Why I hate artists.
Today I visited the Turner Prize shit at the Baltic and was predictably underwhelmed into a highly annoyed attitude. But that's not what this post is about. (Everyone knows that that side of the Saatchi-Turner-YBA artworld is pathetic, and the outrage and headbanging about it is plenty well enough rehearsed already without me adding to it. Even shit careerist uninspired soul-dead 'artist' fakers think the Turner Award is pants, and it's so off the radar of most decent DIY folk that it can safely be ignored.)
No, what I want to write about is more why my friends who are artists are shit. Why decent well-meaning thoughtful artists are hateful. And a second disclaimer – this doesn't mean I don't like em, admire what they do, wanna be more like them etc.., it's just something that sits in me like an evil goblin and I want to let it out for a bit.
An artist can be amazing. An artist can produce beautiful or thought-provoking or interestingly disturbing or enjoyably fun work. Great stuff. Go for it.
Artists (plural) however are scum.
For a start, they are scum because they call themselves artists. What the hell is an artist? As a label of praise for somebody ('you are a real artist') it is clear and fine. As a name given retrospectively to someone who produced art you value, yeah that's probably alright too, so long as you can justify it. But as a category of work. As a self-appointed monicker. As a badge of status, a claim to inclusion in a certain subculture, a declaration of independence from the everyday run of mediocrity? No.
You are just as insipid, thoughtless and uinspired as me and my mum and my neighbour. Sometimes. Calling yourself an artist doesn't mean you haven't wasted the day pottering in your room. I waste a lot of time pottering in my room. I don't claim it is part of my art, even if in some way it is 'developing my practice'. It's different if you are working on a technique, training, working on some niggle or improving something. That is a great use of time, and I wish you more of it. But that's the 'craftsman' side of art that artists do not value. Artists are not into arts and crafts. Artists are into a funding stream in which they get to wear the hat of 'valued artist' who then, at their convenience, drop a few inspired twinkles of their artistic sense down to us and get paid 'artist rate'. They even have tax codes and advisors and careers networks to service them.
Put it this way: I know what a graffiti artist is. I think it is good that certain people get sufficiently recognised for their efforts and their abilities by fans of the form to be labelled as graffiti artists.
I know what a writer is, it's someone who's written something (interesting this one: it's past tense only. If you call yourself a writer and you haven't written anything then you're not, you're 'trying to write' or something equally humble). I know what a painter is, it's someone who paints. An etcher, a chainsaw artist, a photographer, these are all accurate labels for a certain type of activity, of gained skill and experience, and a useful description for the kind of thing that person can do. The artform is intrinsically linked to the tools used and the expertise and awareness of a skilled craftsman (& no it doesn't need to be 'useful').
Live art, conceptual art, experimental art.
You can be a live artist in my book if you've done live art that people reckon yeah, that was live art. Same for the others, and experimental is good, more experiment please.
But if a graffiti artist and a performance artist and a mixed media daubing&sculpting artist sit on a row of seats and recognise each other as 'artists' then something has shifted and has gone wrong. Unless those seats are at the jobcentre or in the doctor's and they are just recognising each other as people who do creative stuff, perhaps prioritise their art over cash and other things. That form of recognition is amazing. But I would say that quite often, if you found yourself sitting on that row of seats and you happened to find a way of having a deep conversation with your neighbours, you'd find everyone there has some outlet for creativity and an aesthetic or playful art of their own. Strangers I've met in cafes and the public library have shown me their poetry; explained what they're trying to learn with photoshop; and revealed to me aspects of the architecture of this city that they adore. Because people are artistic (there may be exceptions), and lots of us manage to gain the time and the confidence or bloody-mindedness to try and develop our inklings into something more, something we want to share.
Artists are scum because they think they are different than these people. Different than people. And I'm not talking outsider or naïve art either, nor the platitudes that 'everyone is an artist' which is so frequently followed by 'I myself, however, deserve to be funded to do MY art'.
