Life study

by Hazel Dooney

I USED TO be in love with Tracey Emin. She was bold, self-made and bolshie, and she didn't care what anyone thought of her. I fell out of love when she stopped making her art herself and began writing about being a celebrity for The Guardian. It turned out that she cared quite a lot about what people thought of her.

Before Tracey, I had a crush on Cindy Sherman. She was an older woman, and someone on whom I thought I could model myself. It ended when I realised that all she really had to offer was a sense of fashion, and even then not her own. There were other women, other artists, all of them older and successful within a system that had once favoured only men with fame and money and the opportunity to be more than a footnote in art history. It was only later that I figured out that it was just an elaborate con.

I am not love with anyone anymore. And I have stopped believing in a lot of what is thought of as art these days. It's as if a couple of hundred dull-headed, middle-aged men and women – not just artists, but educators, curators, gallerists and critics – have come up with a set of rules to define what real art and real artists are. The rules are vague, and yet still as constricting and moralistic as anything concocted by a Reformation cleric. Which is, I guess, exactly what one should expect since art became a kind of religion in the late twentieth century, a cargo cult for the upper middle class, with the artists themselves playing makeshift shamans.

This is one of the rules: love has no place in art. The conceptualist American artist Jeff Koons, who was once a highly paid marketing executive, insists that art has been too subjective in the past, too concerned with the messy, emotive sprawl of self-expression, as opposed to what he calls objective art – art so sanitised of the germy interior life of the artist that his or her only role in its creation is an idea. The actual making of the finished work, the elements of craftsmanship, are for him best left up to others – preferably others who have no real interest or engagement with the artist other than interpreting his instructions with as much technical precision as possible. In Koons' world, being able to draw or paint or shape a material is a drawback: traditional skills are a distraction from the process of conception; they are too easily subverted by the awkward, unrefined impulses of inspiration that dance at an unpredictable tempo within an artist's heart and psyche.

 

KOONS' SELF-SERVING VIEW is exactly the sort of glib schtick that was served up as critical theory to me in art school, where every student had to come up with a justification of his or her work in front of a group of peers and lecturers, an ordeal that was no more enlightening than a heretic's inquisition. The works themselves were incidental (no one really looked at them) – what mattered was how you talked about them. We were told that this would happen in the "real world" – that we needed to learn how to deconstruct and qualify, that our artwork was necessarily less without a complex explanation. I recognised early on that what they were really talking about (without realising it) was what brand marketers refer to as positioning. I learned to think like a snake oil salesman; I learned to spruik my wares – never mind the quality, feel the width. Of all the bad habits I learned at art school, this was the hardest to break.

Truth is, I didn't last long there. I dropped out after just six months. A decade later, I am one of the few former students of that year still practising art, and the only one who is painting full-time and supporting myself from my work.

What provoked me to leave art school was the sense that the art I was being "taught" was so leached of both technical rigour and emotion that it had been reduced to a kind of glib in-joke between teachers and students. For example, one work that garnered faculty acclaim was a series of dirty, elongated pillows mounted on a wall, vibrating. Another consisted of an ironing board at erection angle penetrating the open door of a clothes dryer. While viewers snickered, and the artists diluted any potential academic criticism with well-practised, casuistic "spin", these were ultimately empty works that appeared to revel in their lack of "craft". And, like nearly all art of this time, they were reliant on context – being in a gallery space – in order for them to be viewed as art at all.

As a student, I was left with no illusions as to what was valued at art school – painting and drawing were nothing but quaint anachronisms.

The highlight of my two terms at art school was a mid-semester "exhibition", held in the church-like, asbestos-ridden building that served as the studio space for first-year students. Not recognising it as an artwork, a guest had left an empty wine glass on a plinth atop which a small mount of powdered ochre was piled. The work's creator, a mature-age student, was enraged. "That's my art!" she screamed. She snatched the glass up from the plinth and threw it a dozen metres through an open back door. It shattered loudly against a brick wall outside, stopping all conversation and focusing everyone's attention on the irate artist. Performance and installation art were encouraged at this art school, and it was agreed later, by students and faculty, that this incident had been the best example of either ever produced by a first-year student.

 

I HAD MY first solo exhibition a few years later. I ignored one of the art world's unwritten rules and organised it myself. I sold out the show and garnered some good reviews. Since then, from time to time, I have tried to do what everybody else does – to follow some, if not all, of the rules. And yet I am happiest and most successful when I don't.

