It’s been popping up in the American newspapers from time to time, at first little snippets, and then longer articles. Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie out of Sex and the City) has a TV production company, and their latest project intends to do for wannabe famous artists what the X Factor, A Chorus Line, Hell’s Kitchen and America’s Next Top Model have done for singers, dancers, chefs and models respectively. Apart from the fact that no one graduating from these shows seems to have ever gone on to particular fame, success or acclaim, what is it about putting contemporary art through the Reality TV mincer that has me so dismayed?
My first reaction was: well, no one serious is going to want to be involved, so I dismissed my doubts as being all down to more shite art being shoved under people’s noses. You get it all the time – press releases from PR agents saying “you should really take a look at this artist – Take That have all bought works,” or “This artist used to date a famous footballer and has an exhibition on soon…” – and there’s a depressing sameness of awfulness about the works that makes me ashamed of how superior I feel towards it. (Note: dating famous footballers and selling to Take That does not preclude anyone from making good art, but when it headlines a press release, alarm bells ring.)
But then I read on, and discovered that the producers are claiming to be involving “art professionals and luminaries whose names you would recognize. It’s kind of a cloistered community, and we’re bringing that into kind of a pop-culture setting.” (Director Nick Gilhool said that to the reporter from Artforum. http://www.artforum.com/diary/id=23300) Then again, they’re not really shouting about who these people are yet – apart from Simon de Pury from auction house Phillips de Pury, whose business is probably otherwise unusually quiet these days.
But if I take them at face value, and think what if their agenda actually is to open up the cloistered community of contemporary art, and not just exploit the vulnerabilities of a selection of people chosen for their particular personality quirks, rather than for any special talent (as with ALL other Reality TV)? Even if I was to swallow all that, why am I still uncomfortable?
I think the answer lies in that idea of the drive for fame. The popular mythology of the contemporary artist, facilitated by the gallery system, likes to suggest that the artist makes work because they must – driven by an inner compulsion – and the art world shows and sells this work, purely altruistically, so that the artist can continue the quest-like practice. Artists can rely on curators and dealers to push their work, and don’t have to sully the almost saintly patina that attaches to the role of the artist with anything as base as a desire for fame. While musicians can openly hunger for fame, artists must take refuge in the suggestion that they want their work known – not themselves; anything else is treated with a whiff of suspicion and derision.
Successful artists play this game subtly and expertly, and their fame often draws new viewers into the world of contemporary art. We all know it’s going on – and we all know how it works. We can hold two conflicting beliefs in our minds at the same time – that art represents all that is noble, pure and good, unsullied by the world’s baser instincts – and at the same time that artists are people, just like anyone else: there are noble ones, pure ones, good ones, but also ones of every other hue under the sun, and the art world is just as venal as the rest of the world. We all know that, but somehow I don’t want it shoved down my throat, exposed, or caricatured on American TV.