Archive for October, 2010




First came the Swinging ’60s, then the bile-splattered Union flags of punk’s No Future ’70s and, more recently, Cool Britannia. Will our new government signal a new direction for idea of Britishness, or incite hitherto unimagined reactions to the stereotype of This Sceptered Isle?

To coincide with the Newspeak show at the Saatchi Gallery, and the Great British Art Debate, we’re asking what it’s like to be a part of the British cultural scene now – and indeed, what being British actually means.

Here, Cedar Lewisohn puts a series of questions to a trio of cultural commentators including our own David Sheppard, to see if they can pinpoint what, if anything, makes Britain’s art and music Great today.

Cedar Lewisohn: Do we think there is such a thing as a national characteristic in British art?

David Sheppard: Marketing people would like that to be the case. When you examine catch-all groupings like Britpop and Britart, they are actually quite arbitrary. I think there’s a way you can group anything together under a heading and say these all relate to each other, but that’s very superficial.

In [British] music you could look at the folk tradition and find things that have evolved over so much time that they’re layered with mystique – a quality that you cannot articulate other than to say “it’s British”.

Katie Guggenheim: No, I don’t think there is. You can identify differences between cities, like Berlin and Paris, which are both important but very different. Wherever you have public spaces, commercial galleries, art schools – all the things that feed in and make a community where people work together and share ideas – characteristics will develop. It doesn’t seem to happen on a national level.

Niru Ratnam: There seemed to be a cycle where for years people were obsessed with the Britishness of British art, there was no such thing as a national characteristic within an art form (and in fact there’s no such things as a national characteristic). You had the influence of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and everyone deconstructed the National identity.

We’ve got to a position academically where the Britishness of British art has been debunked. So, theoretically it should be a no; but I can’t help thinking that there is something odd that seems to link the art made in this country. The problem comes when you start to define it and it always gets over determined – this idea of national genius or Englishness. I’ve got a feeling there is something there, but, how do you define the Britishness of British art; what are the characteristics and what actually interlinks them?

CL: Can you be a British artist if you’re working in Berlin, for example?

DS: Well, famously, Frederick Delius, renowned composer of quintessential English pastoral music, never lived here. He wrote ‘An English Rhapsody’ while living in France. I think ‘Britishness’ is a state of mind; an approach to the world embodied by idiosyncratic things like Radio 4, along with a quality of reverence for some mythical Arcadian ideal that hasn’t ever really existed…

KG: I’m not sure what British art is. Is it art made by people born in Britain, wherever they live, or people living in Britain, wherever they were born? I must be engaged with British art because I have been consistently working in Britain for a long time but, and maybe because I’m here in the middle of it, I don’t particularly recognise it as a British.

NR: This debate always occurs around the Turner Prize; when Wolfgang Tilmans won [in 2000] everyone said, ‘hold on, he’s German!’ That year, three out of four of the nominees where not ethnically white British [Michael Raedecker originally from Amsterdam, Tomoko Takahashi, from Tokyo]. But all of those artists do make peculiarly British art even if it’s quite hard to theorise what that might be. Yes, of course we live in a global world but when people talk about the 1990s and how everyone feared cultural homogenization and every high street looking the same… I think it’s safe to say that hasn’t happened.

DS: I think every high street goes look the same!

CL: One of the overriding themes when looking at the national collections of art in the UK is class – in terms of the subjects depicted and the people commissioning. How do you think history will look back at the collections we’re building today?

NR: It seems to always have been the case that artists come from across the class spectrum (more working class than posh class), then you get curators, collectors and dealers who tend to be very posh, and you get this wonderful meeting in between…

DS: Isn’t it true that before the ’50s, all ‘high’ culture was middle class – because of the structure of education and the whole notion of who it was for?

NR: If you’re an artist going through quite a posh background people are very suspicious of you.

DS: That happens in music, too. Even Nick Drake, who was born in colonial Burma (very posh), wasn’t very successful in his own time, partly, because he didn’t quite fit the stereotypical early ’70s image of the outsider musician/rebel; he was too establishment.

CL: That seems a particularly British trait. That’s why I bring it up.