Have you ever seen those adverts for an event, exhibition, a funded project, a 'residency' or some such, which is titled 'Call to Artists' or something similar? It is phrased in grand, inspiring terms: “this project is open to artists from the North East”, “suitable for young artists with an interest in”, “artists from Durham and Sunderland will be showing the work produced during”, “looking for an artist to take a lead role in”. Most issues of the Crack have an example, and I'm sure if you join the artists' newsletters and email networks you'll see far more of them than I do. But I doubt you've got more angered about them than I have. Because if there's one thing that's inspired me (in a bad way) to write this rant, it is these adverts and their casual use of the word 'artist' as if it's an OKAY term to use. And they are also a case where the nicer the project, the more inclusive the call to art, the more collaborative and down to earth they are, the more insulting I find them.
Let me explain what I mean by that: if I somehow stumble across some advert for a conference or exhibition in, say, Hamburg, aimed at “artists working in any field” but which is clearly exclusive, dripping with prestigiousness, then as a normal person I straight away realise oh that isn't for the likes of me. It's for people who've slimed their way into some inner circle of society that I not only despise, but am so far distant from I don't even recognise. My day-to-day blinkers take over and I don't even see it. They can all die for all I care – I genuinely wouldn't mind. The art ads that annoy me far more are the ones phrased more at my level. And by my I don't mean 'me a small aspiring artist'. I mean 'me a person who's interested in stuff'. When I see these and start thinking 'that sounds interesting' I suddenly get hit with this word 'artist' and I get the red mist. I have been known on more than a few occasions to get my pen out my pocket and cross out the word 'artist' to replace it with the word 'person'. Not 'artists', 'people'.
If only 'artists' are invited to join in with a cool, fun way of interacting at some public site (an example that comes to mind is a derelict house in Byker ripe for some temporary 'transformation/installation'), then only those who have chosen, internally, to consider themselves 'artists not people' will go. If you have not appropriated artist status for yourself, and you see that ad, then the use of the word artist is an insult and a fuck-off and you are not invited.
So do not invite artists to get involved. Invite people to get involved.
Those who are artists will progress their career by getting to know people who can send money, contacts, prestige and access their way. For some this is only a sideline to their main practice, or so they think. But if they are entirely outside the networking circles and gravy train of the art world, then they are either already rich, already hugely specialised & well regarded, or more likely failing and lost. So an essential element of being an artist is schmoozing, turning up to your friend's opening, saying the right things over drinks, and getting your name out there as someone who will take on that kind of commission, etc... This is a poisonous and often depressing part of the life, for which any individual artist need not take the blame. It's because we live in a fucked up capitalist, rich-say-what-goes world, that uses social mechanisms to weed out and train fresh talent to serve it. But what artists ARE to blame for, and do deserve the occasional globule of spit for, is treating this networking part of their social world as the PRIMARY or preferred or superior world. Parties in galleries are okay, maybe, live performance even better, but look around and is it the same narcissistic and vulpine faces? Has a partial clique become a full clique? If so, then you are once again raising a big fuck-you to the city you live in. And next day you'll tell yourself that this city owes you something back? What for? Being a prick? Be a prick by all means but don't then consider it JUSTIFIED because you're [wait for it], because you're an 'artist'.
Today I went through town with two artfiends from Middlesbrough, eagerly looking for what's going on. We visited 5 art galleries: venues which are windows onto the street, a place where artists (or people doing art) display and, hopefully, engage with the public.
