Second provocation: Art Is Corruption?

Provocations is a free series of discussions about art and its function and place in today’s society…

 Second Provocation:

Art Is Corruption?

Provocations is a free series of discussions about art and its function and place in today’s society…

The market has corrupted the practice of art. Are artists today uniquely vulnerable to the tastes of the market and transient fashion or was it ever thus? Does success damage artists compelling them to feed the market or can they retain their independence and values?



Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Henry VIII of England, around 1536 - 37.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Henry VIII of England, around 1536 – 37.

Mark Carr and Martin Gollan had organised this discussion at the Biscuit Tin Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne, and provided a warm welcome. Eight people turned up which made a group large enough to include a range of people with differing views, and small enough for everyone to have time to have their say without needing to be too concise. Not all could stay till the end. The different colours here indicate different people saying things. Not all the discussion was noted down, and sometimes what is written here is a summary of a discussion involving comments from several people in response to what one person said. Where the text is the default black, it a summary of what several people said, or the original notes failed to record who had said it.

The discussion

Mark opened the discussion with a slide show and some thoughts on what corruption in art might have been or currently might be. The first images included a  painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, and a sculpture by Bernini. Art in the past has shown the power of those commissioning the work. The Church commissioned a lot of work but it could be misogynist and not religious in subject matter (such as Bernini’s …).

Hogarth’s altruism ended up making him a very rich artist – is this art corrupted?

Gericault, The Raft of The Medusa, 1818-19)

Gericault, The Raft of The Medusa, 1818-19)

Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa was controversial in its time. Corrupting or just an opinion?

JMW Turner – could his later work that wasn’t commissioned be seen as not corrupt?

Vincent Van Gogh was a struggling artist who was not recognised until after his death but was taken up by art dealers who then made money from his work.

Are art dealers corrupting art by creating the market for the work?

Or are collectors corrupting art through pushing up the value of the work and gaining money for it?

Eight Elvises by Warhol (sold for $100m in 2008).

Jeff Koons, 'Balloon Dog (Magenta)'.

Jeff Koons, ‘Balloon Dog (Magenta)’ [photograph by Achim Hepp on Wikipedia].

Jeff Koons – in 2013, his Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58.4 million at auction.

Or do the artists themselves corrupt art? For example, the artists who have or had art factories such as Warhol and Koons.

Is modern Australian Aboriginal a corruption of the ancient art on rocks?

Art becomes corrupted when it’s too close to dictators and capitalists.

The question was raised of whether it was Romantic to consider artists as naturally uncorrupted and idealists.

Aboriginal art was originally about the process rather than the product, and was a teaching aid, helping to pass on information.

Work doesn’t become corrupted simply because the artist sells it. We’re not very good at talking about money. It’s not right that the secondary art market should make so much profit from an artist’s work. We’re starting to think about how artists can gain in the secondary market.

It would be unfair to accuse all artists of the medieval period of subverting their art to the powers that be. The powers that be were how artists made work. They [artists] weren’t any different to any other craftspeople.

In Guernica, the artist [Picasso] was attacking the powers that be. The art wasn’t corrupt. But a lot of political stuff was put on around the painting.

It’s inevitable as soon as an artist lets go of their work [that others add meanings to it].

The question of depictions of sex in a sacred context – and whether it was or wasn’t corrupt – was discussed briefly. Bernini’s sculptures for the Church possibly expressed the corrupt desires of the people commissioning them. How might Tantric temple paintings be seen? 

Do we choose as artists to work for corrupt authorities or sponsors?

An artist can do a good painting showing bad things in society. 

Corruption can be the artist deciding to make art in a certain way just because they will get more money, a market for that style or subject matter, and whose work doesn’t change, never develops. Sarah Lucas’s work was given as an example of work that hadn’t changed over a lengthy period.

Research done at Manchester University on residencies and how who controls things corrupts the art. Commissioners look for artists who are doing work that they want to see and artists move their work towards what the commissioners want to see so they are awarded residencies.

The group ran out of time to talk about the kind of art sold in ‘commercial’ galleries; and realised at the end of the evening that they hadn’t got onto the issue of counterfeit art.

