321, November 2008, p.32
5 Harold Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1800, Routledge, London/New York, 1989, p.xiii
6 Jonathan Raban, Soft City, Fontana/Hamish Hamilton, London, 1975, p.64
7 Gregor Muir, Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, Aurum, London, 2009. p.4
8 Seth Price, ‘Dispersion’, 2002– ongoing. Free download
9 Michael Bracewell, The Nineties: When Surface was Depth, Flamingo/Harper Collins, London, 2002, p.145
10 Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World, Granta, London, 2008, p.176
11 Nina Power, ‘The Art World is Not the World’, published in Gest: Laboratory of Synthesis #1, ed. Robert Garnett and Andrew Hunt, Book Works, London, 2008, pp.106–7
12 Price, ‘Dispersion’
13 Price, ‘Dispersion’
14 Henry Lydiate, ‘Ways of Working’, an interview with Eduardo Paolozzi, Marlee Robinson, John Hoyland and Brian Clarke, 1979.
15 Will Holder, ‘Will Holder Speaks the Poetics of CONCRETE POETRY and Documenting the Work of FALKE PISANO’, Dot Dot Dot, 17, winter 2008–9, p.18
16 ‘Inside the Art Schools’, BBC Radio 3, broadcast 11 January 2009
17 Stewart Home, ‘Aesthetics and Resistance: Totality Reconsidered’, Smile, 11, London, 1989, reproduced in What Is Situationism? A Reader, ed. Stewart Home, AK Press, Edinburgh, 1996, p.140
18 Raban, Soft City, p.91

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).