So what do we really want art to do for us?
The art world is adept at training us to want what it’s selling, but perhaps it’s time to consider instead what we want from art
Dazzling: a visitor with Kyung A Ham’s silk embroidery Greedy Is Good, at this autumn’s Frieze Art Fair in London. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty
Sometimes these days, when I’m going around art exhibitions, I find myself feeling grumpy, miserable and hopeless. This is bit like the feeling you get when you realise it’s just not working in a relationship, and that the person you love has let you down. You may also blame yourself, wondering whether the failure is yours. That sense came down particularly strongly at the Frieze Art Fair in London this year. I wandered through the booths set up by the world’s largest, and leading galleries, and I thought: is this what I used to love?
There were the spaces of mega-galleries, such as Gagosian, full of enormous shiny objects, bland paintings and photographs, priced – if you were brave enough to enquire and well-dressed enough to get a response – in their hundreds of thousands, even in their millions. This is the art that Grayson Perry, a former Turner Prize winner, described in his recent, and brilliant, Reith Lecture series as “an asset class”. Elsewhere the look and feel of the art was patchy, difficult, ugly, obscure, trying too hard, or not trying at all. If this is art now, I thought, no wonder I’m falling out of love.
But that can’t be it. Contemporary art can’t either be ridiculously expensive shiny things that won’t offend when gracing the penthouses of the insanely wealthy; or deliberately obscure grit, sometimes a puddle of oil or just twigs on a table will do, though backed up by a thesis of curatorial text telling us what to think about it. So the question is: what’s next for art?
One reason we are in such a quandary is that during the fat years, the success of an artist was too often defined by sales. Having an exhibition that sold “meant” that the work was good. You’ll still find some people who claim to believe that the market is never wrong, but most, fortunately, see through such nonsense now. The problem is, for an artist, if you’re not selling any more, does that make your work suddenly “no good”? This has led to a crisis of faith and confidence, and also to a vein of art that deliberately seems to refuse the market, to be anti- the empty hype of, for example, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.
As the Turner Prize exhibition, on show in Derry until January 5th, demonstrates, art today isn’t any one thing, and neither am I arguing that it ought to be. The previous and current exhibitions at Dublin’s Kerlin gallery show this very well: Sam Keogh’s Mop featured a brightly coloured lino floor, covered with made and found objects. These included a milk carton, a snow globe, a picture of a Smurf, and sculptures designed to look like the kind of accretions you might find on a rubbish dump. Currently, Paul Winstanley’s Art School (until January 7th) shows hauntingly beautiful paintings of empty art school studios. It half seems as if these are the sites of crime scenes. It is clear from the paintings that something happened here – but what?