In recent years there has been a decline in the numbers of artists wearing strongly held political views on their sleeves. At the same time there has been an increase in the amount of ‘collaborative’ protests from gallery visitors – protest about, not with, art. What happens when the audience wants in on the picture, asks Harry Pye
William Blake believed that it is, “better to murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire”. Artists used to be famous for acting on impulse and expressing their innermost feelings, regardless of the consequences. In 1937 Pablo Picasso protested about Spain’s innocent victims of the civil war with his painting Guernica. In the ’60s, Richard Hamilton famously vented his anger at the way a too-powerful state was trying to crush young individuals. His painting Swingeing London, based on a newspaper photo of Mick Jagger and Bob Fraser handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car, became an icon. Likewise, in 1977, Sex Pistols’ collaborator Jamie Reid became known as the man who put a safety pin through the Queen’s nose. But who is protesting now?
At my art school I remember there was a framed Tom Phillips print on the wall of one of the studios. The print featured a quote by Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Artists I know are often very hard on themselves for not being able to make their work as good as the idea they had in their head. Often they can only see the failings and are not remotely interested when other people see worth in what they’ve made. In order to be any good at all an artist has to remain their own harshest critic when everyone is saying they are marvellous. They can enjoy the praise but they’re not supposed to believe it and let it go to their heads.
But what about the negative comments, abuse and personal attacks that artists sometimes attract? Do artists have to accept these as part of the job? I’ve overheard artist friends get unwanted feedback about their work in pubs after private views. On one occasion an annoying drunk told my friend, “I think your work is complete shit.” My artist friend replied: “Thank you for being so honest with me. Who knows, maybe you’ll like my next show better?” Finding a positive in the most negative of comments is probably something we learn at art school.
Some artists have learnt to be better at taking it on the chin than others. Tracey Emin was recently asked to respond to Gilbert and George calling her ‘Super Slag’. “Oh well,” replied Emin, “at least they used the word ‘super'”. In her film, Why I Never Became a Dancer, Tracey said ‘slag’ was one of the words ex-boyfriends chanted at her at a dance competition. The first time is saw this film was at Tate Britain. It was part of her Turner Prize show. I have the rather feeble claim to fame of being there when two “artists” protested about another of her Turner Prize entries and jumped on her famous unmade bed. From their point of view it was all good fun and they met have felt they were ‘collaborating’ with Tracey. I never really saw it that way and would have liked to have seen them both prosecuted. Watching the pair jump around and threaten the staff with Kung Fu kicks was not fun. They had a chubby-faced friend with them who grinned as he filmed selected highlights of the hijack with his video camera, but no one else there was enjoying it al. I remember broken glass flying about and a child crying. It was a very grim affair which made a lot of people very angry. Yet somehow the two nitwits were awarded not only 15 minutes of fame but also a load of Arts Council cash to make a book about their ‘hilarious’ exploits.
On more than one occasion white paint has been thrown over both the grave and a memorial plaque dedicated to the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, and a hundred-thousand pounds worth of damage has been cause to the windows Chris Ofili designed for The Stephen Lawrence Architectural Centre. Ken Livingstone described these events as “outrageous acts of racism.” I agree with him and feel appalled that I live in a country where, of all the terrible things happening in the world, the one thing that makes someone want to protest is the opening of a place for community learning and social research – one that will “inspire and motivate young people to pursue successful careers.”
Other protests are, although equally mindless, harder to get worked up about. In 1994 a 34 year-old artist from Oxford called Mark Bridger made a few headlines after pouring black ink into a Damien Hirst sheep sculpture on show at The Serpentine. Bridger claimed in court that he thought he and Hirst were kindred spirits and that by introducing ink to Away From The Flock and changing its title to Black Sheep, he would impress Hirst. Although found guilty of causing criminal damage, Mr. Bridger had no money and was given a two-year conditional discharge. Possibly Hirst wasn’t too bothered as the event gave his show even more publicity and it was relatively easy to clean up his sheep.
Hirst’s 1992 mixed media work Pharmacy raised questions about what we choose to believe. Hirst filled his cabinets with the type of pharmaceutical drugs that we just accept will make us better and take without asking any questions. The artist finds it amusing that we all have “blind faith” or a misplaced confidence in medicine. I’m sure Hirst also believes that it’s a healthy thing for us to question and to express doubts we have about modern and contemporary art. We shouldn’t always just accept what we’re prescribed by gallery curators. It’s good to speak out and fight back, but the person who is ridiculed or attacked should not be the artist. It’s very hard for a protester to go after another creative person and not be seen as a parasite with nothing to say apart from, “It’s not fair that you’re famous and I’m not.”
In 1997 an egg was thrown at a painting of Myra Hindley when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Artist Marcus Harvey had collaged child sized hand prints to recreate a gigantic image of ‘Moors murderer’ Hindley’s iconic mug shot. It is unclear if the actions of the furious protestor were aimed at Harvey for being insensitive and exploitative or at Hindley for never showing any remorse over abducting, sexually abusing and murdering five innocent children. Throwing an egg at an image of Hindley somehow seems too small a protest. It’s a punishment more fitting for a bad comedian. It may have sent Myra the message that feelings still run deep but one assumes that she knew already.
Do any of these protests actually achieve anything positive for the perpetrators or for other people? Perhaps. In 1996 the nominees for The Turner Prize were Douglas Gordon, Craigie Horsfield, Gary Hume and Simon Patterson. The fact that once again no women were included on the list was a cause of irritation and annoyance for many. Several female artists decided the thing to do would be to make a protest during the show. Having covered their faces with veils they paid to get in and simply stood in complete silence. The point they were making was very simple. They wanted to know why Tate Britain was ignoring female artists and this was an elegant, eloquent way of highlighting the issue. A year after the protest the four Turner Prize nominees were all female. It could be a coincidence but I like to think because these women weren’t interested in making a name for themselves or destroying or damaging anyone else’s work, their protest went deeper and was taken seriously.