The Means and The Art

The Means and The Art - Vane

Joe Woodhouse, Never Never, 1999, mixed media, ‘Vane99’

If there is any single feature of contemporary visual art that dominates its current condition, it is on the face of its organisation, not its individual styles or content. Such is the diversity of practice and media, so pervasive are popular and historical re-combinations that even when trends are discerned, they are never pure or exclusive: they are remixed when they have barely had a chance to chart. Traditional institutions, founded to accumulate, prolong a sense of linear progression and foster notions of permanence, are not designed to be responsive. Pluralistic circumstances do not suit them, they suit artists, and it is almost inevitable that the 1990s should be characterised by a definite increase in the number, range and variety of galleries, exhibitions, events, groups and projects which share the simple fact of artist initiation and/or management.

It is easy to tag ‘Freeze’ as the catalyst for this increase. Undoubtedly, the prevailing cultural conditions in the place (London), at the time (1988), which had rewarded risk-takers, emphasised self-reliance and measured gestures on an operatic scale, conspired with the influence of Michael Craig-Martin and the energy of his students to produce a moment of significant confluence. The conventional career successes and profile of the ‘Freeze’ artists, their subsequent germination as Young British Art, have amplified its effect, advertising the apparent potential of self-organising groups of artists to short-circuit establishments both to the broader community of artists and to commerce. But ‘Freeze’ was not intended so much as an alternative organisational strategy as a launch into the system of the capital’s art dealers which – stale and static – was ready to bite and be reinvigorated by default. The roots of growth in the 1990s spread further and deeper.

At the crudest level, there are more individuals practising as professionals than ever before. Despite disincentives, more people pass through visual art courses at art colleges. Their ensuing career habits are not stylistically so different from those of their university-educated peers in the general population, (there are more of them too). The gap in economic viability between working as an artist and practically anything else does not seem quite as unbreachable as it did, though it is still very real and immediate: statistics published by the Scottish Arts Council in 1994 showed nearly half of the artists surveyed, (including musicians, dancers etc., who routinely do better financially than visual artists), earned less than £5,000 per year from artistic endeavour. The itinerant jobbing lifestyles of freelancers and self-employers have a good deal in common in terms of structure with those of artists. Perhaps this is because the scope of work connected with the creative arts is increasing as new industries in information design, communication and presentation, are thrown up by the digital revolution. Freelancers work as artists and vice versa. Their gainful employment may be predominantly brief-led, but the point of data-saturation was passed so long ago that even the loosest, most tangential ideas can be traded. Where compromise – so often an expletive in artistic circles – is reached, it does not have to impede integrity. I believe that artists are on the verge of mainstream integration on their own terms.

If society can find a new paradigm for working life in art, it is because artists have been self-organising and practising in the face of closed-shops, sterility and blank indifference for years to ends which are (or were) less calculated, less concerned with the stunt, more concerned with the means and the art, than ‘Freeze’. It is hardly surprising, given that even now the only really domestically viable and internationally significant commercial centre for visual art in the UK is London. Transmission, Glasgow, was founded as a cut’n’paste exhibition space five years before ‘Freeze’ by and for young artists working in the city. It has had a quietly pioneering presence ever since. Its emergence as a pan-European networking body is due to the expansive philosophy that permeates the organisation and to the hard-won laissez-faire backing of financial supporters Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Arts Council. Run by an unpaid management committee that self-selects from the gallery’s membership of annual subscribers, it has existed as an independent at the culty edge. In pleasing themselves, Transmission have effected changes in, at the very least, visual art fashion. History can now trace big names through it; Douglas Gordon and Christine Borland are both ex-committee members and have respectively won and been nominated for the Turner Prize; something which, like the career successes of ‘Freeze’ artists, serves the Transmission legend well. Incidentally, the past two decades have seen a rise in the number of prizes awarded as institutions struggle to keep abreast with pluralism without jeopardising conventions, making mistakes or commitments: it’s a cheap way of maintaining a semblance of control.

Transmission previews and after-show parties are bonding sessions for the scene that has grown up around it. Scenes are always important in contemporary visual art and are self-validating. Self-validation can act as a buffer against dominant or competing ideologies, allowing alternatives to grow: though the risk is that these alternatives will turn in on themselves and fail to flourish. However, self-validation is never more crucial to creativity and confidence than when external sources of validation – dominant or otherwise – are absent, reluctant or confused. This had been the case for visual art outside London, and is increasingly the case for visual art in it. It is indicative of the extent of malaise in visual art’s traditional systems that even as the ‘Freeze’ generation has become conventionally successful, they have carried their own social connectivity (self-validation) through on waves of interviews and autobiographical obsessions. Connectivity is zeitgeist. Visual art’s circumstance is reflected widely as society develops into a complexity of global niches and its practitioners are well placed to capitalise on their position as cultural search-engines, (another reason for the growth in artist-initiated projects in the 1990s).

Glasgow and London, each the largest city in its nation, have had the most celebrated and strongest indigenous scenes in the UK, but the growth of artist-initiated projects in the 1990s is probably more meaningful and noticeable outside these centres: in cities like Dundee and Newcastle. Meaningful because it suggests that contemporary art is physically accessible to more; physical accessibility and interaction prefiguring the development of broader support. Meaningful too because it debunks the tacit myth that culture happens purely in the most densely populated regions of a nation. Noticeable because there was little, if any, definite activity before.

Fiona Jardine, artist and writer. First published in the Vane99 Catalogue.