Roger Hiorns’s survey of the BSE crisis and its human variant CJD for ‘History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain’, Hayward Gallery, 2015, installation detail
Looking Back in Anger: Part Two In this second part of his retrospective analysis of art-world manoeuvres over the past decade, Morgan Quaintance focuses on the belated political turn in curating, the unequal relations produced by so-called philanthropy and the indecent scramble to co-opt marginalised voices without addressing the continu- ing structural inequalities across the sector. The art world’s shift from an aesthetic to an ethical regime (complete with its attendant attitudinal preten- tions, duplicities and performed progressivism) was seemingly catalysed and cemented by two events in 2016: the UK’s EU Referendum and the US election of Donald Trump as president. Ostensibly driven by a spirit of reactionary populism and nationalist fervour, both developments were a complete boon for art-world actors and institutions seeking to employ or operate as moral agents in the field without, however, having to commit to substantive agitation or structural attack in which they themselves would inevitably be implicated. Seen as uncomplicated symbols of abstractions like injustice and intolerance, Brexit and Trump stood as ideal issue-based platforms that would allow a risk-free and unspecific entry into the political arena. As such, they functioned as field levellers facilitating the mass Damascene conversion of the sector’s apolitical mid- to-top tier, a coterie which could now raise its fists in staged solidarity with the precarious, the downtrodden and the marginalised. For while Frieze founder Matthew Slotover, former Serpentine Gallery CEO Yana Peel and ‘feminist’ collector Valeria Napoleone were all unlikely to militate against, respectively, the use of offshore secrecy jurisdictions (‘Decolonising Colonialisim’ AM435), citizen suppression through cyber intelligence (Artnotes AM428) or the exploitative conditions domestic servitude places on immigrant workers (when I interviewed Napoleone at her home in 2015, the door was answered by a maid in pinafores), they could all stand arm-in-arm with activists, united in their collective beliefs that European unity is best and that Trump is a bigot.
Without discounting the importance of events in 2016, it is also evident that events in 2015 were major contributing factors in the UK art world’s almost overnight adoption of the ‘political turn’; 2015 marked the height of engagement at the so-called margins (individuals of all colours and subject positions who nevertheless stood outside, and in opposition to, largely discriminatory white, middle-class and heteronormative ideological frameworks largely supported by or working with small-scale, grassroots, independent and artist-led organisations and through informal peer networks) and the apex of sector obliviousness and denial at the centre (mid-to-large-scale institutions, biennales, magazines, broadsheets and agenda-setting broadcasters). The fulcrum around which matters turned was the campaign and re-election – now to a non-coalition majority – of the Conservative Party led by David Cameron. Seen in Westminster as a vindication of then-chancellor George Osbourne’s policy of austerity and the party’s broad neoliberal agenda (privatisation, deregulation, the sale of public assets and so on), the campaign trail and post-election rhetoric saw a change in the selected scapegoats blamed for national ills used, since 2008, to misdirect public ire from bankers, financial institutions and punitive governmental reforms. The weaponisation of class prejudice in the form of disdain for poor people and welfare claimants at the beginning of the decade – visible in regular tabloid vilifications and television programmes such as the BBC’s Saints and Scroungers, 2009–15, Channel 4’s Benefits Street, 2014, and Channel 5’s On Benefits and Proud, 2013, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, 2014, The Great British Benefits Hotel, 2015, and The Great British Benefits Handout, 2015 – gave way to the much more effective pairing of racial prejudice and xenophobia five years on. Home Secretary Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration, the ‘go home’ vans of operation Vaken, the Prevent strategy’s emphasis on citizen surveillance and the Conservative’s overall CONTEST counter-terrorism initiative were all articulations of governmental antipathy for the different (‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, then you’re a citizen of nowhere,’
Art Monthly no. 443, February 2021