Yesterday I read an interesting article in the Guardian (in fact, I read this in paper form) about the reaction of the contemporary art world to the Brexit vote, as debated recently on Radio 4.
When it first happened, the ‘art world’ as a collective reacted in shock and devastation. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to step forward in support of the leave vote. All the voices that were aired were saddened and disappointed, sitting firmly in the remain camp. I was one of them (albeit on the micro level).
Six weeks later and it is interesting to read in this article about a calming of tempers and current thinking. Artists now seem to be questioning and doubting themselves, which happens after a shock, and after time for thought and reflection. Artists are now asking themselves: are we out of touch? Have we been living in our non-rebellious, London-centric, Guardian-reading, neo-liberal let’s-comment-on-these-important-cultural-and-political-issues-though-art-and-drink-Americanos-in-coffee-shops bubble? I think the answer might be yes. Not all artists are rich enough to shop in Waitrose and drink lots of Americanos of course but their audience is. That, I think, is the crux of the issue. The audience of the majority of contemporary art is out of touch with what most people in the wider community are thinking and so the artwork is ergo out of touch. It is basic supply and demand (indulge me, I have a degree in economics and politics). The artist may not be conscious of the economic process, but in the end they supply what the demand expects. At least that is what they do if they want to succeed and it is human nature to want adulation, admiration, and footfall at an exhibition.
The art world has been shaken up. It has come to the conclusion, the article states, that it has not been reflecting the lives and experiences of many of the people it wants to move through art. That’s quite a shocking thing to have to admit.
Perhaps the next move is to pause, and listen and watch. Of course the Brexit vote was a blow for the arts. The loss of European membership will be devastating. But it could be turned into a positive thing if artists are able to step back, and do as Atticus Finch would have everyone do from time to time:
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The Guardian article is predicting a revolt from the arts, perhaps encouraged by a greater involvement of young people in politics which has already been seen. I think this would be fantastic. I do think the art world needs to be shaken off its pedestal somewhat and listen to the people cry: ‘what have you ever done for us?’ Or perhaps ‘what does it even mean?’
I spent a lot of time, post the Brexit vote, arguing and debating on social media with ‘leave’ votes. I just couldn’t get them to ‘understand’ or ‘admit’ to what damage they had done. I couldn’t get them to see sense. As far as I was concerned, they had been taken over by aliens from the planet rhetoric and they had been brainwashed. However, gradually, I was able to see something of their perspective and their reasoning. I softened (and I thank them for that). They were voting for the lesser of two evils: the status quo being the evil, uncertainty being the lesser. However hard I find it to take, I have to respect that and hopefully find a way to use that in my art. I don’t know how yet.
Although I love politics and economics, and I am very capable of entering into an impassioned argument with anyone willing to argue back about Trump, UKIP, Brexit, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, the NHS, benefits, the arts or whatever, I have always been reluctant to mix art with politics. My art has always been about the micro and the mundane – people and things. I have avoided anything that involves controversy or comment. Perhaps it is time to change this, at least a little bit. After all, politics is about people and things too.