‘Money! Money’s the curse of man, none greater. That’s what wrecks cities, banishes men from home, tempts and deludes the most well-meaning soul, pointing out the way to infamy and shame. Well, they shall pay for their success.’
Sophocles, Antigone 441 BC
As a young arty type from Glasgow, I’m not used to money. My family aren’t wealthy, and neither are my friends or co-workers. I’m used to artist or community run-spaces, cultural hubs of various uses with public benefactors or alternative money-making means, spaces that work to keep themselves. I used to work at a Creative Scotland-funded theatre, have a studio in an artist-run institute, drink in bars and pubs that were cheap and were fairly accessible to anyone that wanted to put on a heavy metal night, host a charity event, have a political meeting to raise awareness of some issue, or a feminist sci-fi poetry reading. Whatever. There wasn’t any money, but things generally found a way to survive.
What I’m trying to say, is upon moving to London I was surprised at how shocking I found the sheer amount of money that was slooping around the West End galleries and arts venues. It was like a smooth coating over every surface; you could smell it from 10 yards away. The effect was seductive and terrifying. In the space of a couple of days I’d been to White Cube, Hauser & Wirth, the fucking diamond salon at Christies, rubbed shoulders with actual art dealers and auctioneers and collectors, eavesdropping on their conversations and lingering voyeuristically over their expensive clothes and haircuts. As one of my course-mates put it, I felt like a stray cat that had wandered in somewhere it shouldn’t have been. What was happening in front of me wasn’t for my eyes.
In between sauntering around all these swish galleries and fancy West End joints, I also ended up at a talk in Brixton, run by the Socialist Workers Party. The talk was on the work and writings of Angela Davis, celebrated Afro-American activist (read about her life here). As an individual who had struggled for decades against the power structures of wealth, capitalism and commerce that enforced classism, racism and sexism in society, her story came to me at the perfect moment for me to start to understand the strange feeling of nausea I’d been experiencing.
Angela Davis in her book Women, Race and Class and in her speech at the anti-Trump protests in America talked eloquently about intersectionality in relation to oppression and liberation. Her point, which made a lot of sense to me, was that whether you are disabled, or black, or queer, or poor, or all of these things or none, you are still vulnerable to oppression by capitalist power structures. Therefore, all of these fights are ours, and no one is excluded from supporting another’s cause (though sympathetically of course). (Somewhere current intersectionality continues to fail at the moment is in this exclusion: trying to divide up who has to right to represent or champion a cause; of course there is a clear difference between obnoxiously speaking for and supporting a struggle, but as an example the attempted erasure of trans-women at last year’s London Pride march was shameful.) An example of successful intersectionality would be the excellent film Pride (2014) which brings together the gay liberation movement with the miners’ strikes. When these causes support each other and reject the right-wing’s attempts to divide and alienate, we are so much more powerful. Capitalism is all-consuming; it serves only that tiny number whose wealth it can continue to multiply, at the expense of every living thing.
At Hauser & Wirth I went to an opening that turned out to be showing some of the most expensive contemporary paintings ever sold, by Zeng Fanzhi, a Chinese painter. I didn’t know this at the time, I was just bemused by the amount of security staff and the fact we couldn’t take our wine into the exhibition space. I don’t really like painting that’s about painting, so I didn’t really care for the abstracted expressionistic gimmicky portraits of famous Western artists such as Vincent van Gogh or Lucian Freud, though I didn’t mind the more idiosyncratic, bizarre ‘mask’ paintings in another room. However, after going to my Angela Davis lecture and finding out the paintings I’d been so bemused by were so stupid expensive, I started to pinpoint my sense of unease.
I felt, when I looked at these multi-million pound underwhelming paintings, the same way as when I watched a BBC documentary about a poor sex robot called Harmony. I felt that these paintings, like the sex-bot, were sad coded toys of a completely unrelated network of power, that didn’t really care about what the paintings looked like, only the fact that they were an inoffensive, hollow vehicle for wealth. I don’t believe this is what paintings are or should be for, like I don’t believe women can be replaced by sex-bots. I became aware of something predatory, consuming and destructive.
Another exhibition I visited recently that also exemplified the sleazy relationship between money and art was Andy Dixon’s show at BEERS Old Street. The paintings were exceptionally beautiful and masterful studies in colour, so pure and assured, yet typically the quality we liked most about them was pretty much absent from the press release. Instead the statement crapped on about how the gorgeous interiors were those of wealthy collectors and patrons, and the other paintings of still lives, hunting scenes and seascapes were cover versions of expensive old paintings. So, paintings about paintings about money again. But surely if you are making work about art and money, you should have some kind of more complicated perspective other than ‘money is great give me more’? That seemed to be the theme of this show, as the price list was brazenly displayed on the back of the handout and there were little red dots everywhere, constantly reinforcing the fact that Dixon ‘is a complicit player in the game’. Am I naive for finding this approach not only uninteresting but also ethically suspect? And finding the works still aesthetically pleasing, isn’t that like being turned on by very dodgy porn against your will?
I was going to write some stuff about Fake or Fortune (BBC show) because I’ve been a little obsessed for years, but instead I’m going to sleep and maybe come back to it.