Dis-membered from the art world

Nubians - an alternative look at Ancientt Egypt. There's always another way to look at things.

 above, Nubians (British Museum). An often overlooked part of ancient history – yet it’s there if we want to see it.

Tis the season of the art prizes. I saw the announcement of the Catlin art prize today. I’m not really bothered about these kinds of prizes because as a filmmaker it’s completely irrelevant to me, but as a cultural critic it’s completely relevant and important.

There are about 80 institutions, probably more actually, across the United Kingdom that run validated degree courses in fine art practice. They all charge a standard tuition fee, and employ qualified instructors, who themselves have some kind of art qualification usually the master’s degree, plus some kind of meaningful experience in art practice. Of course, this isn’t always true; a number of institutions employ people who are not actually artists but have managed to bow and scrape their way through a PhD in art without actually making anything that anybody in their right mind would have any interest in seeing. But in my experience, for the most part, our colleges employ artists and people genuinely interested in an enthusiastic about art.

Now you might think, that with the national network of art colleges that includes the northern tip of Scotland to the southern tip of Cornwall, Wales to East Anglia and Northern Ireland, the British artists who make up the British art world might hail from all kinds of different art colleges up and down the country. But in fact it is not the case at all.

If you want to be part of the British art world, except in a few rare situations, you have got to be a graduate of the following institutions:
Goldsmiths College
The Slade
Central St. Martin’s.
Chelsea school of art
The Royal College of Art
all of which are in London.
Occasionally, an artist from Glasgow School of Art or, even more occasionally, a graduate of Edinburgh school of art is admitted into the ‘art world’.

I sure have no problem with these institutions. I haven’t been to any of them, but from what I’ve seen they are perfectly adequate places which do the job of turning out  graduates very nicely. But what I cannot understand at all is how graduates from other art schools so rarely seem to get picked for any of the major art prizes. Is it really true that graduates from our colleges in the rest of the country, Nottingham, Leeds, Cornwall, Bristol, East Anglia, Newcastle, you name it – none of them can step up to the plate and do art as well as somebody who spent their degree in London? Does study in London magically give you a massive advantage over anybody else, make you just a much better artist. Just because you can breathe the fantastically polluted air of my great city?

I live in and studied in London, and I love London and I loved studying at the University of Westminster, it has a fantastic film school and I can’t say enough about how brilliant it was. But I don’t think that I’m the better filmmaker then somebody who got their film degree outside London.

So I don’t really know what’s going on. I do suspect, however, that those art students who are paying 9000 pounds a year, plus to study anywhere than the above seven art colleges, might wonder if it’s worth it. If they have such a small chance of making it into the art world; if all the prizes are snapped up by the big seven. Actually, let’s be honest, the big five. The Scots occasionally have their day, but London takes the big biscuit. Isn’t it depressing, to be an artist in the fantastic city like Newcastle and be working your ass off, inspired by the incredible landscape and the wonderful small, high-quality art scene that the city can offer, to never see any of your colleagues winning any of these big chunky prizes? They don’t even seem to make the short list.

I had a look at the list of judges who judge many of these prizes, and I discovered that actually most of the judges have some kind of connection with the big five art schools. Very many of them are graduates of the schools, or teach or have taught in them. So what were seeing really is people selecting from a self-appointed pool of artists from places that they can relate to. This is actually incredibly creepy.

It gets worse.

Okay, now I’m going to offer a disclaimer here. A very good friend of mine applied for the Bow Arts Trust East London painting prize and didn’t get shortlisted. Actually, he didn’t give a toss, but I got pretty upset. I got upset, not because  they should’ve taken his painting; that’s not really important. I got upset because when I looked at the short list, it became quite clear to me that it did not in any way reflect the demographic of East London.

London is only 59% ethnically white British, according to the office for national statistics 2011 census. That means that a full 40% of people in London are from some other ethnic group. Tower hamlets, in the East End of London, has a white population of only 45.2%, according to the same census, and this includes white non-British. The statistic for Hackney is pretty much the same. These two boroughs are very popular with artists and have large vigorous artist communities. Let us not pretend that all of the artists in these two boroughs are  white British.