Thoughts after the discussion

At the core of the discussion was the idea that artists have some kind of intrinsic morality and purity of purpose that can get corrupted by money and power. This is a Romantic ideal. Artists are, in general, no more intrinsically moral than anyone engaged in any other occupation or vocation. At times, artists have been regarded generally as immoral, and history has revealed quite a few distinctly nasty characters.

There was some mention during the discussion, which I missed recording in my notes, that feeling a need to produce work that will sell or at least is more likely to be exhibited can ‘corrupt’ one’s work. Regarding money, in practice almost all artists need to earn a living so need to sell their work or their services, or choose to be artists only in their spare time.

There was some defence of Jeff Koons’s work during the discussion. I remain unconvinced that his art is satirical or ironic or parodying, and am more inclined to think it’s as exploitative and vacuous as it appears, though admittedly made well and with the glossy veneer of luxury. Is that enough to make it art that is valued so highly? Would he sell as well if he were a European artist working in Europe? He was in the news again, following the Second Provocation: ‘Jeff Koons sued for appropriating 1980s gin ad in art work sold for millions.’ There is a whole other discussion we need to have about appropriation, copyright, popular visual culture and high art. I was surprised that a photographer of an ad campaign could claim copyright but copyright legislation is different in the United States.

In the Second Provocation discussion, the idea of money and power corrupting was touched upon but not fully explored. It brought to mind what one of the group had said a couple of months earlier about capitalists (in the context of studio and project space being available in the city centre for a limited time due to a large block of buildings being collected by a company for a future big development), and the inference that developers = capitalists = evil and that all who speak with them are tainted by association.

Almost all the great art in the world wouldn’t exist without rich people. In the past, only the wealthy could afford to buy or commission art, and they could control what was depicted both in terms of subject and style. During past centuries in Europe, the Church, royalty and aristocrats were the key patrons of the arts.  The rise of the middle class in the 19th century widened the art market, at the same time as the institution of a new national art school opened up opportunities for young artists who could not have afforded the training otherwise. The 19th century changed the way art was consumed and produced in the opening of more places where people from most levels of society could go to view art as industrialists put their money into civic art galleries, museums, and exhibiting at the grand trade fairs; and as industrialisation changed how art could be consumed, for example, with the rapid growth and distribution of illustrated books and periodicals from the 1860s. Artists had the same sort of discussions about sentiment versus sentimentality, about meretricious art and the same sort of work being produced ad nauseam simply because it sold well, whilst acknowledging that work reflecting the artist’s own preoccupations could be a bad investment of their time because few of the people with money wanted to buy works about social issues of the day.

In the UK in the 20th century, public patronage has supplemented the market created by private and corporate patronage but each can influence the other. There always seems to be a very limited number of artists producing a certain type of work who are supported by public patronage. As mentioned in the discussion, the commissioners can have a distinct vision of what they think they want that influences what artists submit.

I can’t help but wonder what the experiments in a universal income could mean for art. Would the art be as strong without the framework created by commissioners or collectors, whether artists work within or against that framework? Would there still be an elite few occupying most of the exhibition spaces and getting the really big amounts of money that enable them to develop more work and realise projects that are beyond those on the universal income?

The next Provocations

Do join in the discussions. Follow the Provocations website for information about the whole series. Follow @biscuitinstudio for news and reminders of these events and others held at the Biscuit Tin Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne. Book your free tickets and put these dates in your calendar.

Third Provocation

January – Art is Profit?

Creativity and profit can exist side by side. Can the artist draw a balance between creativity and profit? Can creativity ever be completely free of the green dollar in our present society if the artist is to earn a living? Is the artist ultimately a small business making sure he or she satisfies the marketplace or can creativity resist commodification?

6.30pm to 8.30pm, Thursday, 28 January 2016: book your free place

Fourth Provocation

Art is Entertainment?

Art makes itself irrelevant declaring that anything can be elevated to art by the mere choice of the artist. Have things gone too far; should we have stopped at Duchamp? Does art undermine any political or social potential by offering the public objects, actions, scenarios that may shock, amuse and mystify, but elevate itself no further than entertainment?

6.30pm to 8.30pm, Thursday, 25 February 2016: book your free place.


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