Ethics of the Artist

When I was a shy and clumsy twenty-three year old (as opposed to the confident and poised twenty-nine year old that I am now), I once attended a debate at the Tate between Hilton Kramer and Michael Craig-Martin.
I had yet to begin my Foundation course at Camberwell, but I was already beginning to be vaguely stirred by the apparent paradox of the socially-committed artist working within the commercial sphere of art, with its gallery sales and auctions, its inflated prices and cultural prestige all calling into question any redemptive or revolutionary that art might have.

Kramer and Craig-Martin were assumed to be ideologically mortal enemies, and the debate was structured around their presumed differences. However, Craig-Martin was unwilling to accept the rules of engagement, and skilfully made it appear that their differences were in fact related to two distinct topics of conversation, momentarily confused by the context of the Tate.

Afterwards, admiring of Craig-Martin’s rhetorical skills, I waited patiently at the side after the talk was over, to ask him a question I hadn’t dared ask during the debate (unfortunately I am still guilty of this habit – asking questions after their appropriate moment has passed). After he had smiled and waved and kissed his friends goodbye and was about to leave, I moved forward and pressed him on the subject of: how could an avant-garde artist exist in the world without economically compromising him or herself? Without pausing he gave me a curt, rather offhand reply:

“If you want to be an avant-garde artist then, as Duchamp said, don’t show your work to anyone or don’t make work at all.” And he walked off. For many reasons this dismissive answer has stayed with me, perhaps not altogether as clearly as he expressed it, but the gist is still there. I subsequently went on to discover Craig-Martin’s influence on the so-called yBA’s, on Charles Saatchi, on the board of the Tate’s Patrons of New Art and the board of the Tate itself, and I realised the very vested interests he has in maintaining an economic status quo in relation to the art world.

Pragmatism. Realpolitik. Judicious. Practical. Machiavellian. Idealistic. Injudicious. Well-intentioned. Unrealistic.

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