Yet when you look at the short list of artists chosen for the East London painting prize, which is only for people who live in East London,  there isn’t a single name which we could associate with, for example, the large Turkish and Kurdish population of Hackney.  There isn’t a single name which we could associate with the Nigerian or African population of East London. Nor was there a single name that we could associate with Asian, particularly Islamic Asian people, who make up a large sector of the Tower Hamlets population. Not even a Pole. I know I am only going by names and I don’t know the artists who are on the list (but I did look at their websites).

Because I live in East London. I know that there are artists with different backgrounds, yet there is no visibility of them whatsoever in these art prizes; and there is  little visibility of them in the mainstream galleries, which leads me to believe there are very few opportunities for artists – or  young people who would like to be artists – who come from ethnic minority backgrounds. Even when, and this is my point, they are not even ethnic ‘minorities’ within the community. In London there isn’t an ethnic majority really; everybody’s an ethnic ‘minority’, we’re so mixed.

There are actually Turkish and Kurdish artists in Hackney. There are British-born artists from Asian, African and Chinese backgrounds. There are kids from Afro-Caribbean and Vietnamese backgrounds doing art at A level. There are plenty of Polish, Czech, and Bulgarian artists active in East London today. Yet is not a single Polish name on any of these shortlists. It’s just weird. It’s just wrong. The East London art world, at the very least, should be reflective of who is living and practising in East London.

Obviously this is a culture, and those who perpetuate it are completely unaware that what they’re doing is actually perpetuating inequality of opportunity. That what they are also doing a stifling the creativity of London. It’s like they’re closing the window in a room which is already stuffy and unbearable. The fact is, let us say it, that the art world does not admit art that does not fit neatly into a very culturally circumscribed matrix. This is the “international” style, which is a tight compendium of Anglo-American, French and German aesthetics. Ergo, not actually international at all. If an artist who wants to express aesthetics outside of this sphere, he or she is relegated to making work “about” their ethnicity.

Now, toeing the “internationalist” line does not mean that you yourself have to be from this “Anglo-American/ French/ German” background. You just have to accept this aesthetic. Which probably means having studied at one of the Big 5 art schools and imbibing their aesthetic and cultural rules.  There no prizes for creating art which somehow, consciously or unconsciously, expresses an alternative aesthetic.

Let us not forget, that the history of art is not universal. What we accept as art history is a colonial programme. If we just look at modern (20thC) art we have to accept that there are alternative modernisms. Modernist Persian, Egyptian, Latin American, African.These artists are judged however, by how they adhere to the Western modernist programme. Just as an example, the recent show at tate of Ibrahim El Saheli. Of all the African or Arab artists they could have given a solo show to, they have to choose someone who was “approved” by a spell at the Slade, or the Beaux-Arts or somewhere, that teaches the Internationalist curriculum in one of the core Western centres of dominance.

Back to the unrepresentative demographic of the art prize.

There are people who would really celebrate this and say “Why should we open up our art world, our art fundings and our art prizes to immigrants?” The answer is really obvious, which is that art is always been an itinerant practice, and the artists have always moved around from place to place looking for opportunities. This is what made the Renaissance, made the Baroque.  English painting wouldn’t really have existed without Dutchmen like Holbein and VanDyke turning up here to set the standard. And how could we have has Gothic without Fuesli?

But anyway, I don’t think actually people in the art world, are particularly racist. After all, we are quite happy to embrace those art stars from abroad who made it big and then turn up in London. And the art world has occasionally allowed the minority artist to slip in under the railing. Yet I now see how how difficult it must be for them, how much harder you would have to work to get there.

No, I don’t really think they’re racist but I do think that they tend to choose people like themselves, who look like them, who talk like them, who been to the same schools. Who subscribe to the same ideology, and who don’t shake their coveted ideology. It’s a problem at the national level because that’s how the government is run, and it’s also how the art world is run. It’s bad, it’s wrong, and it can not go on.


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