You may find it hard to believe but there was once a time when contemporary art barely made an impact on London’s cultural scene. When I worked at the Whitechapel Gallery in my gap year during the hot, dry summer of 1976, I was thrown into a strange and mannered world that made little sense to me. Exhibitions were sparsely attended, while private views devoted to obscure artists were stilted affairs, their dominant tone stern and introspective.
The art itself felt esoteric and self-satisfied but no one worried that only a very few people would understand what it was trying to say or do. During the day, the gallery’s most frequent visitors were local tramps seeking respite from the heat. In my six months at the gallery, I only ever saw one celebrity, the then 31-year-old Helen Mirren, who left quite an impression – for reasons entirely unrelated to art.
The art scene today could hardly be more different. Over the course of the past 15 years, the art of the moment has become the dominant cultural force in much of the western world. Institutional behemoths such as the Tate and Guggenheim museums fill their spaces with the dream demographic: young people with money to spend. Auction prices spiral into lunatic realms. Art fairs combine the brashness of the supermarket with a conceptual trickiness that used to be the sole province of leisured intellectuals with too much time on their hands.
The Young British Artists who brought glamour and notoriety to the art scene in the last decade of the last millennium have aged, prospered and become fixtures of the new century. One of them, Damien Hirst, is said to be worth £215m. Critics insisted that their prominence would fade; instead, they heralded a profound shift in the cultural life of the country. Our new-found taste for contemporary art is the bubble that refuses to pop.
On the face of it, this is good news. It is wholesome for young people to be spending their leisure time engaging with art rather than buying endless pairs of trainers or beating each other up. Art, in the meantime, has styled itself as resolutely anti-elitist. The tense cheese-and-pineapple evenings I remember from the 1970s have turned into the cheerful buzz of the Frieze Art Fair, which attracts tens of thousands of curious viewers every year.
In the build-up to this year’s edition of the fair, the most important opening in London has been that of the £14.5m Serpentine Sackler gallery, featuring the kind of clash of aesthetic sensibilities – undulating modern confronts Greek revival – that used to vex members of the royal family but has now become a cliché of contemporary design and architecture.
In fact, art is everywhere you look: a book given to my six-year-old son for his birthday sums up the spirit of the age: in David Goldin’s Meet Me at the Museum, “An entry ticket is left on the lobby floor of an art museum. Not sure where he is, Stub the ticket is happy to meet Daisy, the museum’s docent, who offers to take him on a tour.” A museum tour? What happened to warring spaceships and showjumping thrillers? Art is gripping even the very youngest members of our society.
All this should be cause for celebration. But it’s hard to deny that in its quest for instant accessibility, contemporary art has lost something of the sense of purpose that it enjoyed when it was genuinely pushing at the boundaries of moral and social consensus. It is no surprise that art is so popular these days, when it is so easily consumed and digested.
Our leading institutions have been at the forefront of this trend. Remember “Test Site”, Carsten Höller’s tubular slides in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, in 2006? “How might a daily dose of sliding affect the way we perceive the world?” mused the Tate’s accompanying notes, in a forlorn attempt to wring some philosophical credibility from a playground novelty. (Not at all, perhaps?)
Then there was Martin Creed’s “Work No 850” in 2008, in which teams of sprinters coursed up and down the neoclassical galleries of Tate Britain (“The show that will run and run,” announced every desperate headline writer in the country), to show up the contrast between sprinting and the more traditional amble that most museum visitors adopt. Was that a point worth making?
And then again, Jeremy Deller’s “Sacrilege”, a bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge that encourages visitors, well, to bounce up and down for a while. Good for the glutes, not immediately uplifting of the spirit in any but the most literal sense.
The spirit of playfulness and irony that pervades the art scene of the past few years has redefined the relationship between art and its audiences. It appeals because it doesn’t ask the difficult questions. It is not even interested in them.
That is not to say that contemporary artists and curators do not continue to take themselves extremely seriously. The flip side of art’s infantilism is the continuing portentousness of art world insiders, speaking as if they are the only beings on the planet who think about the world in an original way. This at least provides some entertaining examples of gobbledegook.
Just last week I received a note on the participation of a group of artists at this year’s Biennale in Athens: “Their intention is a psychoanalytic disruption of dominant narratives, including those of gender and mainstream social radicalism. Their ‘messthetics’ combine scattered references to Dada poetry, post-punk edge, pseudo-traditional echoes, anti-Greek claims and the use of overt dyslexia.” And this in a country that needs plain speaking now more than ever.
So we find ourselves caught between a joke and a hard place – accused either of humourlessness or slow-wittedness if we decide to stand aside from the party. When I criticised Creed’s work at a recent panel discussion in London, I was accused by one antagonist of not having studied its “context”. Another implied that my “education” was lacking. There is an element of doublespeak here: art is more accessible than ever; but only if you access it in the right way.
Yet the sheer energy and eclecticism of today’s art scene remains impressive. And a fair such as Frieze is one of the best parties around. It pulsates with newness. It may not change your life but it can, for a moment or two, change the way you look at the world. And that’s no small thing. So, below are 10 tips to help you through the art fair thicket.
