By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.
EACH CENTURY REDEFINES BEAUTY. For the Victorians, beauty was truth (which perhaps meant the truth of feeling). For the moderns, beauty was newness. What is beauty for the twenty-first century?
Naturally there will always be overlaps. There was innovation in the Victorian age, and there was plenty of emotion in the twentieth century. I am talking about a prevailing zeitgeist. An artist once pointed out to me that all ways of making art, all ways of writing, are going on somewhere, in each and every age. However, certain trends occupy centre stage at any one time. The trend I am seeking to define has been emergent for centuries, perhaps since time immemorial. So what is beauty in the age of The Avengers: Age of Ultron – a film which cost $279 million to make and grossed over a billion? What is beauty when Damien Hirst tells us that his Venice Biennale exhibit cost him £50 million to make?
Of course money has always been art’s bedfellow. Diego Velazquez died a wealthy and ennobled man. Shakespeare was very comfortably off by the time he retired to Stratford. And money has always been a subject that has fascinated artists. Medieval art was enamoured of costly ingredients. The still lives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often show us expensive goblets and textiles, sometimes accompanied by a skull or by worms crawling out of fruit displayed on silver platters – as a memento mori – reminding us that our wealth cannot be taken with us when we go – though the perhaps the pharaohs thought otherwise. More recently, Yves Klein created works which provided the spectator with meditations on immateriality and expense. As Laura Cumming pointed out in The Observer:
In 1958 he ushered not just hundreds but thousands of Parisians into a gallery full of precisely nothing – the Void, it was called – and began producing what he called his “immaterials”. In some cases he would sell empty space; in others, a collector would pay Klein a certain price and receive a receipt for the money, with which the artist would buy gold leaf to be ritually scattered on the Seine. Whereupon the collector would burn the receipt, consigning the event to the vagaries of memory.
In 1977, the American artist Chris Burden created a fine art print of the Italian diecimila note (10,000 lira) – and this was the first fine art print to be printed on both sides, so it immediately attained novelty value. His 1985 piece, The Tower of Power, exhibited 100 kilograms of gold ingots stacked on top of each other, thus creating a tower less than two feet high. These ingots would be worth about £2.6 million at today’s prices. The tower was surrounded by tiny matchstick men. I saw this work in his 2013 retrospective in New York and remember thinking that the matchstick men were a distraction, belittling the piece. With security tight, we had to queue up to see this exhibit one at a time, and for me the power of the experience was simply staring at the physical manifestation of that amount of wealth.
Money impresses us when imagined in mountainous proportions. The advances received by the likes of J. K. Rowling and E. L. James command a respect their texts could never elicit. Wealth accrued equates with worth. To assert that Harry Potter is written so badly that its sentences cannot be used for school projects sounds hollow and will be dismissed as sour grapes. With such advances dangled, there is not a literary agent anywhere who is in the business for an altruistic reason such as the promotion of literature. Most refuse to take on an older author. If it has not happened already, it is unlikely success will ever be theirs. Experience has shown that younger authors are more malleable and may be directed more easily towards rewarding projects.
For many years, it has been the case that mentioning money in your lyrics would guarantee your song getting into the charts; as true for the Flying Lizards as it was for the Beatles. Wealth is conceptual. The very idea of it takes us beyond the product. Our imagination is stimulated – surely a perennial function of art? – as we brood darkly about the lifestyle now available to the successful artist, performer or author. And pretty soon that style becomes the art. Gossip which has them hobnobbing with celebrity sells the daily rag. They have been transmogrified. They inhabit the paradise of clubs – Annabel’s, Mahiki, and now Bodo’s Schloss. Each is as exclusive as heaven, although their gates are here in town. Well done, Brit Brats, everyone!
It is perhaps even more stimulating, or scandalous, when wealth is abused. As an action on 23 August 1994 the K Foundation (Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty) burned one million pounds sterling in a disused boathouse on the Ardfin Estate on the Scottish island of Jura. The money represented the bulk of the K Foundation’s funds, earned by Drummond and Cauty as the KLF, one of the United Kingdom’s most successful pop groups of the early 1990s. This incineration was recorded on a Hi-8 video camera and the film—Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid – was toured around the UK, with the artists engaging each audience in debate about the burning and its meaning.
All this seems a far cry from Arte Povera, a term introduced by the Italian art critic and curator, Germano Celant, in 1967. His texts and a series of key exhibitions provided a collective identity for a number of young Italian artists based in Turin, Milan, Genoa and Rome. They were working in radically new ways, breaking with the past and entering a challenging dialogue with trends in Europe and America as the Italian miracle of the post-war years collapsed into economic and political chaos. In the context of this instability, Arte Povera epitomised a process of open-ended experimentation as opposed to endorsing a distinctive way of creating. Arte Povera denoted not an impoverished art, but an art made without restraints, a laboratory situation in which a theoretical basis was rejected in favour of a complete openness to any process, and the work could be made out of brushwood, or coal, or any everyday material.
