Giles Fraser: Art should point further than cash

17 June 2009

The artist Peter Blake sat out in the sun at the Vauxhall Art Car Boot Fair last Sunday, and, having sold all his prints in the first half-hour, decided that he would sign anything anybody wanted for a fiver. Now, either he was just selling his signature — in itself a pretty arrogant thing to do — or he was, by signing random objects, declaring them to be works of art.

Yet the fact that he would sign absolutely anything was telling: here was the final admission, if any were needed, that art is no longer anything to do with discrimination, creation, or judgement. Art is all about celeb­rity, and the signature has become more than the work itself. Indeed, the work has now disappeared, and all that is left is the artist’s mark, like a grin on a vanishing Cheshire Cat.

Of course, Mr Blake could poten­tially argue that his act was itself a commentary — even satire — on the nature of celebrity itself. Do me a favour. Selling your scribble for a fiver a pop is hardly an assault on mass celebrity culture. Paris Hilton won’t be quaking in her Gucci loafers. No, on this lazy afternoon in the London sunshine there was an acknowledgement that Pop Art has eaten itself. For all the supposed cleverness and style, the truth and motivation behind this sort of work is as old as the hills: money.

In some ways, Pop Art was the first self-consciously secular art form. The targets and flags and cartoonish images that were its trademarks eschewed any reference to the transcendent. All meaning is imminent. There are to be no more attempts to mount raids on the un­speakable. There is to be no yearning, in Wallace Stevens’s fine words, to play a tune “beyond us, yet our­selves”.

Here is my problem with the secular: that, in refusing to allow any expression of our desire for the transcendent, in cramping the exercise of the human imagination, we are asked to inhabit a desolate world of social empiricism, a world where all value is increasingly collapsed into the verifiable measure of the pound or the dollar. And that, of course, was another of Pop Art’s representative images. Here, the dollar is Lord.

The problem is not that art has got itself involved with money. Art and currency have been bedfellows since the first caveman. Artists have to eat, too. No, what makes this a particularly cruel type of betrayal is that artists have gained their special status in society because of their ability to point us beyond the confines of our limited imaginations. To trade that great vocation for a fiver is a sorry end.

Canon Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

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