emperor’s new clothes

I’m the first to hold my hands up and say I don’t know a great deal about modern art. Occasionally I see something that thrills me, or makes me chuckle, or surprises me. Some of it leaves me cold. Much of the time it irritates me in that I-don’t-get-it kind of way, where it looks for all the world as though someone threw their work together in five minutes when they were mortally hungover and their editorial process was still throwing up in the loo. Despite this, the artist always finds the wherewithal to create the all-important accompanying text to explain how their piece subverts this, offers a critique of that, deconstructs the other blah blah blah… All said with the glib sincerity of a snake-oil salesman. But I concede that more than a little of my irritation boils down to the simple fact that I don’t get it. And the truth is that however much someone who’s more sympathetic to the genre tries to explain it to me, it’ll never speak to me anywhere near as much as sunlight glittering on water, or music which makes me want to dance, or – when I was younger – get in the moshpit. And that’s fine. There’s room in this world for us all.
But it’s never made me angry. Until today. Though, like I say, maybe it’s my problem for not getting it.
The piece I’m talking about is a video. 160cm Line by Santiago Sierra. If you want to copy this work at home, this is all you need to do. Take four women – preferably addicted to heroin, preferably selling their body to feed their habit – pay them each the price of a hit, and then tattoo a horizontal line – presumably 40cm long – on each of their backs, between their shoulder-blades. Oh, and record the whole thing on video, of course. Justify it by saying it’s impossible to change the world, that back on the street the women would have to give three blow-jobs to earn what you’ve just paid them, that thousands of others would have formed a queue, had the tattoo and taken the money, if you’d only let them.
The cynicism and the failure of imagination are breathtaking.
We learn nothing new from this video. We already know that people who are poor and desperate and addicted will do pretty much anything for cash, and that there will always be others with money and power who will take advantage. Exploitation isn’t art just because you film it being done. Exploitation isn’t art just because you shrug your shoulders and say there’s nothing we can do (while pocketing the money you make on the back of it, natch). Exploitation isn’t art, Santiago. It’s simply exploitation.
The 160cm Line would never have been etched into the backs of Santiago’s friends. Or on himself. You’re never going to see a video where the wealthy and powerful in our society line up to take part. But making a video of four nameless women, that’s ok. Santiago tying his work to the tawdry glamour of sex and drugs and degradation, that’s ok. Making money on the backs of the powerless? Absolutely ok.
Like I say, maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to get it. But I watch someone making a mint – and a career – out of exploiting the weak and the vulnerable while denying he owes them anything other than the price of a hit, at the same time that organisations which work with them to repair the damage and try and turn their lives around get their budgets slashed, and – let’s just say the point escapes me.
It’s hard to see this work as being anything more than a callous, self-serving piece which trumpets a lack of humanity. Where a rich man does it to powerless women, just because he can. The wonder is he seems to have convinced the art world he’s saying something more.
a couple of footnotes:
1. I may be coming to this debate a little late, because the piece of work I’m talking about was created fourteen years ago. So it’s entirely possible the furore is done, dusted, and put to bed, and I’m way behind the times. In which case, indulge me.
2. I normally disable the ‘comments’ facility on my blog, as I was getting bombarded by spambots, but I’m leaving it open for now because I’d like to hear what other people think. All comments will have to be approved (anti-spambot tactics) but they will appear.