The Inner Circle
After 20 years of photography, many exhibitions both at home and abroad and countless talks with my colleagues and with curators, I feel the need to put into coherent text the feeling of doubt that’s been surrounding me and many of the artists close to me for years, that we want to neutralize like a bad smell, coming from someone’s backyard, partly due to our restraint, the unwillingness to speak negatively of anything, let alone something we’re not even remotely interested in and despise. I have no intention of altering such attitude, but still, I feel the urge to name this suspected phenomenon, if only to clarify the terms and remove the feelings of timidity from those that feel the same way I do.
We’re turning into some kind of voyeurs, watching the endless repeats of their own private shows with their participants disregarding whether or not is there someone actually paying attention to their performances.
(curator’s annotation of the “Metamorfeliéry” exhibition.)
It seems we live in a revolutionary age when we still understand the term “art” (visual art, in the context of this text) in a kind of vague but commonly shared sense. We’re still convinced it’s a term that carries a certain meaning, perhaps even quite profound, that has a kind of transcendent quality. In our society, there’s still a gaping scar of tradition which talks, exacerbates, enters the audience, which is able to provide that strange and intimate testimony we describe as being dragged into the painting, and which we can sometimes even feel physically somewhere in our heart or sending shivers down our spine. Intuitively, we look for a strong testimony that most often emerges from the combination of honest craftsmanship with strong imagination and insight. A walk through the galleries of “contemporary art”, though, does persuade the audience repeatedly that precisely this understanding of the term art is something antiquated. It seems as if the work in such galleries tries to illustrate this point.
In every era there were certain trends that evanesced in time and in every era there were diligent artists. What we’re facing right now is something more radical. The battle is no longer fought within the bounds of a shared paradigm, we’re not witnessing a battle of styles and not even the process of one paradigm shifting into other. It’s not a natural art evolution either, even though quite a few curators tries to force their audiences into thinking that’s exactly what it is. The situation’s more serious: the phenomenon of Art (in the sense the society still, instinctively, understands it) is being attacked systematically by a new social class with a plethora of distinctive set of characteristics, which gradually prepares the conditions to takeover the centuries of artistic infrastructure, including its terminology and the system of education. Its goal no longer lies in an artistic testimony nor a philosophical battle, it’s set on creating a personal profit (social, financial or of power) The common signs of such people include the absence of any strong talents, mental and emotional emptiness, shaky principles, good communication skills, excellent marketing, intellectual ramblings and the word “project”. The art as an activity of extremely sensitive and creative people is gradually being replaced with anything that is integrated enough, therefore justified within the structures of the new (meaning “artistic”) elite. We’re the witnesses of an attempt to deconstruct a significant phenomenon that’s part of the very foundation of our civilization, maybe even all of civilization.
If this kind of photography also brings us a certain kind of theoretical reflection which views the photographic expression from the position of semiotics and structuralism, it’s not diminishing the function of photography to a linguistic function, but an extended understanding of a characteristic not only of language, but of the reality itself.
(Karel Císař, curator)
If you ask a member of the new elite about the meaning of the term art, he/she’ll laugh at you and/or treat you like an ignorant person. A discourse about the elementary terms is not in his/her interest. Such profound flexibility of terms plays into the hands of snake-oil salesmen, it is their very shield against their enemies that could be recruited from the thinning crowd of critics or knowledgeable audience, capable of thinking for themselves. Where there is no fixed terminology, there is no criteria, and where there is no criteria, there is only the criteria of the basic power of those willing to offer such criteria to one another in exchange for a return service. Questions about the meaning of the artifact, about the message of the exhibition or of artistic work as it is are either ignored as being too trivial, or they are answered with a ready-made answer in the form of curator articles no-one really understands. The unintelligibillity of such texts is not coincidental, it is their primary quality. On one hand, the member of new elite uses it to demonstrate the his/her intellectual superiority over the reader, resulting from the supposed esoteric nature of the art he/she is engaged in and which he/she is asking the society to support. He’s the bearer of the Secret the artistic artifact holds. At first, the painting/sculpture/video/water_on_the_floor_of_the_gallery looks stupid, but that’s just because we don’t get it. We’re missing the key that’s being held by someone else: by the chosen, by the member of the new elite. The audience is therefore disqualified from judging the artwork, which can only be judged by the chosen ones, those from the inner circle, as one of the contemporary photography exhibitions was quite unintentionally called. An artist from the inner circle is by definition irresponsible. Outside the inner circle, there’s no judge, the size of one’s talent, craftsmanship or perceptiveness of vision can’t be measured since there are no standards outside of the unseen, mysterious structure of the inner circle. The fundamental irresponsibility does not only target Art itself or some of the other fundamental terms, but artists from the inner circle can’t be held responsible even by themselves, their own conscience, taste or passion – since such outside measure would be damaging to the inner circle and therefore can’t be tolerated there. The inner circle only tolerates its own standards, carefully hidden from those outside of it. The standards of power.
An artist is someone whose work is being shown in a gallery.
(Marian Palla, a writer and a conceptual artist)
To define the inner circle is not easy. Partially that’s because its borders are not clearly defined, just as under previous regime, there was no simple line between “regime” and “anti- (or non-) regime” artists. There was a line, though, and its thematization was desirable. In much the same way, the inner circle is not a clearly defined group, more like a new social class with which some identify more, some less. It takes advantage of the post-modernist inclinations of contemporary society to relativism, and at the same time the usual social appeal of supporting art. The structures of the inner circle are therefore created matter-of-factly, centered around the strong, ambitious individuals and institutions. Those that align with the inner circle are only bound by a kind of implied silence, a kind of mutual correctness. That is already widely spread today in critiques and curator texts that are, because of its implications, emotionally empty and, most importantly – do not judge. Critics, journalists and the audience are not supposed to judge, that is the privilege of the inner circle structures, hidden from a commoner’s sight. The “critiques” of the new elite authors is therefore condemned to a single literary genre: a description.
