London: a city of baristas and billionaires?

We’re still working out what we learned from running Studio 75, but it’s become clear that it’s very difficult to run any kind of independent gallery or exhibition space. That spaces that do exist are largely able to do so because they have some form of funding, or more commonly, investment, and they don’t actually run on the proceeds of their activities. Because of this, it’s very rare for these places to exist for long periods of time, and sometimes it means that projects don’t get completed, or a space just starts to begin to build a following when it’s forced to shut its doors. It’s probably always been like this, but in the past two years the insane pressure on properties in London have made it more and more difficult to support creativity. Of course, people with wealthy connections can easily afford to buy or rent properties to create vanity galleries, and the city is full of such places. But these places exist purely as entertainment spaces for rich cliques, and have nothing to do with the rest of us. Even if we wanted to visit them, we would find the art that is presented there to be, to a large extent, turgid and dreadful.

People keep asking us are going to open another space, but the short answer appears to be no. We were incredibly lucky to get the space when we did, and we don’t expect to get such luck again soon. In any case, there is not much point to try to repeat what we already did successfully, just for the sake of it; and at this stage that doesn’t seem to anything that we really want to learn from opening another space. (But never say never.)

I suppose the thing we’re digesting and being fascinated about the most is the way in which the money economy, or what philosopher Thomas Carlyle called “the cash nexus”, permeates even the most basic human aspects of what purports to be the art world. Carlyle decried what he considered the substitution of human relationships for cash relationships; he was disgusted by the idea that people saw one another and treated one another in terms of their financial relationships, the “cash nexus” when social relationships are merely reduced to economic gain. Carlyle was anything but a socialist; he distrusted socialism and championed tradition. But Carlyle’s version of tradition was quite an idealistic one, and he believed that the wealthy and responsibility for ensuring that the lives of the rest of the population were good. He believed that those who had money and position should use it for the general betterment of society. He was opposed to poverty, to exploitation and above all, to greed. Carlyle is important because he actually points to the fact that it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the presence of wealth in the society should lead to impoverishment of exploitation and acceptance or admiration for greed.

Which brings us back to the idea of London the center of international finance and wealth, a city that contains within it terrible exploitation, much hidden poverty mainly in the form of underemployment and appallingly poor housing. In these circumstances is quite difficult to complain about there not being enough space or opportunities for artists, although of course that is a genuine complaint. But just as we worry about London becoming a no-go area for ordinary working people to to live in, we also worry about London becoming a no go area for ordinary working artists – that is, ones without the luxury of a private family income supporting us for all our days. Artists who need to sell work, but also pay rent; artist and who need to have day jobs in schools and colleges, community centers, retail shops, museums, and so on – traditional employers for artists. But these jobs increasingly cannot provide Londoners with housing and transport.

And it is not just artists; just recently Cory Doctorow wrote an impassioned article in the Guardian, where he pointed out how the so-called “tech city” area around Old Street is quickly disappearing as a breeding ground for important digital startups. The inexpensive office spaces are rapidly being demolished or gentrified, principally being turned into barracks of housing for wealthy overseas students. In a flash, jobs in the information industries disappear, quite possibly abroad and opportunities to train and nurture local underprivileged youth in new technologies, disappears. At best, we end up being a city of baristas and billionaires, with nothing in between.

Where will it all end? We don’t know. It will be really a pity of London goes the way of Paris. Paris is a beautiful city, don’t get me wrong. But walking around Paris, one can’t help but feel that large parts of it are simply playgrounds for the well-to-do, and stalking-grounds for the desperately impoverished underclass who huddle as beggars – and possibly worse.

 

I don’t really know what else to say; this is turned into a bit of a rant and that’s really not what I intended when I started. I’d like to just finish by offering a quote from the work of the artist Dave Beech:

 

“Political art must transform the social relations of art itself, to get rid of it to historical elitism, it’s privileges, its hierarchies and its cultural capital. Political art cannot be political if it leaves arts values, categories and institutions in place.”

 

But I would go further. I would say, that in order to be art, all art is inherently political.

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