You Sell / Out

It’s 20 years since Nevermind this year. Recently at a wedding in the States, Rosie and I met a very down to earth guy carrying a Rolaflex who blithey mentioned that he took the photos for the sleeve. I remember the 10 year anniversary – the NME did a special edition called ‘No Sell Out’ – which I can’t track down online. It was an exploration of how musicians stay true to themselves. In his interview Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers put it simply: ‘you make a record, you sell out’.

To what extent does embroiling yourself in systems of power, compromise your ability so speak authentically and critique them? This is an important question for projects like rethink, which I’m going to try and furtively re-involve myself in this Winter. Start The Week
this Monday was on the theme of ‘The Arts in Politics’ – Iwona Blazwick, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery had some things that kind of stung me.

I really like her description of the challenge artists face to critique the current times. And I like her articulation of the utility of art to society in making the invisible, visible. But the assumed parameters of the debate seemed to assume that the only way that art can do this is by creating objects and pictures for the walls of art galleries. Which seems a somewhat limited view of how to visualise new ways of living together in the 21st century. Blazwick then gets dragged into a corner by Marr where she bizarrely claims that because artists get up and go to the studio everyday, they can exist outside the market that they grotesquely benefit from and yet claim to critique. Hmmm. I’ve done some of my own transcribing here.

IB: ‘People are trying to deal with the whole history of Capitalism, it’s very removed, there’s not an obvious victim – it’s not like the civil rights movements of the 1960s where it was very clear there was a victim and there was an ethos of protest. They could identify the issues in a very coherent way. Whereas now we’re in a much less vivid, less black and white situation where we’re in a land of euphemisms, we’re in a place where language has abstracted the actual issues and has been taken over by monetarism. So it’s much harder to identify an enemy and represent them.’

Marr: Your gallery has a long history of political engagement. It was famously where Picasso’s Guernica was shown before the second world war and it’s one of the galleries which has always had an ambition to say things beyond the ‘purely artistic’…

IB: Well I think it’s an example of the utopian impulse in art because it was founded in 1901 to bring art to the people of the east end of london in the firm belief that art could change people’s lives. That they could not only be bought to self-realisation, but that they could be bought to some kind of agency and at the moment in London at the Royal Academy in the forecourt there is Tatlin’s tower one the great abiding symbols of that utopian impulse not only that they could trigger revolution but that they could also give it a shape, give it an aesthetic, a form. so the Whitechapel is very much part of that in it’s very founding mission, but i think it also becomes a platform for different ways for art  to interact in different ways with politics and culture. Art like Guernica that holds a mirror up to injustice, art that voices a protest against inequity and injustice. But there’s also a part of art which is about showing the invisible. And that’s a very crucial part of art and politics – to make that which is invisible, visible.

Marr: One of the questions is about whether artists today are doing enough about the troubled times in which we live. Is one of the problems that we’ve got, as with football, such a star-system in the arts these days. That the really influential people are incredibly rich – Im thinking of people that you used to work with, like Damian Hirst… we read in the paper last week that Anish Kapoor is one of the richest people in Britain now. He is just staggeringly rich. Quite hard to keep you’re ‘radical street edge’, when you’re living in huge piles in the countryside….

IB: I think the market system, almost exists separate to the individual artist. In my experience artsits have this daily practice of going into the studio, regardless of what’s happening around them and really diving very deep into their own psyche, their own understanding of the world. Gerhard Richter is another case and point at the moment who has a wonderful show at the Tate Modern at the moment, where he has juxtaposed images of flowers with images of the Bader Meinhof…..  I think they are quite separate. It’s true that people can get cocooned from the kind of experience of politics as ordinary people live it, the wealthier they become. But I kind of feel that great artists have a level of integrity and something that drives them, whether they are successful or not.

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