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21 May, 2009

Art and class: the Arnolfini pictures privilege

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie shows artists grappling with the subject of social hierarchies in Britain. But in a system that relies on wealth, how much can they tell us about class?

With recession raging all around, millions of job losses in prospect and politicians’ expenses pored over by an increasingly angry electorate, now feels like a good time to think about social class. But does art offer the best way in?

Two exhibitions currently claim to do so, each at different ends of the country. One is Rank: Picturing the Social Order, currently at Sunderland’s Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art. It discusses class in Britain through a prism of paintings, prints and video works dating from the 16th century to the present day. These include a map by Ambrosius Holbein of Thomas More’s imagined Utopia, commissioned to illustrate the first run of the book in 1516; Gerhard Richter’s blurry lithograph print of the Queen dating from 1966; and a print by recent Turner prize nominee Mark Titchner from 2007, which features the phrase “No them only us” in the imposing typeface of a Soviet-era poster.

The other exhibition is Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, which looks closely at class systems in the art world, and is the latest instalment in a series of shows that first debuted in London in 2006. But who, exactly, are the lapdogs? In the art world, old systems of patronage continue; money talks. Take wealthy collectors like Charles Saatchi, who have the ability to make or break an artist’s career. In the past, popes and wealthy ruling families bankrolled artists; now it’s hedge fund managers and entrepreneurs. They buy the artworks and also sit on the boards of major museums, giving them cash infusions when public money falls short.

Yet class structures are subject to revisions and revolutions, perhaps never more so than via the shadowy figure of the curator, strictly speaking the organiser of shows, but increasingly viewed as a “keeper” of cultural heritage. The Lapdogs exhibition gives them short shrift. Mounted on one wall are photographs and transcripts of a performance called Decoy in Stockholm, for which Cairo-based artist Hassan Khan asked actors to fake it as art-world types at a gallery party. Most sinister of all of these figures is the curator, who tells a party guest of his nefarious plans to “shape” artists to his own ends. Also on display, pinned to the wall, is a script by artist Liam Gillick that takes the same name as the exhibition. It’s an irreverent murder mystery with a host of noxious characters, including a Chanel-clad collector, a museum director obsessed with his reputation, and a pompous cultural critic. In the end, though, it is the curator who turns out to be the murderer.

So, perhaps artists are the lapdogs? Yet even they have a certain status – as a performer playing an artist in a video by Marion von Osten proclaims: “to be cool is more valuable than money”.

Why should the public care about all this? Perhaps because these hierarchies present a microcosm of the systems that control our lives, but also because so much cultural production in the UK – be it in the art gallery or on TV – functions within established social hierarchies. British artist Neil Cummings offers Lapdogs, a video work that recreates the format of the TV show Faking It, in which an Egyptian waiter is seen posing as an artist. It speaks volumes about UK television’s obsession with pauper-to-prince-style narratives, but also pokes fun at the status of the artist.

Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie shows artists actively engaging with the subject of hierarchy. But art costs money both to make and exhibit, and it may not be in the interests of some artists to challenge the status quo. Artist Chris Evans explores the issue in a film script from his show The Freedom of Negative Expression, copies of which are arranged on a shelf and free for the taking. (A trailer developed from the script is also on view as part of the exhibition’s related film programme.) It details a dense conversation between two artists from different generations, one a contemporary nihilist and the other a constructivist of the old guard who is convinced that art can have a social purpose. The nihilist criticises the way some artists play to the needs of their collectors, who crave “an empty affirmation of their own taste and privilege”, while the constructivist condemns the “self-congratulating” political artists who belong, ironically, to the “elite arena” of the art world.

Artists are capable of making thoughtful and self-critical work, as Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie shows. They may not propagandiseabout the world, but they can and do comment on the systems of power at work in it.

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