Seth Siegelaub and Pavel Büüchler
■ In conversation Seth Siegelaub: Once upon a time, the art world was a pimple on the arse of capitalism; today it has become part of that system, it has absorbed its values, its excesses, the type of staging and presentation of art. With this change the lifestyle of the artist, too, has changed. Fundamentally, in my opinion, art has simply become another profession. This does not mean that you can earn a living all the time, but it has become possible. When I was active in the late 1960s in New York no artist thought of himself or herself as working in a profession. It was closer to a ‘calling’, something that they had a profound desire to do. This extended well beyond the so-called radical artists to anybody, anybody painting anything – even a picture of the Queen – was considered a bohemian, some kind of strange person. The image of the artist has evolved dramatically.
Pavel Büüchler: But isn’t this part of the professionalisation of everything? In fact you can look at it the other way and say that the art world is the last remaining unregulated sector of capitalist enterprise. It is really the most ruthless business, there is no OffArt where you complain when you buy a rogue work of art, when you were misled by the title. Nobody defends the customer’s rights. Nobody regulates the prices. You could say that it is the least professionalised zone of activity. Unlike many other fields of human endeavour where we can talk about professionalisation – whether it be law, medicine, science or education, which are thoroughly professional – there still is a sense as an artist that you are doing something that nobody asked you to do. At the very least you still don’t need a licence as an artist. But there is that kind of convention, the convention of artistic licence where you are expected to perform in a certain way – as though you are not a professional. Artistic licence is a metaphor and it is founded on the idea that the freedom of the artist stands for and tests the freedom of the wider society.
SS: I don’t think that you can quite say that any more because I don’t recognise that freedom. For example, education: most artists are now coming from educational environments, whereas in my generation they were species of dropout or hippy. They wanted to make art because they wanted to do it and maybe the family had money, maybe your wife (or very rarely, your husband) worked to support you. But now it has become different. There are so many art schools now which legitimatise, authorise and support the production of a certain type of artist, and, even if they aren’t handing out MBAs in fine art, it’s the connections and friendships one makes which count. Things are not the same. When we were growing up the principal cultural model was rock music. Rock music was well on the way to becoming a very successful industry and the successful artists were being treated in that way as so-called
stars. More recently art has been snuggling up to both design and fashion: annual, semi-annual shows, monthly shows, fall season, spring season, and so on. You are absolutely correct that the art world has been a little bit slow to take on fully capitalist values, but I am sure it is doing its very best to catch up . . .
PB: ... No, I think the capitalist values are there, for better or worse – I would say for worse – but it’s not just professionalisation. It is something to do with the administered character of economic, political and social culture which is becoming more tightly controlled day by day. You talked about rock music in the 60s, and that is really interesting because it could never be the model now. The art world has been academicised, through critical discourse. The relationship between the educational system, the industry and the art market is partly founded on such concepts as research. All of that moves it far away from the idea of rock music.
SS: While it’s true that in a legal and administrative sense the art world is still unregulated, there are a number of unwritten rules. There are certain things that you need do to be successful. Young artists today have strategies for inserting themselves into the art world history, following a certain historical lineage. I have the impression that to be an artist today is a much more conscious activity.
PB: The problem maybe is not that artists have strategies to try and succeed. The difference is in the tactics not in the strategy. For instance, the idea that the artist has some kind of responsibility to the work after it has left the studio – that is a strategic position. The question is how you go about it. Art of course is all about tactics. Art is a tactical preoccupation. You are right there is a shift – I see a lot of people, a lot of young artists trying to make it in the art world – the shift is to things like how you write your CV, how you get sponsorship, how you place yourself, how you get this residency or that research funding. The tactical tools, or the instruments that are tactically used to pursue those strategies, might have shifted. I think the artists of your generation were just as strategic, it is only that the tactics were different.
SS: I don’t think so – and I’m not saying that there weren’t Machiavellian intentions in some of them in some ways, but it was a less conscious part of what we were doing. We were still living a pivotal period which was like a hinge between the end of the old 19th-century idea of art making – contesting and reacting against the values of the previous generation – and something else unknown, still coming in the future. Art has become much more cerebral. Artists seem to know today that they have a shorter and shorter use-by date in which they have to get it right very quickly, to claim their aesthetic ground and to get it out to a public. This type of pressure was something we hardly had. Our generation still thought they could do something now, and later something else, and 10 or 15 years later, they could evolve – for better or worse – like Frank Stella or Picasso. I don’t think the art world affords the possibility for artists to
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