ECONOMY, a major group show at CCA and Stills, aims to provoke public discussion. Our resident Aussie art critic unpicks the meaning of socially engaged art
Believing that contemporary art is a trustworthy judge on the role of the economy may be a bit like believing that the tabloid press is a trustworthy judge on the value of privacy. While ECONOMY, an upcoming exhibition at CCA and Stills, aims to generate constructive public discussion, it seems doubtful that discussion will be heard over the roar of a $45 billion global art market. Indeed, many of the works in the exhibition will re-enter circulation as art commodities once the show has concluded. They might even enjoy a higher market value for their increased visibility. Although this seems unlikely for Andreas Gursky, whose 'art star' status was already an attractive promotional hook before his work was garnered for this show.
Of course, the apparent futility of it all isn't lost on the artists themselves. Jenny Marketou's video work We Love Candy but Our Passion Is Collecting Art stages the artist's confrontation with the economic function of art as it erodes her artistic ego and aspirations for 'changing the world.' No doubt a 30 minute video about rich kids and their art collections would make any artist feel disillusioned, if not nauseous. So why make it, unless your real intention is to illustrate some foregone conclusion?
One of the most powerful attributes of art is its ability to explore the truth without commanding us to follow a master ideology. Despite this, many artists prefer to simply conceal their ideology under a few layers of meaning so their audience can unwrap it for themselves and feel special, like a child on Christmas morning. One issue with an exhibition like ECONOMY is that its meaning has already been laid out by the curators before the viewers even enter the galleries. Their skill is not to conceal but to declaim the merits of their ideology. For ECONOMY it's a case of: Rich guys, bad. Poor guys, righteous.
When art is hijacked by politics in this way, nobody wins. The politics is reduced to dumb emotional gags and the art becomes a vessel with little value of its own. The latest and greatest example of this is 'socially engaged art,' a phrase that's all the more irritating in its implication that other art is somehow socially disengaged. Socially engaged artists don't make objects, they manipulate people into participating/collaborating in seemingly helpful activities. Basically, it's charity work with the pretence that artists are more creative than ordinary people, so that when they're doing charity work, it's actually art.
ECONOMY brings to Glasgow the artist collective WochenKlauser, who have been pioneering socially engaged art projects across the globe since 1992. In the Drumchapel area, they will "help to set up an association to encourage and support the foundation of a small worker self-managed cooperative." Although the cooperative movement has a long and rich history in Scotland, WochenKlauser will explore "what role art can play in effecting sustainable change – no matter how small – within the social fabric."
For all their sanctimonious horizon gazing, it's still doubtful that the devoutly Marxist artist is more annoying than the unapologetically capitalist one. They occupy opposite ends of the same boring fascination with money. In between, the vast majority of artists are busy inventing ways of sharing a sense of meaning that goes beyond money. Theirs is a difficult task, impossible actually, but it at least keeps them busy – they're discovering the infinite subtleties of how the world actually is, rather than how to change it. [Peter Drew]