"Only criminals and artists defy the rules," Denis Diderot, the eighteenth century philosopher, once observed. (I should cop to the fact that I am no different from my peers in today's junk culture: I sample, I "appropriate", so my references are second-hand and suspect. I haven't actually read Diderot. I read an article in which Malcolm McLaren quoted him, and what I know about Malcolm McLaren is that he managed a band called the Sex Pistols before I was born.)

Most artists don't defy the rules anymore. They just pretend to – or, as the British artist Damien Hirst once put it: "What I really like is minimum effort for maximum effect." In the developed world, the success of an artist is measured in the same terms as that of a lawyer, stockbroker or entertainer: disposable income, the number, size and location of the houses they own, and the series number of their new BMW. The art itself has nothing to do with it. The most successful artists appear on lists of the rich and powerful in the business press, and as if that wasn't enough, the art world creates its own lists to massage its burgeoning pile of egos. Last year, Hirst topped ArtReview's Power 100, overtaking the New York art dealer Larry Gagosian, who managed to hold on to second place ahead of Francois Pinault, the French owner of the British auction house Christie's.

Damien Hirst's lust for celebrity was – is – always transparent. Still, I wanted to believe that the women I admired were different. I was once young and naïve enough to hope that gender alone might ensure that the ambitions of an older generation of mainly American contemporary female artists – among them, Cindy Sherman (now aged 52), Jenny Holzer (aged 56) or Barbara Kruger (aged 61) – were less prosaic. But no, celebrity was as much a core of their career plans as it was of Hirst's. Their work wasn't about revolution, it was about recognition, about renown.

It only got worse with the next wave, the mainly British forty-somethings such as Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread and Sam Taylor-Wood (who made the savvy career move of marrying Jay Jopling, the famed founder of London's White Cube gallery, and architect/co-conspirator of the Young British Artists phenomenon). These women figured out that if fame came fast enough, and the money was big enough, it might lessen the impact of inescapable questions about their talent and credibility. Their accomplishments have reflected a triumph of commercialism over art, their successes as reliant on message, positioning and timing as any corporate marketing strategy: art as commodity, artist as brand.

Emin particularly has made it plain that art for her is just a means to an end – she has talked of wanting to be dubbed a Dame by the Queen, but if she's not careful, her end might be a role as a wicked step-sister in celebrity pantomime at Christmas, the fate of every faded British Vaudevillean, TV personality and pop star.

There is nothing new about fame and money being intrinsic to a successful art career – during the Renaissance, artists such as Michelangelo were multi-millionaires by today's standards, as well as being confidantes of princes and popes. I have no qualms admitting that I pursue both.

Today's hollow, hypermediated celebrity should not be confused with the recognition accorded to previous generations of artists, for whom it was hard-earned and based (with few exceptions) entirely on a substantial body of work. Emin is known for her sensationalist bed installation – itself something of a salacious media construct – but also for being drunk, and for careless talk about her once troubled life, a confessional process that, according to her detractors, has less do with reality than with a kind of performance art. Her prices – and her appearance fees – reflect her ubiquity in the media, her talent for good copy, more than they do the significance of her work.

For those of us who are of a younger generation, it has been important to shift the emphasis back on to the body of work – to seek attention, sure, but to feel that we've earned it.

 

IN HIS BOOK What's wrong with contemporary art(UNSW Press, 2004) Peter Timms describes the Australian artist Patricia Piccininni as a designer rather than an artist. "Her installations remain at the level of concepts," he writes. "We sense her lack of involvement." Actually, we more than sense it – she has boasted about it. Her best-known sculptural and photographic works are derived from concepts recycled from the discard bin of Koons' objective, hands-off ethos. And, like the work of Koons, Hirst and other contemporary conceptualists, her works echo the glossy sheen and plasticity of high-end luxury goods, making it is easier for well-heeled consumers to associate them with more familiar brands – Chanel, Prada, Porsche, Apple, Bose – and immediately understand and accept their relative value.

Most of the artists of the generation immediately before mine are designers. Surprisingly, given that they have grown up under the insidious influence of conceptual art, their work demonstrates an astounding lack of intellectual rigour (often taking the form of a simple puzzle or an elaborate joke), and no sense of history. Individual works are so derivative as to be bordering on plagiarism – for example, Emin's My Bed, 1998/99, is a dull reworking of Rauchenberg's Bed, 1955 – and if you review this 40-something generation's work together, it is revealed as obvious and superficial.

Being banal on purpose is no excuse: banality as a comment on banality is ... banal.

When Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, signed it R. Mutt and exhibited it as "found art" in 1917, it was revolutionary. Not any more. The old, late-1970s punk ethos of artlessness – of playing and singing badly, sampling randomly and making ineptly – is no longer provocative.