Act rich, avoid uncool metaphors and pop into pop-ups
1. Act rich. For all their democratic brio, people who sell art are only really interested in people who can afford to buy it. The average price of an artwork at Frieze is £20,000, which is more than an Alfa Romeo. But acting rich is not as easy as it used to be. Pressed jeans and Tod’s loafers are a uniform of the past. Assume a casual, studied air. When confronted by a work designed to make you laugh, don’t laugh. Haughty disdain goes a long way, although if you can match that of the gallerist, you are made of ice. Don’t be embarrassed to ask the price of anything but never, ever, mention any currency denomination (see point two).
2. So you quite like the look of something, and you ask how much it costs. “Two,” may be the reply. The air of vagueness is a test. You will know, from your studies of the artist in question, whether that means £2 (no), £200 (unlikely), £200,000, or £2m. But if the gallerist’s assistant is American, she (almost always a she) may be talking dollars. Don’t ask. Make a rough calculation in your head that covers all possible options. Any physical reaction is ill-advised, other than the barely perceptible raising of an eyebrow. Finally, ask if she will accept roubles. You’re on the front foot now.
3. Don’t check in your sense of humour at the VIP lounge. Take it with you, wherever you go. There is no need to LOL but a steady, wry chuckle as you wind your way round the aisles will serve you well. If asked your opinion on anything, there are some stock phrases that will come in useful: for example, “referencing Duchamp”, or “rethinking the space between the artist and the spectator”. Almost all contemporary art references or rethinks something or other. As an exercise, try and talk about art without using any word that begins with “re”. Don’t ever use the word “postmodern”, which is dated and not very funny at all.
4. If there are any pop-ups around, visit them NOW. Pop-ups – restaurants, shops, galleries – are the most potent symbol of the Attention Deficit Disorder age. While we are asked to admire the improvisatory spirit that has brought them into being, we may also be challenged by the paucity of what is popping up. Never mind. The only important thing is to be there, and to be able to say you have been there. Don’t ever buy anything from a pop-up. It is the art fair equivalent of bringing back a sombrero from your Mexican holiday. Take pictures, and zip them around the world via the social media as soon as you possibly can. Seconds count. Bask in your engagement with the sheer nowness of it all. Move on briskly to the next one.
5. Beware of inflatables. They have become quite the fashion: Jeremy Deller’s Stonehenge bouncy castle, “Sacrilege”; Marc Quinn’s retread of his statue “Alison Lapper Pregnant” at last year’s Venice Biennale; Paul McCarthy’s “Complex Pile”, a particularly unpleasant balloon of excrement that adorned Hong Kong’s Kowloon district during last year’s art fair. The danger they pose is not physical but they may draw you into a too-obvious and terminally uncool metaphor. So let’s get it out of the way right here: inflatable art is full of hot air, hates inclement weather, deflates at the slightest provocation and is, of course, just a pinprick away from irrelevance.
6. One of the most encouraging signs of life in art’s recent years is the return to favour of performance art. In its resistance to instant commodification, and its reliance on events in the physical (rather than virtual) world, performance art bucks two of the most notable social trends of the 21st century. The air of unexpectedness and danger that characterises the best performance artists are a reminder of what is great about the avant-garde. It ought to be supported in every instance.
7. If you are having a funny moment, proclaim that contemporary art is dead and pop music is coming back. You will be in good company. The notorious Dinos Chapman, who once held a £20 note-defacing session at Frieze, is this year giving a performance of his electronic album Luftbobler at a London club, accompanied by a series of short films. The ruinous decline of pop music over the past couple of decades is one of the reasons for the rising interest in visual art. Art stars became the new rock stars. Could this mark the beginning of a redressing of the balance?
8. If you are still having a funny moment, leave the fair altogether and travel to see some of London’s youngest artists in situ. Last week I talked to Danish artist Michael Elmgreen who, together with his partner Ingar Dragset, has produced a brilliant installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum called “Tomorrow”, which both plays with the museum’s collection in an original way, and makes serious points about the changes that have taken place in London. “Whenever I hear people criticising the art scene here, I ask them when was the last time they visited southeast London?” Elmgreen said trenchantly. It can be inspiring to see art in its natural habitat, away from the VIP pavilions and air of hyper-consumption.
9. Head for galleries from the Middle East and China. The works often lack the formal sophistication of their western counterparts but art from countries that have a compromised view of freedom of expression is at the front line. It is part of a complex interaction between government and society that can help make a difference. There is a reason Ai Weiwei is among the most famous living Chinese people in the world. Art can make things happen.
10. You may decide, after all, that contemporary art is not for you. Help is at hand: in a masterstroke, the people at Frieze last year inaugurated the Frieze Masters fair, a short walk away in Regent’s Park. Here is a collection of art from ancient times to the year 2000, from some of the world’s leading galleries. The fair’s credentials are impeccable, and the handsome hanging of the art is a breath of fresh air. But remember: all these works were contemporary once. There was a time when the depiction of a Crucifixion was considered even more sacrilegious than a Jeremy Deller bouncy castle; when artists risked imprisonment for their impudence; when the unusual placing of an eye and a nose within a solemn face invited ridicule. The art masters of the past tell our history better than any book or lecture. But many of them suffered for the acuity of their vision. What are today’s artists telling us about our world? And are we listening?
Frieze Art Fair takes place in Regent’s Park, London, October 17-20, www.friezelondon.com