That the art world is less interested in art than it is in its own well-being, and that it’s little more than a profiling platform for insiders is nothing new. At least that's what I thought. Imagine my surprise then when I read a recent article in Monopol Magazin about the Venice Biennale which proclaimed “The Death of Art in Venice”. All this could raise in me was a weary smile. But it did lead me on to ask where nowadays can we actually find spaces which allow art to live and breathe.

The article in Monopol Magazin was based on the rather dispiriting experiences made by its author Oliver Koerner von Gustorf at this year’s biennale. But it could easily have been talking about the whole of the present-day’s commercialised art scene.  

Decadent and self-centred

He details and criticises the whole system, from the works on exhibit to the art-makers, managers and potential buyers. Vapid works of art that say nothing but pretend to be meaningful to justify the astronomical prices at which they change hands.  Works that even if not for sale are at least eye-catchingly sensational and thus serve as extremely effective PR for the artists and their gallery agents. And form a perfect match to the codes, conduct and attitudes of the players of the established art world.  

They meet up at all these more or less important events and swell with self-importance at each visiting card they hand out. The biennale as a mere stage for pseudo-intellectual self-presentation. The art scene as a closed society. An exclusive celebration of decadence.  

There’s a lot of truth in this but really little that’s new. It’s a trend that has been in full swing for the past thirty years now, one that’s clearly recognisable by every unblinking critical eye that’s impervious to its poisoned blandishments. And it was precisely his acute awareness of such mechanisms that made OUBEY turn his back on the system after his first and highly successful sales exhibition in 1992. It was a very wise move. 

An air of exclusivity 

The whole system in its present form is only of interest to insiders – in other words the few who live within it and profit from it. I can only agree with the author of the article when he writes, “In the established art world the same rules apply to people that apply to the commodity of art. In one way or another they have to have an air of exclusivity, otherwise the system won’t work.” 

And I also agree with Elke Buhr, editor-in-chief of Monopol Magazin when she says, “Modern art is nothing less than what the art system presents as art. Works that have no label, that aren’t on display in some gallery or other, that aren’t part of an exhibition, that don’t bear the signature of some famous artist, are not considered as art.”

It’s interesting – and also rather paradoxal – that a magazine such as Monopol also forms part of the very system it so vehemently criticises. The question begging to be asked here is, does such insight also lead to self-awareness? And if it does, what consequences should be drawn? Or is such a blast of unanimous criticism an end in itself so that after everyone’s shaken their heads in doleful agreement at just how awful the art world really is, they all return to business as usual? 

Banksy undercover

I rather suspect that that’s exactly what they do.  

The art scene operates for financial benefit. Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this. Yet one of the side effects is that it is the instance that decides what is true significant art and what is not. Works that can’t be sold for astronomical prices are uninteresting and fade into insignificance.  

Such a system would have to self-destruct before it could recognise that living art has long been thriving outside of the “sacred halls” of the established art world. Sometimes it even crops up directly next door to them – as was the case at this year’s biennale.  

Banksy, the greatest street artist of our times, took the biennale as an opportunity for his latest action. He set up his own stall with pictures on the side of one of the canals and not one of the art experts realised that Banksy was there. This says more than a thousand words and shows just how startlingly blind they are to living art that takes place outside of the closed world of the art business. How dearly they would all love to assimilate this intractable artist and make him a player in their own game – the man whose works are auctioned for fantastic prices. Yet Banksy does his utmost to ensure that they never will. He won’t let them put a price tag on his success. Shunning the system, yet at the same time brilliantly exploiting its treacherous mechanisms, he’s forged his own way to celebrity. 

There are many people who make or have made art just as fascinating as Banksy’s. Yet none of them are as world-famous as he is. But that’s not the point. The point is to bring art into people’s lives in the places where they actually live, to inspire them, to make them think or to move them to action, or simply to give them great pleasure. It’s this unfiltered joy in art that is so special and we must never allow anything to get in the way of it – certainly not a biennale in Venice. That’s what I think. What about you?