NR: We [British] see to want our artists to do quite well but not become too big for their boots, because that’s terribly un-British, Julian Schnabel couldn’t had existed in the way he did as a British artist – he needed to become a monster on the Upper West Side. Obviously Damien Hirst has become huge hut it’s always shot through with irony.

CL: So, the second part of the question is: will we look back and think all we did was support middle class culture? Even Radion 1 seems to be out of step with what’s happening – it’s always the pirates who pick up on trends first. Is it the people commissioning getting it wrong?

DS: The reason this country consistently produces globally successful music is that it goes its own way and, to some extent, works from the ground up, defining new styles and hybrids autonomously. The marketing people only get their hands on it after something takes place at street level. In terms of radio play, you’re right; the pirates often pick up on things first. We do have this uniquely British institution, the BBC, and although they be may slow and conservative in many regards, they continue to provide a vital cultural function with the potential to throw up someone like John Peel, even if it’s hard to imagine a new Peel, with a genuine taste for the cutting edge, emerging in the current climate. Still, the BBC does have 6Music and so on. With art, it seems to take five years or something for the institutions to pick up on what’s happened. Is that right?

NR: You can wait for five years and watch an artist and see if something’s there or is it a bit of hype? But, if they are good after five years the prices have gone through the roof. If you look at the Tate acquisitions, there were lots of artists who the Tate bought who at the time were very promising but have now disappeared into obscurity. So at that point the Tate were taking a punt – thinking this artist is really good and it’s a great time to buy their work (they were quite cheap), and then they languish in the collection somewhere because for whatever reason the artist’s career has failed to take off.

KG: Public collections don’t sell off work for profit so they don’t need it to appreciate value. If an artwork is good, surely it will be good in twenty years’ time?

NR: That would be great but presumably the national museums have a role to display what they think is representative at the time rather that “I just really like this artist”.

CL: There’s big difference as well between national museums who don’t de-accession work and private collectors who can sell; their aspirations for a work of art can be a lot shorter term.

NR: It gives private collectors a lot of manoeuverability – they can buy work and look back on it in retrospect and see if there is a pattern. Whereas museums have to work out the pattern and make the academic argument first, which is much more difficult. They seemingly have to go through endless committees so by the time they’ve made their case that something is of ‘the moment’ that moment is five years old.

CL: What is a British artist?

NR: My quintessential British Artist is Mark Lecky; he’s got a regional accent, wears dandy-esque clothes…

KG: Is it simply somebody who’s making their work in Britain?

NR: It’s something about going to art school in Britain, no matter where you were born. It’s not so much that the education system is run along certain lines and there are key lessons in citizenship, it’s more to do with being educated amongst your peers in Britain, and coming out in a certain way.

DS: The art school tradition in this country is very particular. You’re going into a crucible of creativity rather than going to study a straight curriculum.

KG: So what about the people that come and study here from around the world and then leave immediately afterwards… are they British artists too?

DS: Perhaps the ones who are infected with the spirit produce the work that we call British art? Others may go back and gain from the experience but not do something that is so strictly determined by that experience.

KG: But then you’d have a London artist, or a Glasgow artist rather than a British artist.

NR: There are those subsets that seem to all overlap and then merge. You’ve got London, Glasgow and ‘Britain’ overlapping quite a lot; then there’s a significant gap. Then you’ve got French artists doing relational aesthetics and German artists making bleak, Thomas Zipptype work (obviously that’s a generalization!)

CL: There are some artists who fit themselves into the global market; if you go to The Armory or Frieze you can see elements of a ‘globalised’ art fair.

NR: It’s a theoretical look, almost, that actually is globalised and that fits very well into the Biennale circuit.

KG: Are you talking about art that’s the same but that is made in different places or art that you see in different places but is the same art? It’s just been shipped around.

NR: You get a look iwth this post/ neo conceptualist art which is a look made by say, Raqs Media Collective from India or Liam Gillick here. There is a frequent flyer class of artist who just jet around and become international artists.

Of course, one thing that happens this year is the British Art Show. It’s this kind of round-up of what’s happening in British Art and then, wonderfully, is sent out to the regions. It’s as if the rest of the nation is being taught what British art is.

CL: I’m sure the curators and funders wouldn’t agree with that!

NR: I’ve always been intrigued that for the past couple of years the BAS has taken place outside of London. It’s a statement we gather from London what is good and what is British Art.

