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May 20 2012

Artists design Greece's new currency – in pictures

Economic ­instability in Greece could soon force the country out of the eurozone, which means it will need to print a new currency – four artists decide to help them out



May 08 2012

Scream if you want to bid higher: the high cost of art

At £74m, The Scream went to a buyer with very deep pockets. Such prices destroy rather than celebrate creativity

What is the man on the bridge screaming in Edvard Munch's most famous work? I will tell you. He is screaming: "I am too expensive! I belong in a public collection!"

As an artist, the price of art makes me want to scream. Munch's pastel drawing of The Scream, one of four versions, sold for $120m (£74m) last week in just 12 minutes. When the bidding reached $100m, the audience applauded. As he recorded the final offer, the auctioneer joked: "I love you." What is that love born of? It would be mean to say the love the auctioneer proclaimed was simply born of greed. After all, perhaps you really have to love art, love The Scream, and love its buyers, to value it at £74m. But trophy prices that only the super-rich can afford are damaging. Few public collections could even begin to raise £74m for a single acquisition.

This version of The Scream is the only one to include a poem by Munch on the frame, which describes the inspiration behind the series. It reads: "I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."

A piece of this magnitude belongs where everyone can see it. The enjoyment, understanding and popularity of such iconic works is humanity's inheritance. Human beings can fall in love across generations; people from all over the world can come to understand each other through their cultures; and we can all celebrate together by listening to great music – but not if the great artefacts of our age are squirrelled away in a rich person's downstairs loo.

Even if a public collection could afford to plough huge amounts of its energy, effort and cash into making such a purchase, it would not be right: there is so much else you could do with that kind of money. Think how many great works by younger artists you could buy with just £500,000. Think what a difference a sum like that could make to gallery education departments (schemes aiming to widen access to the visual arts). From time to time, galleries do attempt to rescue an important work "for the nation"; but, despite some high-profile successes, such as the purchase last year of Bruegel the Younger's Procession to Calvary, the capacity to do this is more limited than is widely perceived. Crazy auction prices do nothing to help us hang on to our art.

There is another pernicious result of the art market's buoyancy. In this recession, art is still seen as a good investment: everything else may be in flux, but Picasso will always be Picasso. This inflates the value of public collections, meaning galleries come to be seen as places housing treasures with a high monetary value – not as buildings filled with ideas, aspirations and possibilities. National collections, with their armies of trustees, are protected from local councillors eager to sell off a Lowry to manage a deficit – but smaller ones aren't. Last year, a painting by John Everett Millais was sold by Bolton council for £74,400 to fund a new museum warehouse. Such de-acquisition should go from being a taboo to being illegal.

What's the solution? That's trickier. We can appeal to rich people's sense of public spirit, in the hope that they will donate, or at least long-lend, work to museums. But the problem is that public officials in museums are not there to chase and flatter wealthy collectors but to display the important art of the past, to reveal unseen histories, to reflect what is going on today while pointing to tomorrow.

Contemporary artists are split into two camps: those who are quite happy to create objects that work well as investment vehicles; and those (mainly younger) artists who couldn't care less. Neither group has a claim on making better art. You can make valuable, interesting, important art out of gold as well as sausages. I am keen on contemporary artists making a living, but we all need to beware the dangers of the inflated art market.

If contemporary art remains too expensive, it will not be bought by public museums. The collections of the future won't have good work that reflects, challenges or explains what is going on now. In the end, the best currency an artist can receive is footfall and discussion. There is no point in showing your work only to the "right people". Art shouldn't just be available to all, it should also be available in multiple ways – and we should encourage all people to make it.

Hey artists! Don't turn ideas into cash. Make art cheap. Give your art to public collections and don't demand a tax break. Make art that has no investment potential. Don't get caught up with making money. Get caught up with making things better.


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March 12 2012

Artists come together in a Crisis

The Crisis Commission at London's Somerset House will feature new works by artists including Gillian Wearing, Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin

A small and poignant bronze sculpture of a young man called Craig – who became homeless after serving in Afghanistan – will greet visitors to a new exhibition to raise awareness and money for the charity Crisis.

The work by Gillian Wearing goes on display at Somerset House in London on 14 March along with new pieces by artists including Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro and Jonathan Yeo. All the works will be sold on 3 May, with the money going to the charity for single homeless people, Crisis.

