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Time to change the way we communicate the value of art

7 November 2012

The art world, and particularly how we foster and develop it in Britain, is in a period of crisis. And if you haven’t noticed that, then it’s a worrying testament to the way we debate and celebrate the creative processes in this country.

Not only are institutions struggling to reprioritise their cultural direction on the back of major funding cuts (and fearing more to come), but they are also stifled by the cult of artistic celebrities, which is in turn limiting opportunities for broader cultural development. Further to this, we also face the prospect of a new exam system, the Ebacc, which excludes setting the arts as core subjects and could have a major impact on our cultural economy in the long term.

The fact that Tate Modern’s Hirst retrospective this year was the most successful show in the gallery’s history is both frustrating and very telling. A centre-piece for the exhibition was his work ‘For the Love of God’ – more than 8,000 flawless gems set in a platinum cast of a human skull. It fetched £50m in 2007 when it sold to a consortium of investors that included Hirst himself. Its setting – displayed in a blacked-out box placed theatrically in the cavernous Turbine Hall, lit only by spotlights – was emblematic of the myth that Hirst has built up around himself, that if you say something loud enough then people will think it’s important.

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian wasn’t deceived, saying Hirst is a ‘national disgrace’, who abandoned his early promise to ‘focus on raking it in’. But perhaps we are all complicit in allowing him to do this.

This past week, the debate that Hirst personifies went into overdrive – celebrated American culture critic Dave Hickey announced he was quitting, saying the art world has become ‘too obsessed with money and celebrity’.

And on this side of the pond, many prominent figures have also spoken out, saying that works by artists such as Hirst and Tracey Emin are the result of ‘too much fame, too much success and too little critical sifting’ and are ‘greatly overrated’.

Today, consultants help rich investors to buy what they are told is great art, not that which moves or inspires them. The super status of investable ‘celebrity artists’ is limiting the new generation’s access to the upper echelons, and more importantly, to the public’s consciousness.

This year, London staged a number of blockbuster exhibitions. As well as Hirst, Lucien Freud and David Hockney also had major retrospectives, all backed by huge marketing drives, with promotional posters resembling the latest film releases. This is built on the need to be increasingly competitive, as such shows provide much-needed income for the major galleries and in the case of Tate, helps ensure the permanent exhibitions can remain free and even expand.

The marketing also helps ensure such shows can attract backing from canny corporate sponsors, which derive considerable brand reputational benefits, as well as employee and client engagement opportunities.

It is understandable that some of the larger galleries have focused recent major exhibitions on well-known artists who are front of the fee-paying public’s consciousness, but it is also exciting to consider that the Royal Academy’s 2013 programme includes shows on Mexican and Australian art; subjects less well known. I hope that their promotional work and the media coverage is able to help steer the public away from the celebrity to such educationally-exciting shows. I also hope more corporates start to see the value in not only backing these shows but also smaller, more-challenging cultural experiences, especially those outside London where the lack of funding is severely limiting many people’s access to cultural experiences.

On a regional level, we can learn much from the successful collaboration demonstrated by Create in East London – they present, produce and commission projects that connect artists with the community and thereby ensure must-see experiences can take place on a local level. Create is built on a fundamental principle: ‘Our conviction is in the power of art to offer new perspectives on community life, provoking healthy debate and encouraging constructive change and social progress.’

If art’s purpose is to help us chronicle ourselves, then our obsession with Hirst is in itself a vital commentary on our society today – celebrity-fuelled and in need of guidance. It is up to all of us to ensure Britain’s cultural calendar stays vibrant, and that means changing the way we communicate art’s fundamental value, both economically and socially.