Art -What is it good for?

 In ArtCrit

Here is my opinion piece for the Kings Place talk this Monday night:

Art: What’s it good for? debate at Kings Place 7.30pm Monday 12 October

On the panel: Professor Evelyn Welch, Art Historian, Julia Peyton-Jones, Director of the Serpentine Gallery. Larry Elliott, Economics Editor of The Guardian, Nasser Azam, former banker turned contemporary artist

When these kind of titles are thought up for debates there’s a lot of short-cuts taken with the meanings of words. Usually it’s a way of singling out the visual arts today for attack, or more broadly the state-subsidised arts. After all, who would ask what Radiohead are good for? Or: what is Michelangelo good for? A wise sage once said: “A man climbs a mountain because it is there. A man makes a work of art because it is not there.” Art just is. People make it or look at it because it gives them happiness and happiness is good.

But let’s assume this question is about the controversial side of art. Do museums get too much money? Is art so good that it deserves to be funded to the extent it is by the state, and with all those tax breaks and special concessions? This is what this question is getting at.

Actually there’s been lots of bad things art’s been good for over the last five or six years of the credit and commodity boom. It’s been very good for money laundering and white-washing. If you were an oligarch, with a sinister past, who wanted to transfer your money from one asset into another, art, and keep that asset in a tax-free environment, then you bought art, stored it in a warehouse in the Swiss Freeport in Geneva, built yourself a private art foundation in your home town, and imported parts of your collection to hold PR-enhancing exhibitions of Damien Hirst or Andreas Gursky. Or you might just spend tens of millions on a Francis Bacon and sponsor the garden party of a leading London public gallery. A sign of how misused art has been is that this year, the Swiss Freeport in Geneva has changed its rules, compelling valuations and declarations of provenance, while last year the bank UBS was fined three-quarters of a billion dollars for using events it sponsored like Art Basel to advise rich Americans how to evade taxes. Art has very good for reducing your tax bill – in many countries, including the US and Greece, you can donate art to your own private museum and write off the value of that art against your taxes. As a result there’s been far too much art bought and sold, for far too high prices. Art is good, but it should not be a ‘special case.’ In future art must be treated like any other commodity. The unregulated art market MUST be regulated.

Art has also been very good at covering up an absence of democracy and civil rights – instead of elections or honest markets, sheikhs and oligarchs have given their countries biennales. Art has been used to justify the suppression of free speech. I was banned from filming at Frieze art fair this year and last – only TV crews making reports about Frieze itself, ie advertising it – are allowed. And last year I was banned from filming the Damien Hirst skulls exhibited in the publicly-funded British Museum, because I was a known critic of Hirst’s work. In future at must not be used to conceal and censor.

Lastly people have got confused about what art is. Not everything put in a gallery – or on a plinth is art. Gormley’s fourth plinth, for example, is not art – it is a combination of self-promotion and politicial protest in an art location. Art, that work made clear, is clear, can be good for drawing attention of the media – but, paradoxically, often only when it is not art. In future, art must be art!

But there are things that art is really really good at. In a super-fast broadband culture, art is really good for delivering messages in seconds. A movie takes an hour to watch – you can understand a Warhol in seconds. We use art today to talk about complex philosophical issues – space, time, chance etc – in a way we don’t often use novels or films. The best art has an ambiguity and an ability to combine contradictions – just think of the satirical critiques/celebrations of pornography and commerce in the Tate’s Pop Life show – that no other art form can rival. That open-endedness stimulates debate and discussion across our society – and that is just what we need today.