CL: They tour the country looking for art…

NR: They don’t really though, do they? Look at the British Art show and I would guess that ninety percent of the artists in it have a London-based commercial gallery, they might well have toured every artist’s studio but they might just as well have just flicked through the websites of eight commercial galleries and picked them.

KG: There are some parts of the country where you could look, but you’d be hard pressed to find an interesting artist. People tend to come together in certain towns and cities and that’s where interesting things are happening.

NR: I haven’t got a problem with it; I just thought it’s an interesting mechanism for constructing an idea of what is British Art. I don’t think there is a brilliant young painter squirreled away on a Welsh hillside who we don’t know about.

KG: It’s a really good thing that exhibitions tour to regional galleries. They should be used a lot more, even libraries and civic spaces. I think that the London-based artists I know would be really excited to show their work like that.

CL: Visual art more and more has the expectation to have a social function to educate in various ways and be ‘good’ for the audience music doesn’t have that same expectation, why do you think that is?

NR: I totally disagree with this question. I think this is outdated because I think Art had an expectation to have a social function under the previous Labour administrations but for good of ill one of the breaks for the Conservative policy on culture and the Labour policy on culture is in getting rid of the emphasis on the ‘social function’ of visual art. I’m not sure that’s a good or a bad thing but I think there’s been a definite shift away from ‘you’ve got to get the visitor figures and diversity’ which tended to be a bit solidified under Labour’s administration.

The Conservatives seems to be ideologically opposed to that but also financially committed to slashing the quangos that determine that. I’m thinking what you’ll see will be a return to a problematic, or welcome, depending on your viewpoint, return to the notion of quality.

KG: Well, all art is social, I don’t believe you can remove that function at all. As soon as you put a painting on a wall and put an audience in front of it, it becomes social. That’s where things slip up in terms of trying to measure the functions of art; you can’t justify art by administering it towards a really patronizing agenda… chasing ‘real people’ around and trying to put them in museums. That’s just silly. But I think it is really important to enable and encourage absolutely everyone to come to museums and galleries. The subsidising of admission charges has been really important for that. Museums, parks and the industrial exhibitions in the nineteenth century were the first places where different social classes mixed in public and that had a big impact on how society developed.

CL: Does this discussion apply to music?

DS: Yes. The old model of the music industry had been crumbling for years. I was talking about music being a mass industry has disintegrated before us thanks to digital culture. ‘The cuts’ have already happened, if you like…

CS: Perhaps the music industry wasn’t so reliant on subsidy?

DS: Well, musicians are, or were, subsidized by record labels.

CL: That’s different, isn’t it?

DS: Is it?

CL: I’m talking about public subsidy.

DS: Well, there were state run record labels in the Soviet Union and East Germany! But, no, obviously it’s an industry: it’s still about investment capitalism.

CL: But are the concerns the same?

DS: Well, they aren’t the same because they’ve never had to justify themselves to a government funding body, only to the market.

CL: That’s what I’m interested in, why has music never had to justify itself where visual art has?

DS: Because, until recently, it’s always paid its way.

NR: Music and commercial theatre…

DS: It’s the esoteric arts, the minority leftfield end of the spectrum, including, arguably, the most interesting areas of music, that require funding because they’re limited in audience by their nature.

CL: In music, public input into the selection process has had a big impact from MySpace to X Factor in terms of launching musicians’ careers. Do you see any possible similarities in visual art? My point is not about the reality TV aspect but the audience being involved in the selection process.

NR: If you look at the most popular reproductions sold in Britain, they’re by Jack Vettriano and Beryl Cook, so there’s split between what you might call populist art and the fact that’s the kind of art that never gets into the Tate. The Tate has never collected Jack Vettriano… So there is a problem. With music there seems to be a correlation with popularity and what critics think is quality. Whereas in art there is more of split between what the public as a whole vote for, so to speak, and what the critics think is good.

DS: I think there are very popular musical things which no critic would cross the read for, but they sell – in the Vettriano model. But what does that mean? Is it simply a lack of education, a lack of awareness of the other options?

NR: The fourth plinth [in Trafalgar Square] was an example where they tried to get the public wrong. There was a limited shortlist you could only choose between six options so there wasn’t a total free range.

