Alistair Gentry

In 2009 when I and a few enlightened colleagues started talking about the art world’s institutions, their relationship to money and the mysterious absence of said money in most artists’ lives, hardly anybody was interested. We were often asked why we bothered. Some people were obviously scared that we were poking a hornet’s nest; possibly a hornet’s nest they currently had their dick stuck into. There were already a few others kicking out pseudonymously, or discretely in public while fuming in private. I can’t blame them for that now, knowing that I got regular threats or warnings, even legal notices, that I shouldn’t look into who and where the money was flowing to and from, as well as concerted attempts to libel or discredit me. We took the opposite approach and deliberately put our names to everything, while also making ourselves into a kind of ad hoc institution to do it because we recognised that even fake institutions have more clout, credibility and safety than most individuals. Especially if those individuals were us.

Nowadays nearly every agency and artist-facing organisation in the UK is talking about money and the role of the institution if they have any sense. The next generation of kiddies are too, on their Twitter Toks and whatnot. Millennials also seem significantly less bothered at being smoothly co-opted and neutralised by the institutions they purport to critique. They even seem to kind of like it. It hits them and it feels like a kiss.

This may be because a decade or so on, even über-mainstream institutions like Frieze have tentatively signalled virtue by proposing, for example, that artists don’t earn enough money to live in the places where their art is primarily consumed, and this might... be... problematic...? Careful there, Che Guevara! The survival of many UK art institutions and funders depends to a pathetic degree on courting the rich, moisturised hand that feeds or fists at its own whim.

Although people still get hung up on aesthetics and ‘but is it art?’, the real story is not how bad, irrelevant and vapid the art establishment and most of its suppliers are. Don’t get me wrong, I agree, but the main issue is that the art world’s major institutions are inextricably and toxically tangled with tax evasion, money laundering, corporate greenwashing and artwashing, international subversion of the rule of law, offshore unaccountability, unchecked influence of oligarchs and murderous warmongering elites from anti-democratic autocracies like Russia and the UAE (not to mention their parasites and money-funnelers in the UK and USA) who make and keep their millions from creating global chaos and division, all of which are impoverishing and holding back 99% of the world’s population.

The flaws of our arts funders, galleries and museums are profound and they have real, sometimes devastating effects on real people. But ultimately these art sector problems of underfunding and overwork, class and pay inequity, racism, sexism, ableism, business and policy conducted secretively by cartel and crony are just a cack-handed Muppet Babies microcosm of the pervasive systemic injustices in our societies that are perpetrated on a global scale daily by the people who run those societies and profit from those injustices. On both the micro and macro scale, within the art world and without, why would its beneficiaries ever want mild reform let alone major change to a system that suits them so well? It’s much easier to let people vent a bit and just shoot down the odd wall-jumper.

Or you can tranquillise them and bring them in, usually for a laughably low price. One of the fundamental problems here is that artists currently, to a large extent, still need access to institutions and the rubber stamp of their gatekeepers if artists want to be anything other than hobbyists solely making themselves happy, diddling about on the margins to general indifference- not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s really your thing. But the genuine and usually quite pure desire and need to reach beyond people we know personally with our art, and the need to trust an institution to do it with us or for us, is also for many artists wrapped up in a perverse, self-harming impulse to impress even (sometimes especially) those gatekeepers who are least interested in them and have least use for them. It’s also striking how many artists will voluntarily throw themselves into the line of fire to protect in particular those gatekeepers who wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire and a system that treats them like chunks of gristle clogging up the meat grinder.

And so we still get the hollow hype and promises of the vanity art fairs and the artist farmers who hoodwink the egotistic but unwary with so-called development schemes and bogus agencies, a couple of pages in a catalogue nobody will ever read, or a really basic holiday dragged up as artist residency. Although in the art world it is again wrought painstakingly in miniature, who is really screwing who is a fundamental, age-old problem between the institution and the individual. Marcus Aurelius noted how foolish it was to seek the approval of people or institutions whose values we reject... and he was an introspective stoic who’d gone to extraordinary lengths to become the Emperor of Rome.

Awkward. The inevitable corollary to Aurelius seeming to have a good point is that obviously everyone reading this – including me and you – has at some point tied ourselves in knots worrying about the approval of somebody, some gallery or funder or buyer, who doesn’t give a shit about us and never will. It’s an easy problem to point at, much harder to resolve. And I’m not even in charge of the Roman Empire.

My only suggestion is to pivot towards more of an appreciation of ourselves and what we can do outside of the systems we despise... or if not outside them, at least finding ways to make them fit for our own purposes. In the 1890s playwright Henrik Ibsen used to walk around Oslo covered in medals, even when he was just out to the shops. He’d awarded them to himself after being snubbed for various grants and literary prizes. Some of them were semi-legit but gained through a professional honours broker. These types of brokers still exist, and as Ibsen well knew, it was mainly their fault that instead of going to people who’d actually achieved something, various medals, titles, bursaries and honorary degrees were awarded for no obvious reason to apparent randoms and people who were egregiously crap. If other people could flaunt kudos they didn’t earn, then why shouldn’t he?

I think walking around with a bunch of self-created honours and medals as normal day wear is my new sartorial goal. Never getting into a national collection, getting a PhD, or winning a Nobel? Forget them. Award yourself the prize.  s

  Alistair Gentry is a writer, artist and performer. According to a passing stranger who recently shouted out of a car window, he is also a fucking weirdo. He is based, divides his time and works.

   This article features in the Spring 2021 edition of the Sluice_magazine