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Art vs. Commerce

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Sophie Maxwell, Pearlfisher.
Sophie Maxwell, Pearlfisher.
The Summer Exhibition at London's Royal Academy is, for anyone familiar with British weather, hopefully named. But its opening is a bit of a hot ticket in London and underwhelming temperatures are no deterrent, as annually its red carpet welcomes a glamorous society audience. All of whom are keen to see the revelations offered by a jolly long-term tradition--this year being its 241st.

It is the world's largest open-submission contemporary art exhibition and, as its guide tells us, "provides a unique showcase of a wide range of new work by both established and unknown living artists." Excitingly you can buy a lot of the work and gallery assistants place little red sold dots in the corners of each piece, which you see as you make your way round, adding to the feeling of discovery, participation and opportunity. The tradition and grandeur offered by the RA, mixed with the tantalising possibility of the "shock of the new," in this open-armed display of artistic freedom, creates annual excitement. So why did this year's show leave me thinking about everything but the art?

Each gallery within the exhibition is curated by a different artist and each does hold some interesting pieces. Particular favourites include an Anselm Kiefer triptych--in the room curated by Allen Jones (above)--and Tom Phillips' Wittgenstein's Dilemma II. My friend and I wondered through the first couple of galleries quite happily, if not truly captivated, before squeezing ourselves into and quickly back out of the small Weston room. This room of prints was a hive of people, most probably because it was where most of the affordable works were to be found. On its packed walls hung an austere print of Woolworth's--the bleak British high street chain (an eclectic and cheap retailer of, among other things, Easter eggs and knickers)--that fell victim to the recession this year. It was apparently one of "at least a dozen" submitted this year. The sight of this made me think of the bleak reflection of our times it offered, wondering why so many people had wanted to represent it and why you would want to either own it or remember something that represented little in terms of art or social commentary.

On leaving that room we spotted a print, adorned with a rash of red dots, which turned out to be a Tracey Emin of a monkey in a space suit (above). Probably one of the least controversial pieces she's ever submitted anywhere, it just goes to show that people still find famous art the easiest to buy. If art too can be seen in terms of brands then Tracey Emin is currently one of its biggest and coolest, the multitude of little red dots on far more than any other piece in the exhibition--underlined that. She is an icon of the art world, hotly debated for all her rude drawings, ruder films and fearless mouth. She has been attributed with helping women to be taken seriously in the art world, and gives away a huge amount of her work to charity. Yet none of the brave behaviour that has contributed to her being called a heroine by art critics was reflected in this work, cute as it was. What sold it, I guess, was that is bore her name--not overtly featured--but people had found it anyway and that was what ultimately mattered. I confess, it felt hard not to let this make your heart sink.

Zaha Hadid Kartal Pendik Masterplan, Istanbul.
Zaha Hadid Kartal Pendik Masterplan, Istanbul.
The gallery that really got us thinking and confused, however, was the sixth, dedicated to architecture. Will Alsop, the curator, introduces it by saying that "2009 has been challenging so far and we are thinking on our feet. As an architect, you've got to work on the basis that they'll be no new building in the UK this year. So you've got to get on your bike, making new alliances with people from different disciplines, including artists. It could be quite exciting." The exhibition makes every effort to be open-minded presenting "audacious and inventive approaches to a broad range of media," but this is where the contributions turned into an artistic pile up. I've always believed that design should be approached as holistically as possible, and that the mixing of media and disciplines, influences and skill sets can only enhance creative possibilities, as does the friend--herself a brand experience and environmental designer--I was with. So, in theory, the Summer Exhibition's capacity to bring together artists and architecture, which is invaluable and doesn't happen anywhere else, is a great move forward. However, the sheer proximity of exhibits to one another, rather than suggesting a cross-discipline creative collaboration, provoked my friend to proclaim that art and architecture are just not the same thing. Exhibiting them together is merely a confusing cram of disciplines rather than a progression of them.

Afterward, we were left wondered how closely you could mix media before its message became overloaded and therefore underwhelming. Can art sit next to design, when ultimately they meet such different needs and are subject to such different constraints? Do artists now remain the visionaries the exhibition has positioned them as, or has design now taken the lead due to its more connected viewpoint?

My role at Pearlfisher, like many in design, involves a great deal of time spent analysing a brand's equity. Whether the visual identity a brand delivers demonstrates their message in a differentiating and inspiring way and whether it clearly communicates to and meets the needs of its consumers. Art need not bear this in mind. It provokes and demands. It does not seek approval from its consumer or by committee. Art is about ideas, while design is subject to their delivery. It seems a shame that by combining the two too closely you risk lessening the impact and, therefore, achievements of both. As Professor Declan Kiberd recently commented "Again and again our world has been transformed by a word or image, because the future often turns out to be what artists already are. Art doesn't just reflect the current state of things. By the skill with which it contains our current realities, it begins the process of transcending them. It evokes a yearning for worlds yet to come. Some definitions of art are, however, just too wide."

Don''t get me wrong, the Royal Academy's summer show is full of interesting, often inspiring and beautifully crafted pieces. But in this last space, I was left confused and questioning what all this meant for the future; whether these two worlds should ever come together, and if so how. Do artists continue to be our visionaries or have their place been taken by designers, whose purpose-driven approach makes them more relevant and therefore directional?

As if to sum up my dilemma, there in the final gallery was the exhibition's crowning glory, Damien Hirst's Saint Bartholomew (above) haloed in all his finely crafted silver, flayed alive, his clipped skin hanging from his arm. Hirst has been lauded and derided in equal measure as creator of the most aspirational, successful and ultimately wealthy art brand the world has ever seen. He truly is the embodiment of art and commerce: managing to please, or at least draw the attention from, everyone while trying to please no one. And here he was, cleanly delivering an answer to the question the rest of the exhibition and I wavered on, with his own--probably priceless--punch line.

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Sophie Maxwell's fashion background as a graduate and now guest lecturer at London's Central St Martins is put to daily use in her role as Head of Creative Insight at Pearlfisher.
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