Wearing said she was inspired by the real story of Craig O'Keefe who became homeless after returning from duty in Afghanistan. Eventually, with the help of Veteran's Aid, he managed to get work and a flat and is now a volunteer tutor for Crisis.

"Crisis were great because they really wanted artists to get involved directly with their charity," said Wearing. She was part of a workshop meeting people who work for and used its services. "It wasn't a passive involvement which I really thought was important."

Emin offered four works: two self-portraits and two neon signs saying Trust Me and Trust Yourself. She said they were words we often say to others and to ourselves. "Sometimes such statements need to be reaffirmed. The use of neon makes it all the more positive."

The two self-portraits, Deep Blue III and Deep Blue V, are part of a series Emin created for her forthcoming show at Turner Contemporary in Margate, in which she explores the idea "of the body becoming older, self-loathing and the notion of self-preservation".

Emin said she did not do anything different because the show was for Crisis. "I'm quite impressed at what a big show it is and how serious it is and not just a charity event."

Gormley has made a cast iron sculpture of a person we assume to be homeless. "The most challenging social sculpture of our times is made by the quiet performances of the homeless within the shelter provided by the doorways of the shops of our inner cities."

He said he was trying to evoke a fallen body which is, nevertheless, not at rest. "This exhibition allows one to think about those bodies that have no place. I believe that sculpture can powerfully evoke the nameless, the voiceless and the placeless."

The Crisis Commission show raises money and awareness at a crucial time, says the charity. After years of declining trends, 2010 represented a turning point when all forms of homelessness began to rise. In 2010/11, 3,975 people slept rough in London, an 8% rise on the previous year.

The show runs until 22 April and will also feature work by homeless and vulnerable people who have been helped by Crisis.

The charity's chief executive Leslie Morphy said: "We are thrilled that so many leading contemporary artists are participating in the Crisis Commission. This prestigious event will raise much needed funds for our work and bring a new focus to the worrying current rise in homelessness in society."

Other works in the show include Yinka Shonibare's Homeless Man, 2012, which shows a vibrantly dressed Victorian man weighed down by 11 suitcases. The artist said: "The idea of the work is to suggest that any privileged person can become vulnerable at any time due to circumstances outside of their own personal control, such as illness, death of a relative, war or unfortunate economic circumstances."

The artist Bob and Roberta Smith (also known as Patrick Brill) has made a piece called Kite because of its association with isolation and the elements. "My kite has 'help' written on it. It is a cry for help by the person flying it."

Brill said he was aware of homelessness rising and taught in an art school where some of his students are homeless. "Homelessness is about isolation. Homes are not just roofs and walls – they are networks – about nurture and care."

The show has been curated by Laurence Sillars, chief curator at the Baltic in Gateshead and the cost of creating the works has been met by GlaxoSmithKline. All of them will be auctioned at Christie's on 3 May.


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November 04 2011

June 11 2011

Government Art Collection: At Work – review

Whitechapel Gallery, London

Does art have its uses, other than to civilise, enlighten, stimulate, console? Purists would say certainly not. Art has no function whatsoever. But anyone visiting the Whitechapel Gallery, where the notoriously closeted Government Art Collection is being shown in public for the first time in its 113- year history, will discover that this is not the case. Art can be a cunning form of diplomacy.

Take one of Bob and Roberta Smith's fairground-like signs, brightly painted in chip shop colours and currently hanging in the first tranche of the collection at the Whitechapel (there are several more selections to come). 'Peas are the New Beans,' it says, advancing a silly paradox about legumes, but punning on the bean-counting profession as well, at least if you have a mind to spot this.

And plenty have, it appears. When Paul Boateng became chief secretary to the Treasury he hung the painting outside his office, to laugh the waiting accountants and civil servants out of heaven knows what negativity. Apparently it worked every time; full pictorial efficiency.

Sir John Sawers, currently head of MI6, previously at the UN, used to invite hostile nations into his office to dwell upon the beautiful cobalt ground of Claude Heath's Ben Nevis on Blue – all dots and doodles (Heath draws with his eyes closed) and just shy of figuration. Which was extremely helpful during some particularly heated negotiations on Iran, where the painting was used as a kind of soothing time-out for eyes and mind. "Agreement," according to Sawers, "was reached an hour later."

