what social and political responsibility should art have?

As Frieze concludes in London, we look at the political possibility and political pitfalls of the naked consumerism of the art world.

by Tom Rasmussen
12 October 2016, 1:51pm

Julie Verhoeven's Frieze Project The Toilet Attendant… Now Wash Your Hands. Photograph by Lewis Ronald. Courtesy of Lewis Ronald/Frieze.

I am one of the many people who find it difficult to understand contemporary art. The art world often feels purpose-built to separate the wheat from the chaff, the elite from the dumb: me being the latter. As a working class kid from a dingy corner in the North of England there was never any emphasis placed upon the importance of art. Often, we were guided toward the opinion that anything outside of good, honest, manual labor — stretching to perhaps the medical profession, or law if you were clever — was complete frivolity.

This is not the case, of course, but when one enters an art fair like Frieze it is hard to escape the feeling of absolute isolationism, of separation from a world that is the natural habitat of the privately educated, upper-middle-class 'artsy families' of the world. The ones who eat dinner around a table discussing Adorno and own decorative sculptures by Brâncusi.

This is indeed an obnoxious generalization on my part, but stood in a stupendous whirring tent in the middle of Regent's Park, surrounded by bent red mirrors which cost four million bucks while smug art journos chug champagne, it's easy to be lost for words.

Yes, it's totally reductive to exile the entirety of contemporary art into the 'frivolity box,' but it is hard when you as a viewer find it hard to grasp the point behind artworks rooted in more complex theory. As my old pal Adorno always says, "artworks have no truth without determinate negation."

Seemingly, a lot of the point of contemporary art is to blow open the viewer's meandering ideas of reality, to pierce normalcy and offer an alternative way of seeing: offering reimagined world views is not frivolousness, it is incredibly beneficial to the viewer. However to have the time and the educational understanding to do so in a space like Frieze is an incredibly privileged act, and that should be remembered.

Wolfgang Tillmans. Photograph by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

There's a good few art critics who think it vulgar to claim that a lot of contemporary art is dictated by commerce. But since one of the world's biggest art fairs— Frieze, which just happened in London this weekend — is essentially an art supermarket sponsored by a massive German Bank, where everything from jars of Frankfurters to blow up speech bubbles are on sale, it's clear that a lot of the art serves as a money-making venture for its makers and investors. That's not necessarily shameful though: artists have to eat.

With this in mind, it's hard to find personal connection with a lot of the pieces shown at Frieze. Beyond economic value — which is inaccessible to me because the option to purchase never has, is, or will, be a reality — it feels like the only works that can really fulfill Adorno's theory of determinate negation for an audience wider than the global art set are pieces which are a little more on the nose, a little more directly political.

The question of whether all contemporary art has a political and civic responsibility is a tricky one. How does someone define 'political responsibility' when a piece of art will invoke multifarious responses among different people: a piece will speak differently to me, than to a very wealthy artistically-educated person, than to a person who has no time or patience for art because of other priorities. Can contemporary art ever capture the urgency or true reality of political struggle or injustice anyway? How politically responsible is an artist who will sell said work to a private collector, to show their friends over dinner? With contemporary art's inextricable link to finance, do popular political trends just become another means of cashing in? It is naive to claim that 'all art should be political', but it is shame that there is often a dilemma between commerce, artistic viability, and honest praxis.

Photograph by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.

Julie Verhoeven's Frieze Project The Toilet Attendant… Now Wash Your Hands saw the artist reimagine the toilets in the fair: with giant furry vagina toilet seats, poo-clocks, and used-tampon accessories; the artist, dressed in a tent-like gingham pinafore and slathered in fake tan wandered around as if attending to these no-taboo loos. "The work is looking to demystify the space of the toilet," Verhoeven told i-D. By usualizing the bodily-functions around which there is so much social shame, people perhaps leave feeling more at ease with defecation and menstruation. After attending to the toilets for four days, the artist revealed that "loads and loads of people have come into the cubicles, and spent ages in there masturbating." To the untrained eye, here is an artist creating an alternative world where doing a poo is not a shameful act: some may argue unnecessary or distasteful, but the fact that people are disgusted surely highlights the need for a piece like Julia's. At the end of the day we all take a dump, but we are still ashamed to acknowledge that fact.

New York-based artist Darja Bajagić seeks to find humor in usually demoralizing imagery. Two pieces which depict 'Molly', the poster girl for a far-right-fascist website, spurting blood from her mouth both critique and poke-fun at 'Molly's' political ideals, while also bringing these very present images into a space where people wouldn't usually see them.

Despite the problematic financial structure of Frieze, it is often the artists who are perhaps exercising their political and civic responsibility in bringing ideas and imagery into the space that wouldn't usually reach that specific platform who stand out. Wolfgang Tillmans, who spoke on a panel toward the end of Frieze week, where he was celebrated for his Vote Remain campaign works during the talk. "Well I can't lead anymore, because I could speak as a UK citizen and campaign as a Londoner — but now 37% want to take you outside of the EU," he told onlookers. "I find it shocking how the political rhetoric has shifted." He retained that the artist's voice should be used for political good, and to widen conversations about injustices and the state of the world.

Michael Dean. Photography Joe Humphrys © Tate Photography.

It will always be down to the viewer to establish the political nature of a contemporary art piece. Michael Dean's Turner Prize shortlisted piece, United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016, which visualizes the amount of money — in pennies — a family need to be on the poverty line allows its viewers to conceptualize this statistic in another way. It asks you to consider what that means for yourself without excess text or judgemental newspaper comments beneath a long-read.

But for some this will mean nothing, and what about for others whose lived reality is the poverty line or below? When questioning the political inherency of contemporary art it — obviously — comes down to the viewer's experience. But how honestly political can you be in a space like Frieze, when in order to be even aware of the fair you have to be a well known artist, a successful journalist, or someone who is incredibly interested in art, and has the time and money to access London, access art, and access Frieze.

In conversation with Wolfgang, Julia Peyton-Jones — the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery — added, "there was something about that time [the 90s] where people made work without the worry of 'was it going to be shown, was it going to be collected, what is the value of it'. Now I certainly don't want to romanticize it, but there's something about that time where work came outside of the considerations of life. In some ways it was a very privileged position to be in, but at the time it felt bloody awful."

Perhaps the artists shown at Frieze don't have to have a political message, or be commenting on the social or political state of the world. Maybe it's okay to produce art to make money to fund your real practice which would never fly in a place like Frieze. Because art which fulfills a type of civic or political responsibility is perhaps art which by its very nature would not work inside the giant tent, among the leading collectors and money spenders of the 'art world'.

Carlos/Ishikawa, Focus section, Frieze London 2016. Photograph by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze.


Text Tom Rasmussen

Think Pieces
Frieze London
at world