Frieze is arriving and the art world seems set to eats its own tail. Artists are painfully aware that the process of gentrification, where local residents are priced out of their area begins with them. We all know how this unfolds. Artists need cheap spaces to live and work. They move to an area that has usually been considered too run down to attract the middle class. Coffee shops and galleries spring up like mushrooms. This creates a cultural apartheid: these new venues in the area are either too expensive for local residents, or as anyone who has visited a gallery will know, simply not that welcoming: their signs are discrete and the staff monosyllabic. It is not hard to see why this causes resentment. Some of these changes may be positive on the surface. However the structural conditions in which local residents live will remain the same, until, that is, the arrival of the huge developers who will eventually shunt them, along with the majority of the artists, out of the area. And so artists are complicit in their own downfall. The difference is that while these artists are somewhat peripatetic as it is, often young and without dependents, residents have community and family roots in these areas. Losing them means losing security and everything else that accompanies it.
There is some irony in the fact that Frieze is putting on a talk that asks “Can Artists Still Afford to Live in London?” The event is free with the £36 ticket you will need to get into the fair. Not much self-reflection here it seems. It is wrong to suppose that artists are really to blame for the process of gentrification and social cleansing. There is the bedroom tax to think about and it doesn’t help that the UK is competing with neighbouring Ireland to become a tax haven for the rich. The city is set to become a hollow shell of unoccupied luxury apartments owned by an array of the world’s one per cent. London property, like art, has become a place where the superrich invest their money. Many of those who have jetted over for Frieze week will be the very same people who are responsible for the soaring housing prices that are pushing artists out of the city.
This process will be marginally better for those artists whose work is being sold at Frieze. It will not feel so fine for the majority of artists who are crucial to the art world’s vibrancy. The diversity of energy, thought and analysis is what makes London such a brilliant city for art. It creates the conditions where ideas can push against each other and generate a thriving, vital culture in which good work can blossom. There is no such thing as a free wheeling genius, we all learn from each other. If things continue as they are, with art college degrees becoming increasingly exclusive and expensive, available only to those who can afford them, the art world is set to decay from within. What we will be left with is increasingly unthinking and uncritical work, work that flatters its patrons.
It has been said that art reflects the values of its day. This can clearly be seen in many practices that observe and focus in on a neoliberal behaviour, which is then extracted and placed in a clean white space. Politically, ethically this work asks nothing of its self and therefore cannot be expected to give very much. It is cold. Much like the process of interior decorating, this work amounts to a collection of samples, a mood board of colours and materials devoid of any criticality or human warmth. It is part and parcel of the mercantile world to which it belongs. It courts the eye with its body fascism, calmly claiming to be a dispassionate observer. These observations translated into the gallery space, divorce actions and behaviours from the circumstances within which they are born. There is, implicit in these works, the suggestion that they are some how apolitical. In fact they are the opposite; they are deeply political and fit neatly with a free market ideology that promotes self-interest. They are libertarian celebrations of free will that do not question or think through the conditions that might make real freedom actually possible.
The discussion of artists’ complicity in the process of gentrification has been bandied around for sometime now. It is somewhat absurd that it has now been brought into one of the world’s largest art trade fairs. But really what better way to make sure that the conversation is somehow contained and depoliticised. It would be interesting to trace the links between art dealers and investors to the empty apartments across London. Apartments for which the art works might be destined. In the mean time let us hope that those artists who do really care about these things, don’t argue themselves out of existence, but keep up the good work
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