Recently I was invited to judge the Sir Hugh Casson prize for drawing during the Royal Academy summer show. One of the artists chosen was Peter Matthews – an artist who creates his drawing in the ocean – working with gel pens and charcoal pencils as he struggles in the waves, floating as he works on his drawings, using an old piece of plywood as a desk-cum-flotation aid and scrawling across huge sheets of paper which all too often get carried away and lost when a sizable wave overwhelms the artist.
This may be very much in the spirit of Arte Povera, but it’s hardly an art for our time, more a throw-back to that previous aesthetic. The zeitgeist has moved on.
In 2014, during the Folkestone Triennial, Michael Sailstorfer buried £10,000 of gold bullion in the outer harbour. Once the tide withdrew, anyone could go out there with a spade in hopes of digging up an ingot – if you found one, it was yours. As Lewis Biggs, curator of the triennial, put it: “The work will last forever because no one will ever know if all the pieces have ever been found.”
The gossip at the R.A. was all about the attitude of the oligarchs who are art’s big buyers today. I can still remember a time when some moderately wealthy person could get into collecting – a Harley Street doctor, for instance, or a dentist; paying perhaps £2000 for a work. Those days are long gone. Today artists are advised that their art requires a price tag of at least £50,000. Below that price, the work is simply not an investment. Prices in the auction houses are so high that museums can no longer afford to purchase the works of acknowledged masters. We can see a similar aesthetic of expense operating in the film-world. Yes, and Age of Ultron proves popular, quite obviously, since its popularity grosses it a billion.
As an aesthetic ideal, wealth stimulates a veritable culture of prizes, breaking down the divide which has traditionally separated art from sport. It’s an ideal that stimulates competition and incites envy, isolating one creative from another and thus ensuring against revolution. Very neatly, the rebellious “tradition” of the salon des refusés has been annulled by the oligarchs. Perhaps that tradition was anyway no more than a sentiment invented by cultural historians. Today, the original artist, who might constitute a threat to the status quo, is simply turned into another oligarch. Subsequent resale stimulates competition within the oligarchy itself, which is also good for the system.
“I am conflicted on my own success,” wrote Gertrude Stein in Vanity Fair – way back in September 1934.
When the success began and it was a success I got lost completely lost. You know the nursery rhyme, I am I because my little dog knows me. Well you see I did not know myself, I lost my personality. It has always been completely included in myself my personality as any personality naturally is, and here all of a sudden, I was not just I because so many people did know me. It was just the opposite of I am I because my little dog knows me. So many people knowing me I was I no longer and for the first time since I had begun to write I could not write and what was worse I could not worry about not writing and what was also worse I began to think about how my writing would sound to others, how could I make them understand, I who had always lived within myself and my writing. And then all of a sudden I said there that it is that is what was the matter with all of them all the young men whose syrup did not pour, and here I am being just the same. They were young and I am not but when it happens it is just the same, the syrup does not pour.
It did not frighten me, I was enjoying myself I was spending my money as they had spent their money all the other painters and writers that I had blamed and condemned and here I was doing the same thing.
I think she perceived her success as a species of bribery.
This radical view of what is beauty now is really quite intriguing. How am I to write an expensive poem? Do I use illuminated lettering? Must the poem be the result of spending a vast sum? Should I embark on some extremely costly holiday, in order to find inspiration? Should I attend a very expensive creative writing course? Should I shell out for a gold-tipped Parker pen?
Hirst is spot on, to my mind. He is creating an apocalyptic art that is appropriate for our age. Surely this contemporary view, that identifies wealth as beauty, deserves its own manifesto. So allow me to offer a draft of what this might be:
Tenets of the New Beauty.
Nothing below the value of £50,000 is art.
If £50,000 is spent on it the artist is more likely to be able to sell it for as much at least than if less is spent on it.
Artists ought to invest in their art if they wish their buyers to invest in it.
A sale in a gallery means very little, compared to subsequent sale in an auction house.
Your buyer must be prepared to part with it, and indeed should have purchased it precisely in order to do so.
While the odds may favour investment, selling a chunk of lard for £50,000 will redound to your credit.
Lack of value corresponds to ugliness. A work of art is weak if sold too cheap.
An item which the buyer will never part with is not art.
The new beauty worships an ancient commodity. Nota bene Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
This contemporary costliness is more about what art is made of than about what it may represent.
Art and value are as much a tautology as ethics and aesthetics.
Art is either worthless or priceless, but pricey-ness will do for now.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).