Conditional artists

The art world divides artists into two kinds. There are artists, by which it means the acceptable figures who conform easily to its current idea of a legitimate actor in that role. And there are conditional artists, those who, because they don’t fit the norm, must be assigned an identifying adjective in front of the word ‘artist’: black, outsider, working class, disabled, folk, migrant, woman, gay, amateur etc.

SeikoThe adjectives change with the relative power and social acceptability of different groups. Women have gained artistic legitimacy during the 20th century, gradually breaking free of the qualifying label (although as one recent study of women writers shows, nothing like equality).. In other cases, such as disability arts, the emergence of the adjective is a sign that a new claim for recognition is being made. The qualifier is both a grudging acknowledgement of an artistic practice or sensibility and a block to any assertion of equal recognition implied.

It’s the kind of condescension evident in Dr Johnson’s famous dismissal of women in religious office, as reported by James Boswell in 1763:

Next day, Sunday, July 31, I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.’

It is a protective strategy used by elites to convince others that how things are is natural, rather than the result of an unequal, even illegitimate, use of power. If it’s ‘normal’ that an artist should resemble Michelangelo’s ‘David’, then those who don’t must justify themselves as artists. Subordinate social groups are thus forced to validate a claim to equal treatment when it is actually the dominant group who should have to justify the status quo.

The work of conditional artists becomes inseparable from their identity. They are accepted – like Johnson’s woman preacher – as being good for someone ‘like them’, someone different. The conditional defines and traps them in a way that protects the art world from having to reconsider its beliefs or, worse, from having to change its practices.

Of course, in reality, it all works in much more complex and fluid ways than that. Individual artists sometimes escape – or are allowed to escape – their conditionality. The art world can point to enough who don’t fit the norm to defend its façade of meritocratic values.

David Hockney poses in front of a detail of his painting The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire. (Reuters)

But artists can also acquire conditionality, for instance by growing older. Reviews of David Hockney’s new work at the Royal Academy seem unable to consider the work except through the prism of his age. Such fecundity is remarkable for someone in his seventies, rather than being remarkable in itself. Leonard Cohen’s new album – punningly called ‘Old Ideas’ – is reviewed in much the same way.

For less well-known artists, including some of those I’ve been meeting for Winter Fires, becoming an ‘older artist’ can bring more restrictive assumptions from the art world. The implicit promise of youth is gone. There’s little interest in someone whose career is mainly behind them. Once you’re collecting your pension, you can turn, in the eyes of some, from a professional into a hobbyist.

Only a few – those like Hockney who’ve established themselves as unconditional artists in youth and middle age – have much chance of escaping being seen as an ‘older artist’ in their seventies. So – as Bisakha Sarker suggests – becoming older can push some artists into, or back into, a form of identity politics against their will.

Update: There’s a fascinating article  by Mary Beard about Roman slavery in the TLS, in which she discusses how modern historians condemn the artistic tastes of freed slaves in a kind of perpetuation of snobbery against social mobility.

‘The wonderful paintings from the so-called House of the Vettii in Pompeii (including the famous picture-postcard cupids, playing at grape-treading, cloth-working, racing and the like) would be hailed as masterpieces if they had been found on the walls of the imperial palace in Rome. But “the Vettii” were very likely a pair of ex-slaves, in a provincial backwater to boot, and their decoration tends to be sniffed at by art historians: it’s all a bit nouveau, a bit over the top.’

Beard’s implication is that some people allow their professional judgement to be corrupted by their socio-political values.


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