Retort#3 Measuring standards

During the protests against the cuts in the arts, hardly anyone seemed capable of epitomizing the importance of art into words (demolition!), attractive images (sexy!) or effective actions (scream!). Someone wrote that it was disheartening that a professional group of artists had to take on an advertising specialist to invoke action. Point taken, but what action did I take?


As an artist, nothing should be easier than to make a nice comment about art. But it turns out to be tougher than I expected, perhaps because of the predictability of the point of departure. Saying something negative would be much easier: conflict is by definition more exciting than consensus. Who was that writer again who, when asked about authors he admired, said: ‘I don’t read. I write’? That was arrogant and most likely a lie, but I understand it. Saying things to circumvent the essence of your profession – whilst your work should be the proof of it- is always problematic.

Chaos or opportunity
Over the past few months a colleague and I have been writing a scenario in which we envisioned what the art world would look like in ten years’ time if the current political course is pursued –which looks to be the case. As in many speeches and publications by angry and disillusioned creators, the word demolition popped up involuntarily, a terminology that represents the situation powerfully by summoning the image of a desolate landscape. Evidently, a lot will change and it will take at least ten years to assess the result. Will we see desolation, complete chaos or on the contrary: a radical reconstruction?

Through this scenario I want to reach out to people who wonder what this mysterious art society is all about. I imagined the text could be a kind of map that creates a new trail, a route that would be vaguely familiar to those bringing up the rear. It would allow them to travel just by gazing at a map, projecting their wildest experiences upon it. Not Art for Dummies, but a plan with which spectators can trace their own path.

Spectators versus supporters
While I write the word spectator, my thoughts begin to stray. Suddenly the word is more than just a heedless sound. A spectator is a passive and motionless figure, letting the action pass by. The spectator stands aside as a witness to the exhibitionism of the artist passing by. But it could be worse: the spectator could move to the roadside café further along, thinking that, if needs be, the view of the action is just as good from behind the window. As an artist, when you are happy doing your research of the world and shaping a representation of it, there is no reason for frustration. But then it turns out that the passive spectator has placed art on the side of his plate, like an indigestible cherry on the cake, and politics follows suit. Then the artist suddenly realizes that he doesn’t only need spectators but also supporters.

Dated future
Going back to the scenario of the future ‘2023’. The setting seemed bleak at first: wrecked museums, dilapidated gallery buildings, impoverished artists and aimless curators. As is often the case with future scenarios, our prediction sounded wildly outdated instead of enlightened and visionary. The corniness of the future scenario had two obvious grounds: it is always a combination of two familiar elements from the past and the present and therefor every doom scenario is fuelled by conservative emotions: fear of the unknown. And if there is anything an artist lives for, it would be a yearning to discover the unknown, no matter how small and initially insignificant that seems.

As we were writing we realized that the dark skies we had painted were improbable. In this vision of doom we had overlooked one of the most important qualities of art, that which gives her status and freedom as well as loneliness and unpopularity: independence and agility.
Through our flawed imaginings we are trying to envision our future professional landscape. 17th century painters were already working ‘from the mind’- paint in a tube only became available two hundred years later. Just like we used to cycle home to make a phone call, landscape painters back then had to run back to the studio to paint the landscape and the clouds they had just witnessed. The unintentional advantage was that the painter could represent the landscape the way he wanted to remember it, instead of how it actually was. Through this interpretation the work is more than a faithful representation of reality. It is not a fiction, but a projection of the world through the eyes of the artist.

The importance of art can hardly be overestimated. Without it we would not have the rich perspective of ourselves and the world around us that we have now. Being an artist myself, I dare to say this. These days, when you appeal to such subjective standards, you look ridiculous, so most people wisely shut up. Data and averages are an important social compass: all sorts of decisions are based upon them, even though, as the puny voice reminds us, results from the past are no guarantee for the future.

The fickleness, flexibility and ingenuity of art are both her highest trump and her pitfall: for the ill-informed it might seem like a game in which the rules constantly change. For an audience that increasingly wants to know what it’s up against, the fact that the only rule is that there are no rules, is at best disorienting and at worst it acts like a red cloth to a bull.

The market as a measure of standard
At the documentary festival IDFA I saw a Russian film with the title Tomorrow. A Russian director had told me the previous evening how dramatically difficult the situation is in Russia for film,- and other makers. Tomorrow showed how someone had succeeded against all odds. It was a long film, ninety minutes, but the credits made up the shortest list I have ever seen: ‘Director’, ‘Camera’, ‘Playwriting’, ‘Editing’ and ‘Production’: Andrey Gryazev. Indeed, with a reasonably good camera and a keen vision, you can come a long way without money.

For a period of six months, director Gryazev followed a group of members belonging to the Russian artists’ association called Voina (‘War’), which the three women from Pussy Riot, who were recently sentenced to two years in a work camp, are part of. The only relevant method of working for them in current Russia is investing their time into organizing and executing extreme forms of sabotage as a means of protest against the ruling power. This is often more like vandalism than art. All finesse has been whittled away. Whether is it good art depends on what standards you keep. Not according to western standards, where concept, aesthetics and marketability are deemed essential. But judging from the acclaim the group gets from society, the social relevance of all this awkward messing about is highly pertinent.

Of course artists will persevere, no matter what, perhaps even more so when the going gets tough. That may be a solution, even though it’s only temporary. But what is not considered here – and this is evident when you look at the problems in the financial and housing markets – is that society will be living on a cultural credit off those producing image, music, and text. For a few years people will be excited about so much initiative and professionalism in the arts. ‘See, it is possible!’ is what we’ll hear. But when that cultural credit runs too low or inflation too high, the atmosphere can turn miserable and grim in a society where the market is the only measure of standard. Lest hope someone will consider that as well.

About Barbara Visser

Barbara Visser is a visual artist and a member of the Academy of the Arts.