And so it continues: an Anish Kapoor for the high commission in New Delhi to demonstrate how far Britain and India have come together (world-class artist born in Mumbai, resident in London: perfect symbol); Thomas Phillips's magnificent portrait of Byron posted to the British embassy in Athens, where he remains a hero for taking part in the Greek war of independence; the latest Britart sent to impress smart Parisians, if not to shame their euro-pudding artists. These are works to impress, co-opt and persuade.

So the subtitle of this particular selection, At Work, may be coarse but perfectly apt. It really is as if the artworks are part of the staff, sent out to work as ambassadors for British culture with extra responsibilities during a crisis. And viewed this way – the works at the Whitechapel are put in political context – it no longer seems quite such an affront to the public to be coughing up for a collection it never actually sees.

A good deal has been written about the invisibility of the GAC. I wrote some of it myself, around the time of Blair's triumphant entry into Downing Street when there was so much press coverage of New Labour receptions, who was in, who was out, and we sought the secrets of the art equivalent: what was displayed (Cool Britannia), and what removed (Old England), from the walls of No 10. For the GAC supplies not just embassies and consulates across five continents but scores of ministerial offices in London as well. Of its 13,500 works, more than two-thirds are displayed at any given time. It is the largest, most widely dispersed collection of British art in the world, and it keeps on moving as governments change and new ministers make their selections.

Hansard is full of questions about how much it drains the public purse, how much of it is mouldering away, how much has been clandestinely sold (none at all). Behind these questions is the lingering grudge that, unless we happen to be ministers, their cronies, or belligerent kids from Jamie's Dream School granted an audience with the PM, then we will never clap eyes on the mandatory Lowry or the dingy oval view of the Thames by the deservedly neglected William Marlow selected by the Camerons.

What's ingenious about At Work is that it replicates these selections so that you see the art but also the implicit self-portrait. So Boateng chooses Osmund Caine's striking group of second world war soldiers from 1940, the whites playing cards in uniform, the blacks separate and naked. Nick Clegg goes for an outsize thermos flask standing alone at a gloomy picnic, surely a post-referendum choice. Ed Vaizey, current culture minister, and Save 6 Music campaigner, continues to show his contemporary credentials by pushing Tory Tracey Emin.

Most piquant of all, Peter Mandelson has chosen a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth I that resembles Margaret Beckett. It's an awful painting, flesh like Bakelite; but along with a photograph of Lucian Freud painting Elizabeth II, a statue of the artist-diplomat Peter Paul Rubens and one of Cecil Stephenson's designs for the Festival of Britain, we have two queens, a super-urbane diplomat and a memento of Herbert Morrison, Mandelson's grandfather (and chief sponsor of the festival), which allows for some self-serving allusions to his own grand projet, the Dome, in the exhibition leaflet.

The choices of Sawers and Dame Anna Pringle, our woman in Moscow, are much stronger as art: Walter Sickert, Heath, some bittersweet space-race Pop by Derek Boshier and Bridget Riley's beautiful Reflection, bought for the British embassy in Cairo partly because her sheaf of stripes was inspired by the colours of tomb walls in Upper Egypt, but also because the abstraction dovetailed felicitously with Muslim culture.

All these works were purchased on a shoestring budget, just to add to the complex GAC criteria: works must be cheaply acquired, they must act as an extension of the diplomatic service and fit with all sorts of unusual environments. The result is a most quirky collection that has no major Bacon, Hockney, Sutherland or Freud, no Turner, no Constable landscapes, few museum stereotypes. But which is rich instead in great works by Sickert, Joan Eardley and Paul Nash.

That eccentricity went out with New Labour and the hyping of Britart, which is extensively represented in the GAC. This is not reflected in At Work, though one sees how successfully the Emins and Michael Landys have crossed the floor, because so much of the recent art is commissioned to be site-specific.

What you do see at the Whitechapel is just how fine a face the collection gives to Britain at home and abroad, from Edward Burra's satirical drawings to Bridget Riley. Of course, there is no need to put good art on the walls of our government buildings. But what this first show reveals is just how civilised it looks as our national image instead of a flag or a framed photo of the latest dictator.

'At Work' is at the Whitechapel until 4 September, with further GAC selections then running until September 2012, then at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery followed by Ulster Museum in late 2012-13


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June 03 2011

Political figures pick their top artworks

From Samantha Cameron to Lord Mandelson, political figures have chosen their favourite works from the Government Art Collection for a new exhibition. What do their choices reveal?



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