The Art of Fitting In

I recently found myself in the alleyway at the Royal Academy of Arts; it runs parallel to Burlington Arcade and is traditionally used for deliveries to that part of the building known as the West Yard.  I was there to hand in a painting of mine for this year’s Summer Exhibition; it had been pre selected following a jpeg submission. An enthusiastic young man approached me, he was an interviewer for the film crew which makes the television programme (part documentary part advertising) about the show which for a number of years has been aired by the BBC around the time of the exhibition’s opening.

He thought that my painting was good for television and was probably wondering if I also was. The programme follows the progress of a small number of hopefuls up until that make or break moment which used to be by letter but is now via email. The enthusiastic chappie asked me in disconcertingly bouncy tones ‘Don’t you just love the RA?’ I politely informed him that I worked for the RA (which I do on a freelance basis). He briefly considered my response and then repeated his question. I signed a consent form and then we briefly chatted about the painting with me balancing it on my feet so that it was clear of the rough stones which filled the alleyway. He asked me if being in the show would change my life, I knew that it would not as I’d exhibited in 2014. A week of waiting for the BBC to call was followed by another week or so until the day of e-reckoning. For the second year running my painting had been accepted but not hung and was therefore omitted from the exhibition. It might be hard to imagine how a painting of Colonel Gaddafi would fit into a generally pleasant group exhibition but the notion of how one balances individual artistic pursuit with gaining wider acceptance is a perpetual dilemma for any artist exploring any subject.  To what extent should the artist fit into anything? There are practises, conventions, theories, fashions, market places but intrinsically there is the individual. Curators, the media included, do have the need to pull strands together and find commonality within which we might discover difference but the downside of this is that artworks can become treated as mere clay or tiles to be moulded or tessellated by these greater forces into something of true artistic value (or not).

With a somewhat different outcome I entered two works into the Lubomirov / Angus-Hughes Summer Salon. Again, like the RA this is an exhibition of open entry but distinctively the nominal fee is paid back should a work not be selected. As I handed the works over the receptionist expressed distaste at the subject matter – this time Nick Griffin and Boris Johnson. I was pleased that the works had provoked an instinctive response. All kinds of artists had dropped off their works of varying content and interest relaxed in the knowledge that in all probability theirs would get on the wall in one of London’s most democratic of opens. At the private view artists drank, chatted and mingled finding their works on walls arranged by genre. Unlike the RA’s grand opening gala it was not skewed towards the world of entertainment as culture, fashion as religion as the BBC film would so generously portray. It was simply a bunch of artists coming together more in the spirit of the RA’s Varnishing Day (which becomes less and less deserving of television’s glamorising wand). I have no idea whatsoever as to what impact this exhibition has or how seriously it is taken beyond the realms of the East London art scene but there is a distinct sense of belonging, a distinct sense of acceptance regardless of what is being made by any particular artist

At the time of writing I have just been a very small part of another cultural event; Hackney Wicked – a festival of art and entertainment with an alternatively vibrant street art edge. Clearly I am not young or vibrant, I also have a dislike of street art and the monetised bubbles of hipster activity that have flourished as the area is marketed as an alternative scene. I am constantly told that Hackney Wick has Europe’s largest concentration of artists and how it’s community should be saved from the developer. I personally view the area purely as a place of work – much like the Royal Academy in fact.  ‘Don’t you just love Hackney Wick? No. I work in Hackney Wick’. Even here – in a place where some people would have you believe in a creative utopia the individual is shoehorned into a notion of the collective and presented to the world beyond. I should however point out that some notable exceptions to this blanket coverage do exist – Film maker Souleyman Messalti has made a set of films (Portraits of Hackney Wick) that focus keenly upon the individual rather than promoting the area’s brand.

From the outside it is easy to imagine the artist as romantic hipster, corporate go getter or even as (relatively) ordinary person concerned primarily with individual freedom or individual expression.

How their efforts are perceived however is more often than not in the hands of someone with an agenda that might not fully fit with their own. All in all the artist is often just another (curated) brick in the wall.

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