When I read Morgan Quaintance’s recent polemic for e-flux conversations, ‘The New Conservatism: Complicity and the UK Art World’s Performance of Progression,’ I was of course initially dumbfounded. Here is a man, I thought, clearly uneasy in the contemporary art world; mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, even. Frieze, Art Review, Tate, Art Monthly, Create, Open School East, Cubitt: all of these are taken to task, some of course more than others, and this is nowhere near an exhaustive list. Good on him, I thought: we need more of this kind of thing. We need people who will bite the hands that feeds them. That it has gained so much traction, been shared and commented on so widely, is of course unsurprising: there is a voyeuristic thrill in watching someone burn bridges quite so wilfully. The point is, of course, it shouldn’t be simply voyeuristic — it is a call to arms.
What Quaintance terms the ‘new conservatism’ is not at all new, of course. Rather, it is more like an intensification, referring to a situation in which Greenberg’s umbilical cord of gold, becomes more like a womb; in which contemporary art’s entanglement with late capitalism is seen as a matter of fact, a horizon of the possible that forecloses the possibility of not being complicit. Quaintance describes the art world’s conservatism as operating in three ways: firstly, in an ‘identification with and capitulation to private finance‘; secondly, in the ‘reinforcement and creation of an ideologically and demographically homogenous art world‘; and lastly, in its complicit and essentially decorative function, which allows the deleterious implications of state policy, to be obscured. Now, I do not claim to know the ins and outs of the UK art context, but these seem like accurate points, and he does a good job of demonstrating them in action, pointing to the highly visible, and apparently unavoidable, embrace of philanthropy and corporate sponsorship in UK museums, the monoculture that is the UK art publishing, and the ubiquity of PPPs and ‘mutually beneficial partnerships‘. Steps are being taken in this direction here in Ireland, particularly with regard to corporate sponsorship of museums, but by and large if something doesn’t get arts council funding, it doesn’t get made. Considering diminished arts council funding, and the increasing imposition for museums and galleries to court private finance, this is of course a major problem.
In the text, though, it appears Quaintance is mostly gunning for Frieze, itself but one conduit of this new conservatism. This is continuous with Quaintance’s demonstrable and long-standing antipathy towards the magazine, by far the most profitable UK art publication, which stretches back some time now, and has usually taken the form of essays published in Art Monthly, that last bastion of leftist, if still compromised, criticality in the UK art press (e.g., ‘Illiquid Assets,’ July-August 2016). And, he’s right, the Frieze-effect is undeniably far-reaching, or as he calls it ‘octopoid’: artists want to be featured in it, probably above all other magazines; art writers want to be published in it, and galleries want to be included in its fairs; so much so, that its predominance might be seen to shape or even curb the possibilities of both art writing and practice. I would be very interested to see how this effects both how and what we look at; what we make, and how we write about it. Does a culture of ‘beautiful writing about beautiful objects and their beautiful makers‘ — as Suzanne Perling Hudson described it — serve to reinforce this new conservatism? Quite possibly.
What Quaintance does in the essay, anyway, is a kind of mapping of Frieze’s corporate structure, in an attempt to emphasise its incompatibility with any kind of radical artistic discourse that would counter the present, what he deems conservative, UK status quo. Kind of like an episode of The Wire. And lo and behold, he finds that it is in fact just a money-making organisation: that it uses offshore accounts, he claims, in the aim of ‘tax efficiency‘; and probably most galling, and something I had indeed noticed before, use ACE funding to fund somewhat superfluous projects (the ‘Page and Screen‘ initiative), which they likely could have produced on their own dime. Frieze, in short, is bad: fundamentally entangled with the richest of the richest in society, who are quite happy, thank you very much, with the way things are. Of course, anyone who visited the latest Frieze London and saw glasses of champagne going for £14, would probably have cottoned on to this. After the banking crash and the seemingly interminable austerity that follows, we should though remember the words of the Andrew Mellon, US banker and Secretary of the Treasury from 1921-3, speaking in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929: ‘In a crisis, assets return to their rightful owners’. And, walking through Frieze, I was struck by the fact that I had never before been anywhere and felt so utterly out of place. Nonetheless, Frieze’s larger virtue is constantly signalled through talks and articles that appeal to contemporary art’s wider, if nebulous, legitimating functions. As Quaintance correctly points out: ‘For at least forty years, reform has been the rallying cry driving articles, books, exhibitions, institutional critique, protest, endless symposia, and what have they yielded? Little change, but plenty of critical awareness‘. This semblance of criticality is of course part of this new conservatism, playing lip service to radical politics whilst consolidating the status quo at the same time.
Anyway, I could probably make an argument here that says: well, we’re all entangled to such and such a degree; that there is no truly external position available to us; that all of us are enfolded in systems of late capitalism, of which Frieze, let’s face it, plays an extremely minor role; and that there is, consequently, no point in an argument such as Quaintance’s. By extension, that the change on which any criticality is founded is in effect impossible. And a quite substantial part of me, the tired and beaten-down bit, would be quite happy to make this. Job done. But this is specifically the argument that Quaintance is arguing against; instead of this glib, what Mark Fisher termed ‘reflexive impotence,’ he argues that artists and arts workers should instead initiate ‘targeted refusals,’ which would, he claims, ‘finally torch the tired myth that moral or political compromise is always, at some level, the fundamental structural inevitability of creative practice‘. I have a lot of sympathy for this position. Towards the end, though, Quaintance writes this:
Despite protestations that the pervasive and inescapable reach of neoliberal capitalism has created an existential framework in which compromise and complicity are the new original sins, I suspect silence, resignation or apathy are fuelled by something far more basic, comfort. Put simply, people are adverse to personal risk and lifestyle change.
Well, of course they are. The problem is, of course, is that the Quaintance’s argument is hinged to an idea of the artworld as somehow distinct from the wider world. It is not; and the refusal that he recommends is also conditional on someone’s position in that wider world. It’s all well and good refusing a commission for Frieze if you have other, ostensibly more ethical publications to write for, but what if it is the only thing that will enable you to pay your rent, or indeed feed your children? I am not denying the homogenising effect of a behemoth like Frieze, or indeed its total if largely disavowed identification with private capital and the 1%. But in flattening all rationale for people’s continued working with new conservative organisations to the quite pejorative ‘comfort,’ he does quite a disservice to those that do not, nor will they ever, have the luxury to opt out. The ‘lifestyle change‘ Quaintance refers to, would be experienced quite differently; for many, it would be catastrophic. Managing complicity is easier than, for example, not eating. Though he points to various sites of possibility — and he should be commended for doing this, as this is something he consistently does — the fact is that in an increasingly privatised climate, there is still little else to provide real sustenance. Certainly the spectre of Brexit, alluded to but strangely not mentioned in this essay, will not help in this regard. Moreover, isn’t there something distinctly troubling about an art world that allows individuals to build a reputation on the basis of their opposition to it?
At the start of the essay, Quaintance writes that, ‘if the practice, presentation and evaluation of art are to have a fighting chance at radical progression in the twenty-first century (in whatever form that might take) is a redress in the balance of power...,’ alongside new organisations that counter a dominant trend of new conservatism. This is of course true, and urgent; but for me, the most telling thing here is precisely that ‘in whatever form that might take’. This form remains ill-defined, and this is, in effect, the reason for the more or less consistent rehearsal of politics in contemporary art. Despite Quaintance’s admirable pointing to alternatives, this nebulous ‘in whatever form that might take‘ is hard to differentiate from wider art world rhetorical devices like ‘rupture’ and ‘paradigm shift’. But, nonetheless, at least Quaintance is trying to articulate this something.