Is art still elitist?

The internationally successful artist, credited with changing the face of commercial art publishing in the UK, Mackenzie Thorpe argues it’s not art that’s elitist – it’s the hangers-on

Modern contemporary art galleries seem to be popping up everywhere, in the most unlikely places – redundant seaside towns, depressed northern cities – so surely this is an indication that art has moved from the elitist to the populist? Doesn’t everyone now know their Hirsts from their Emins? Don’t these huge galleries provide an inclusive experience for us all?

Sadly, I have to confess, I think the answer to this is probably a no. But in order to do this question justice, art has to be separated from the art world – the curators, critics and gatekeepers, who surround the art and artists.

Firstly though, can an inanimate object, something not capable of independent life or thought or opinion, be elitist? No it can’t. It’s an impossibility.

Art per se is not elitist, that is a perception. Art can be challenging, stimulating, thought provoking, difficult to understand and lots more besides. It can be popular or unpopular, commercial or non-commercial, abstract or representational or conceptual; it could appeal to an elite group of people, but none of this makes the art itself elitist.

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No, what creates the perception that art is elitist is the group of people I referred to a paragraph or so ago. It is the people who surround the art; those gatekeepers operating like a kind of impenetrable, closed-shop cabal, whose assembled authority allows them to dictate not only the art we view and should be viewing, but also what our opinions on it should be.

Never mind if we don’t like their enforced choices; never mind if we don’t visit the municipal and regional galleries in the numbers we should. The directors and the curators of these huge public resources carry on unperturbed, confident in their belief that they know better than we do what constitutes art; righteous in their own artistic taste, which dictates the at times predictably inaccessible and recurring selection of art they exhibit.

I still stumble across those galleries, both municipal and commercial, which deploy an elitist approach to the very people they should be reaching out to

Make no mistake, to my mind municipal and regional galleries have a moral responsibility to the community they serve, to not only educate, but to be all inclusive, and that may mean at times they have to exhibit art which they themselves may not like. To fail to do this and to ignore the demands of a community is in reality elitist, and a form of discrimination.

I have a personal interest in all this. I am an artist, from a bit of an unlikely background, who exhibits successfully in commercial galleries around the world. My work, which is collected by thousands of people, has to date studiously been ignored by the municipal art world, in the same way as far bigger names than me have also largely been ignored and at times derided – Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano, for example.

I was born in the late-1950s into a northern working-class family, and from as far back as I can remember I have always drawn and painted. As a child I used to walk past the small municipal gallery in my town, instinctively sensing the environment within was not for the likes of me. Except, of course, it was or it should have been. After all it was provided by the local council, for the population, exactly for the likes of me; my parents’ taxes would have even helped pay for it.

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It was not the art hanging on the walls which kept me out, it was the select group of people who ran the gallery, who created an environment which seemed hallowed, precious and exclusive to a young boy. It took me years and years to get the confidence to cross the threshold and even today, as an artist who exhibits in galleries around the world, I still stumble across those galleries, both municipal and commercial, which deploy an elitist approach to the very people they should be reaching out to.

Commercial galleries stand or fall by their ability to sell the art work they exhibit. Municipal or state and arts council-funded galleries by contrast do not have to be commercially viable; they exist largely by receiving grants and funding from government bodies. These organisations, which attract large amounts of funding to provide art resources, have a duty to the wider population, beyond mere lip service, to consult and include them, and this responsibility should extend to occasionally acknowledging and respecting their demands and desires, irrespective of aesthetic partiality.

When regional galleries do attempt to step into the realm of populism, they face the wrath of the art critics. The Baltic in Gateshead has been beset with problems and criticisms since its opening in 2001. Its falling attendance numbers are evidence of its failure to curate exhibitions of relevance and interest to visitors and the local population. Visitor numbers are currently less than they were when it first opened.

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The Baltic achieved its highest attendance figures, up to that point, for an exhibition in 2007 when it exhibited the popular artist Beryl Cook. This decision was met with local enthusiasm, but widespread critical derision. Adrian Searle writing for The Guardian, in a venomous attack on Cook and the Baltic, sneered and mocked the gallery’s decision, posturing that perhaps it was making a desperate attempt to gain local popularity – as if that was somehow a bad thing. The critic went on to sniffily comment on the fact that the artist’s “commercial” dealer was delegated the task of writing its main catalogue essay for the exhibition. The article sneered at the artist, the Baltic and even the bedtime drink Ovaltine, accusing Cook’s art as being as cloying – as Ovaltine, that is.

It’s all rather sad and frustrating. I love the fact that art is now more available than it ever has been. The internet, new technology and the spread of commercial art galleries mean that people can view and buy limited-edition prints, sculpture, originals to hang on their walls by well-known and acclaimed artists. People do know what they like and why; they do like being challenged and educated by art; they do not like being dictated to, and their choices derided and ignored.

Where some of our larger regional art galleries are concerned, a kind of artistic apartheid seems to exist. Our newspaper critics cover the same large and undoubtedly worthy exhibitions, but in doing so there is a huge swathe of art and art-loving public who are marginalised and left out in the cold, their choices and preferences seemingly deemed unworthy of exhibiting in our public galleries.

Elitism endorses the exclusion of large numbers of people, and that is exactly what our large regional galleries and the people who run them are doing. It would be laughable if it were not so outrageously discriminatory. Our supposedly progressive and open-minded municipal art world is in reality a narrow, self-aggrandising bunch of judgmental custodians, whose disregard for the taste and divergent cultural values of the majority is evident in their dismal visitor numbers.

Modern art over the past 20 years or so has focused on shock and sensation, but perhaps the biggest shock of all will come when someone, somewhere gives these institutions a long-overdue wake-up call. Now that is a vision worth conjuring up – those publicly funded gatekeepers quaking in the face accountability, artistic democracy and perhaps the odd still life.

Bolt your doors, batten down the hatches and run for the hills, the revolution is coming.