The Baltic, set in a scenic spot where Gateshead used to be. Ignoring the Turner shit, there were 2 big floors of big art. Both relied on projected film as the main medium. One was a bloke pissing about dressed as a baby at Burning Man festival in Nevada. Nothing wrong with that, it's what people Do at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, but what did he as 'artist' contribute? Funding for himself and his mate to do the festival thing, and then to share what they got up to with the public, leading to huge prestige for which future funding and future prestige will come piling. The gravy train. All profit accumulates to the artist. The better floor was about the bureaucracy and waiting involved in visas etc.. in Pakistan. A fine video, quite beautiful to watch the waiting people's faces, thankyou for making it. But even here, in the GOOD example, it is the people in the film, the set-up accessed by the artist, the scene revealed by the film, that is the really interesting thing and beautiful/challenging etc.. So I hope the artist does not now present herself as 'the artist' who 'owns' that footage, and that effect, because she was only one participant, the one directing the camera and the one receiving the pay and the prestige. She, and you Mr Artist, had better not forget that the art does not belong to her, it's just her edit of it that's gaining the bucks. Payment received for effort put in, fair enough - like a photographer selling his shot of the Tyne Bridge, it's his craft at photography (and photoshop) and his effort at framing it and flogging it that gets paid for. But it's nothing more 'special' than that.
The Side Gallery. Perhaps my favourite gallery in the toon, being the fuddy duddy old man that, increasingly, I am. Amazing historic photos of Afghanistan plus recent ones that suffered a little by comparison, except for the truly wonderful richly-photographed display of the anti-Soviet uprising, as displayed in a museum over there. It's worth popping in just to see that exhibit. The best part of the recent photographer's work was actually the film in which he explained what it was like being over there. I keep denying to myself that this horrific human and environmental disaster is being forced through year on year in Afghanistan, so I am grateful to the old leftiness of the Side for reminding me of it. But while it wouldn't have been possible without the photos, in terms of impact, for me the issues won out over the form.
The New Bridge studios / gallery / waste of space. This has been there for ages now. It is full of young hip and happening 'artists'. It is in a fantastic public location, directly opposite the public library in the centre of town with giant glass streetlevel walls. And every time but one that I have walked past, it has presented another of those giant 'fuck-yous' to the public walking past. There is more of a public service delivered to the city by the average mobile phone shop than has been delivered by this waste of space. I'm sure it's all very fine for the people who use it, no doubt developing marvellous things and hanging out with such funky fellows. But the ground floor has, aside from one party, one gig, and one short-run exhibition, presented to the non-artist world nothing but empty, white or building-work style rooms. This offers a daily argument for why arts funding should be cut (which I am not, incidentally, an advocate of). Have I missed something? Admittedly I'm only in the city every single week of my life, so perhaps there's been surprise 'come join in', 'ooh look at this' things that I've missed, but I think not. If you know of more that goes on there, then you are probably an artist, and wonderful an individual as you may be, your kind needs to get a grip.
VANE – we just went in for a laugh really. An A4 blu-tacked piece of paper said VANE on the outside of the building. Upstairs there were a few more A4 blu-tacked pieces of paper, and empty rooms, some of which were locked, for variety. And it's another massively expensive city centre space.
We went for a coffee in the Laing. A nicer room for chatting than your average coffee shop, and we loved the room full of schoolchildren's responses to Mervyn Peake. A very suitable provincial gallery for its location, that makes all the right efforts to be accessible. Two thumbs up for the Laing, but I am not my mum and dad and I do want something a bit more involving and challenging in the city. Something a bit more DIY. And right now I cannot find it except on the street (literally), often through interactions with strangers at bus stops and on the walk back from town.
Shall I go on? Perhaps this is long enough to exasperate you as much as me.
If a child tells you 'you're an artist' you are allowed to smile and feel happy.
If you see an advert in which “artists” are invited to contribute to some group exhibition or event, and you don't feel excluded, you are probably a bit of a knob.
You can be less of a knob by doing creative stuff with normal people.
Footnote 1: Pictures taken from the Laing, various schoolchildren's responses to the Mervyn Peake exhibition.
Footnote 2: I am doing my first so-called 'artists residency' this month (albeit unpaid and on a squatted piece of land down Heathrow way), and put in my first ever application for funds as an 'artist' back in Autumn, so the issue of naming people as artists has become more prominent for me.