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Thursday, 13 June 2019

Sweeping generalisations and repetition

This post came up on Hyperallergic the other day. It's about which artists get into the Whitney Biennale...

How do artists get into the Whitney Bienniale?

In order to ascertain what the participants shared, I broke the spreadsheet down into these initial categories, which became more focused as I went along: gender, racial and ethnic identity, place and date of birth, undergraduate and graduate education and degree.

Afterward, I decided to add the following categories for reasons that will become clear, as I detail them. Where do the artists live and work? How many of them have gallery representation? Where are the galleries located? What shows have they been in?

What do these 68 people have in common?

In terms of geographic locale, 38 of the artists spend at least part of their time living and working in New York City. Two live and work in Philadelphia, and one lives and works in Baltimore. Two other artists live within commuting distance of New York, in Somerset, New Jersey, and Germantown, New York. This means that 43 out of the 68 individual artists in the Biennial live in or near New York, or along the Northeast Corridor (what William Gibson would call the “Sprawl”).

The basic gist of is although there is diversity in some forms, in regional terms there isn't and, with the concentration of participants from particular educational and artistic environments (and with a particular way of thinking and talking about art), the diversity is actually really limited. 

It's an idea that certainly struck a chord in any country which has a economically and culturally concentrated arts community. It strikes a chord in the UK where the same focus on a particular kind of voice and way of seeing is often at play and London dominates  in a huge way.

It makes everything a bit dull, like an extended artist's statement, with everything aiming to play that cultural capital into some kind of economic benefit - a tricky thing in the UK, a country where the arts aren't exactly valued, photography even less so.  It also makes things quite parochial with a limited number of people and organisations shaping what we see, but also how we see it and the way we talk about it. Probably including me to be fair.

That huge regional and institutional weighting limits voice and it limits any kind of work that diverges from a very time-specific set of cultural values. Everything comes from that one very sober, very rational, very considered framepoint.

It also calls into question the liberal values that are supposed to exist in the arts because that sober, rational voice is one that is defined by class, education and networks. It's very sober, it's very controlled, it's very consistent. None of which correspond to the way any of us really talk, live, breathe or anything.

In the UK it's also defined by London. And London, in sweeping anthropomorphising general terms, is not the most self-aware of places. It doesn't really understand the rest of the UK, it doesn't understand how much it is envied and despised by so many people.

But the happy thing is the relationship is reciprocated. The rest of the UK doesn't really understand London. I'm not sure I do. But then I live in Bath, a city of 100,000 people, best known for being the home of Jane Austen, and I haven't got a  clue how this city works. It looks nice though and it's always gratifying when people tell me that I must live in some Georgian mansion with neighbours who keep ribboned pet sheep on their lawns. Perhaps, if we're making generalisations, it would be truer to say that nobody understands anyone in the UK. It's so divided by class, region, politics, income, ethicity, nationhood that nobody has a clue what's going on anywhere. Instead, we're just riven with envy and petty jealousies at why somebody is getting more than us and doing better than us. That's why we have a government that destroys people in power. Because at least those people aren't us and they must deserve it in some way.

Back to the rest of the UK, and let's call it the North now. The North does understand how much it is despised by so many in London, it's part of the lifestyle practically. Hence, so many things.... And instead of London, just say the south, simplify things. North-South. They don't get on.

Wow, the sweeping generalisatons are coming thick and fast here... and the happy thing is they are international in nature. Swap London, North and South, and you could be talking about anywhere almost.

The important thing is to be seen to be liberal, for the values to adhere to the particular values of the time that trigger ideas of liberalness. Within that idea of liberalness there are  multiple blindspots in there, many of them related to class and -brows (highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow) but they're blindspots that have always existed, so the poor, the uneducated, the female have always been valued less when there is a clash of ethical imperatives. You could see that in the 19th century, you could see it in the 1970s, you can see it now. Nothing is quite as liberal as it seems once the sniff of filthy lucre comes into play. The question is understanding what those liberal blindspots are now. And there are plenty.

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