The new punk is about raw skill and having something powerful to say. This is particularly important now that digital tools have enabled so many more people to create, even if originality has been over-run by appropriation, and artisan skills by software and processing capabilities that can't quite replicate the slippery inexactness of the hand-made. The new punk isn't a twenty-first century form of Luddism, nor is it a rejection of electronic facility for some idealistic, nineteenth century idea of the purity or superiority of the human touch. It's about a restitution of subjectivity, of re-emphasising the direct relationship between an artist's interior world and the individual work, and about the value of an artwork being determined by the skill with which the artist conveys that relationship to the viewer. The purely conceptual is not enough.

 

MAKING MONEY IS art and working is art and good business is the best art," Andy Warhol famously once said. I like money. It enables me to make art all the time.

At the beginning of my career, I was told by a reputable gallerist that there were two paths: I could show at artist-run or institutional spaces and gain respect; or I could show at a commercial gallery, sell my work, and be able to earn enough to make art full-time. For me, it was a no-brainer. I chose to show at a commercial gallery, creating the same works I would have if I were showing at a non-commercial space. My works at the time – the works for which I was to become well known – were large, glossy, highly structured and accessible images painted with enamel on canvas (and later on board). Populated with female stereotypes derived from advertising and entertainment, they confronted what bugged me about the increasing commodification of art. They sold well, but the critical assessment was cautious.

Two years ago, I had an exhibition at a well-regarded private gallery. At the opening party, an art critic whom I knew quite well admitted that he now saw my work in an entirely different and more meaningful way – simply because it had been presented in a different context. I couldn't help but think that he was a bit of a prat.

I have been making and exhibiting art professionally for almost ten years now. It's not just a vocation; it's my way of processing the world. One of my early mid-size works, enamel on board, will fetch, according to the uncommitted circumlocution of one major auction house, "low-to-mid-five-figures" in the secondary market. In the past few years, I've had solo and group shows in most of Australia's capital cities, as well as Tokyo, London and New York.

Art is big business. Many young artists – younger even than me – have ended up rich, famous and critically acclaimed very early in their careers. Too often, it all just evaporates. And maybe that's another reason why I am conscious of walking the razor's edge between respect and celebrity, even as I work hard to increase my prices and my base of private and institutional collectors. In a hundred years, Damien Hirst will be remembered, along with Bruno Bischofberger, Larry Gagosian and Nicholas Serota, as one of this era's great art impresarios. Tracey Emin and Sam Taylor-Wood have a shot at being mentioned in a couple of footnotes, the sticky residue of all that high-profile publicity they courted in their lifetimes, but none of their works will be in the "canon" of great twenty-first century art. Over the last millennium, the few artists acknowledged as "great" didn't bow to passing fashion or economic imperative, let alone spend more time socialising – even with royal patrons – than making art.

I might be wrong, but I like to think that my generation is less seduced by the money and hype of art that comes easier now than ever before, and that its creators are more concerned with using it to their advantage to make art all the time, and become better artists.

Still, when it comes to business, we are also breaking new ground of our own.

I used to be represented by important galleries in Sydney and Melbourne. I left both this year when I resolved to try to work outside the traditional gallery system – which, more and more, has come to resemble the stables of champion racehorse trainers, each vying to win a season of million-dollar races. The system has never really worked for – let alone with – most young artists, even if they are making good money. I am still trying to work out whether it's possible to have an informal relationship with a handful of gallerists in a way that shifts the balance of power into my hands, rather than theirs; meanwhile, better established artists – such as England's Stella Vine – are going so far as to found their own galleries, and to represent themselves.

My generation has an advantage: it's the first to have globally networked electronic media at its disposal. Still, exploiting these is about more than building a website and creating an email list. I use software for client relationship and inventory management, and I subscribe to online services that track prices for my – and my peers' – old and new work. Email encourages frequency and depth in my communication with collectors and curators, and I am able to coordinate exhibitions of my work in two or three countries simultaneously, and have direct contact with local gallerists and the press.

A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi. Alis volat propriis. (In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies with her own wings.) When I left art school, I had these words tattooed in an unelaborate sans serif font on the inside of my left arm – a promise to myself to succeed in art, whatever the obstacles. These days I operate as both an individual and a virtual corporation – an evolution of Warhol's reconfiguring of the artist's studio as a factory – and the functions of each are discrete. As an individual, I make the art I want. As a corporation, I shift product. Three and half months before my next solo exhibition, 20 per cent of the works to be shown have already been sold.

There is reward, after all, in thinking differently. 

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 13: The Next Big Thing © Copyright Griffith University & the author.