AS an arts journalist/critic, my daily routine includes sorting through email press releases. Of late, two trends dominate: Museums going virtual to comply with lockdown regulations (response – ignore) and identity politics promoted through art (response – forward to colleagues, with a cutting comment).
Every feminist, race activist and eco-campaigner has been making the most out of the dismal overlap of lockdown authoritarianism and moral grandstanding regarding supposed race inequality.
Today, I got an email press release promoting an artist I shall call Jane Patel. Here is an extract: ‘Jane Patel is a recent [central London art school] graduate exploring the notion of identity and race in her work, often using archival photos of her family and food as a conduit for navigating around the space of uncertainty between her British and Indian heritage. Using comedy and Internet lingo as tools for expressing her own confusion, Patel’s works are often titled sardonically with tongue in cheek manner …’
My usual response to artists leveraging their demographic traits is irritation and disappointment, lamenting the way venues and viewers are being short-changed by such vapid posturing.
How utterly cynical to exploit the liberal white guilt that runs like lifeblood through the veins of the arts establishment of Anglophone countries.
How many talented artists go unrecognised because they do not play the identity-trait cards dealt them or perhaps have low-value hands without the face cards of the fashionable marginalised identities?
In part, the fact that I would have to address this issue on a daily basis were I to review contemporary art was one reason I decided to specialise in historical art. I simply could not face turning every review into a futile protest against the monstrous indignities of identity politics.
When I read this press release, however, I was overcome by sadness, genuine sadness. I looked at the included examples of Patel’s art. They were weak pieces, indistinguishable from those of a self-absorbed A-level student.
It seemed to me that Patel had been nurtured and directed by an educational system that had not challenged her. Incapable of offering any criticism or guidance, paralysed by relativism, driven by a misguided principle of unqualified support, educators have raised a generation of artists – and young people more generally – who are incompetent, untrained, deluded.
To any criticism of the absence of technical ability or intellectual rigour, the educator of today would respond: ‘Patel is so brave to expose herself in her art. Who are you to judge? What gives you the right to suppress her voice and erase her identity?’
To which I would reply: ‘Well, she should have a chance to compete for a platform and be judged on the merit of her achievements, which (on this showing) seem insufficient to be given space at a professional level.’
No one begrudges amateurs, hobbyists and children a chance to display art. The problem comes with a deliberate refusal to apply critical discrimination in the outlets that assess serious fine art.
It seems a form of cruel moral vanity to allow an artist as feeble as Patel to believe she has any claim to be considered a professional artist. I am reminded of those social experiments conducted by scientists and political cranks, where children are raised without boundaries.
The idealists work according to suppositions about the nature of humanity that run counter to all common sense and recorded history and – inevitably – produce children who are damaged, weak and confused.
In a Post-Modernist world where all truth is relative, educators with the best of intentions mistreat their wards by cultivating the ultimate strain of humankind: Unrestricted, gentle, incurious, non-gendered, post-religious, vegetarian beings fulfilling their natural capacity, unhindered by repressive tradition. (These docile souls seem to match the enfeebled, timid Eloi of H G Wells’s The Time Machine.)
The result is a generation of young people, including artists such as Patel, who are patently unsuited to their chosen profession. They are strange unhappy souls, made in forms that are so maladapted they are not so much likely to fail, as designed to fail.
Told ‘You can do anything’ and ‘No one has the right to criticise you’, when their art fails to excite or engage the general public, these artists must recognise that (despite the politically-motivated plaudits, prizes and exhibitions based on tick-box diversity traits) they are dupes and tokens.
They have been bought and traded by the managerial elite which dominates the arts; it is a caste that doles out patronage to minority groups in order to maintain its own control of resources and remain the moral arbiter of society.
Patel should not be blamed for exploring and exploiting the banalities of her existence (race, sex, religious inheritance, cultural confusion) to gain a foothold in the competitive art world. She has been encouraged to commodify her immutable demographic characteristics by tutors and peers.
Public-venue administrators now select on such bases, so she is fulfilling the role she has been assigned as an ‘Anglo-Indian woman artist’. Yet she’s in competition with dozens of others, with more graduating every year.
Maybe she’ll appear on a BBC Radio 4 comedy series and a Sky Arts documentary and become a serial artist-in-residence, hopping between schools and regional arts centres. Yearly, her obscurity will become invisibility.
Yet how much more meaning her life would have had had she taken up a productive and stable career as a teacher, doctor, pharmacist or such.
When we see people exploiting their identity, we should think about the society that permitted and encouraged individuals to take the path of least resistance. It is hard to look at people like Jane Patel and not wonder about how they have been betrayed and cheated.