KG: Well that’s great because it encourages people to really engage with a set of options rather than say this is what I want or don’t want without thinking about it.

NR: You’re talking more about democratization so you take critics out of the equation.

CL: Well, in a way that is what MySpace has done. Those bands who launched themselves through MySpace might not have done it if they’d waited for a record label to sign them up.

NR: With music and the internet you can listen to the product as it is. There have been very few internet start ups for visual art, partly because it only really works with 2D art; you can get film and video but it doesn’t really work with installation and sculpture and even with painting you still lose quite a lot.

CL: There is this project, YouTube Play, where the Guggenheim have invited people to upload their video art to YouTube and then a jury are going to select 20 videos for a show at the museum.

KG: But that’s the Guggenheim; so they’re not sidestepping that, they’re definitely still in the equation. I think these guys in the middle, the curators and administrators are really important, they spend a lot of time looking at art and thinking about it, and so of course their opinions are worth more than someone’s gut reaction.

CL: Back to the idea of democracy; is it just a buzzword? Everything currently is about the audience deciding. Have the institutions just jumped on the bandwagon? Where will we go after the audience-generated content – back to the garret?

DS: The e-garret… You might have new strata of filtration (critics/ editors) emerging from the digitally democratized masses. It’ll naturally happen because some people are more articulate, others have more to say, some people shout louder, etc…

KG: You just mentioned critics. There are professional critics and then there’s any old person who is able to be a critic. There are fewer and fewer people writing formal criticism and the role of the critic has been taken on by the curator, who increasingly build critical positions into exhibitions themselves.

NR: Yes, but over the next four years the rise of the curator in the public sector will be heavily affected because there’s going to be job losses and cutbacks. So taste-making will switch to private collectors who can afford to build collections and open the doors to it.

KG: We already have private collectors who employ curators in private museums, and the curators who work in public institutions have little freedom to act independently. So maybe we’ll see something come out of the middle which is related to the internet and the ability to get what you want to say out instantly.

CL: Does popular culture mean dumb culture?

DS: No, not necessarily.

NR: Something like Jeremy Deller’s parade in Manchester shows that it is the ‘popular’ that people are focusing on now. Like, rolling cheese down a hill is really interesting. There seems to be more authenticity in those subcultures than there was five years ago and the fact that Jeremy is everywhere is testament to that.

KG: Art that is good can be unpopular because it’s difficult, but if it’s challenging in a serious way, not just in a sensationalist way, then that’s really productive. A lot of the time, if something is good it’s popular… people aren’t stupid.

DS: It’s always been possible to be genuinely moved, and have a life-changing experience through works of culture which lots of people are being simultaneously stimulated by.

CL: So we think the new government will herald a new artistic ‘movement’?

NR: I think that under that last government there was a strange conflation which came together in some unholy mess where artists like Carsten Holler and Jeremy Deller would produce work that would involve people doing things; you got a spectacle kind of art. That idea of artists involving people, so you could tick your boxes for funding and you could tick your little theoretical box… I think that’s over.

KG: Well, if you get rid of all the people I don’t think there’s any point anymore.

DS: Is there a possibility we’ll now have a genuine protest art prompted by the full force of the Con-Dem cuts?

NR: You might get something which has similarities to the start of YBA; slightly punky, agitprop, DIY…. but with an entrepreneurial spirit because you’re not gonna get any money from the government.

DS: It really, really, really could happen!

Katie Guggenheim is an artist and curator. She is currently working on the second issue of Monaco Magazine which will be launched on 27 November 2010.

Cedar Lewisohn is an artist and writer based in London. He was co-curator of Rude Britiania: British Comic Art at Tate Britian (2010), and is author of the book Street Art (Tate Publishing, 2008). He works as a Programmer for Tate.

Niru Ratnam is the Director of Aicon Gallery and previously of STORE. He has worked as an art historian specialising in issues around globalisation and non-Western art, he is also a widely published art writer.

David Sheppard combines music journalism with composing and recording in Phelan/Sheppard and Ellis Island Sound, amongst others. He is author of On SOme Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno and co-founder of the record label, Second Language.


Hei Shing

書就是… A Book is…


A piece of paper reflects not only time but also space. Books are formed by binding papers together to become containers of words that serve as a reservoir as well as a spring of wisdom.

October 2010

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