What do I consider to be the biggest advantage of FAMU? It has a well-established name it can benefit from.
(Vojtěch Veškrna, a master’s degree student)
Just like any other complex structure, even the inner circle needs a proper kind of soil for its roots, a protected social laboratory in which the new nutrients in form of new candidates for the new elite can be absorbed in an organic way and slowly, in a four-season cycle, and singled out those who consciously set themselves apart from this society and/or whose mindsets are dangerous to the inner circle. Gradually, the art universities have become such place. The function of a some sort of greenhouse to nurture and create the inner structure of the new elite gradually replaced their traditional functions, especially the effort to maintain and cultivate the artistic crafts. Current universities are systematically leaving the concept of craft education and focus on strengthening of the esoteric field of the inner circle, which does not require neither talent nor an audience. The changes these institutions underwent in a short time has apparently been good to them. It seems as if in their new role, free from craft and to a large extent even from the traditional art ethics, they gained a much wider social impact. It’s hard to find a different explanation for such an astronomical growth of these institutions we’ve experienced in the past 20 years. Before 1989, there were three art universities in this country: The Academy of Fine Arts and the School of Applied Arts, which only became a university level school after WW2, which is also when the Academy of Performing Arts was founded. A little less than 25 years after the Velvet revolution, there’s now 27 art universities – 7 of which have classes on artistic photography. In a rough estimate, these schools produce about 10000 artists in 10 years, of which about 500 are art photographers. Which means that in the next ten years, our art universities will produce around ten times more art photographers than there were in all of our Czech and Slovak history since the invention of daguerreotype to this day. For the inner circle, such numbers are a wild success.
Not so much for the students. A lot of them, when attending the entrance exams, have no idea of the kind of institution they are signing up to. Their visions come subconsciously from the traditional concept of art as a joining of the craftsmanship and the original vision. The realization of the fact that instead of Cinderella they’re being forced to marry her foster sister comes much too late and with great personal difficulties. The universities themselves do not announce the changing focus of their education all that much and if they do, they mention evolution and “the passing of the torch”. To distance themselves openly from the traditional concept of art would be counter-productive for them.
Many a student is doing bad just because he/she is wiser than the teacher.
(František Vymazal *1841–1917, philologist)
Let’s use the time we have before 10 000 freshly graduated artists leave those new art universities (of which the talented minority will be lucky to even graduate) and be honest with ourselves. Most of what we can currently see in most of the contemporary art galleries, and most of what we’ll see there in the coming years, is utter rubbish. Those who put it there are mostly not the well-respected scholars or servants of the Art itself, they are not looking for talents or extraordinary individuals to help them and serve them. An extraordinary talented person creates a big problem for your average curator. Even if a genius (the word does sound pathetic in this day and age, but is not without meaning) passes through the sieve of the art universities, he/she is usually working alone on a fringe of artistic public and to a very high age, he/she is his/her own curator. Those who insist on bringing rubbish to places audiences still visited in search of an existential experience are people facing a dead end with no way out for the majority of them. They are in a desperate situation: they’re not skilled, they do not posses a meaningful talent or intellectual drive, and at the same time, they’re used to navigating the society of the new elite. They’re living a lie, lost in an illusion of a purpose which doesn’t exist. A hundred times repeated nonsense has become a truth for them, a hundred times repeated rubbish has become an icon. Such people will never betray the inner circle, they will defeat it until their last breath, since without it they would be forced to face their own emptiness. And that prospect is so horrible that rather than facing the possibility of it, they write a ten page art historical treatment on a water hydrant with a digression to the past, an allusion to the four elements of nature, a list of other water hydrant artists and with an enumeration of the unique moments this very hydrant offers to people, including the extensive list of sources (to paraphrase a favorite simile of writer Karel Kuna). The fact that emptiness has its own advocates means as little as the fact that it can, sometimes, sell quite well. Even Andy Warhol has proved sufficiently that marketing is mightier than the artwork itself.
The advent of the new elite, a structure of power that gains deciding influence over art institutions and gradually uses them to its advantage, is of course not without repercussions. From the political point of view, it’s taking advantage of our common property, of state and endowment funds to support activities the rest of the society does not profit from at all in any way, or, at the very best, too little. The problem is that when there are resources available, someone has to divide them. And the new elite with it’s emphasis on mediocrity forms an indisputable and democratic majority. The structures of the inner circle would crumble in a few days if art was once again dependent only on support from the collectors – individuals (the institutions behave in a different way since they can be taken over by power). The collectors more often than not do prefer an expertly crafted artwork before rubbish, something that speaks to them before a nonsense, the originality before mediocrity, honesty before arrogance. If we maintain the notion that the state and other institutions should be supporting contemporary artists, we basically accept the notion of directly supporting the inner circle. The really talented artists make use of the state and institutional support system only marginally and sometimes they’re not even able to access it at all. They often lack the personal dispositions to access these funds, they don’t know how to do it, hate the officialities and the red tape, they don’t have time for it and, most importantly, they put value in entirely different things. On the other hand, the new elite has plenty of time and does not care about the red tape.
Having a certain part of public, which does not provide any values nor is it able to create some, access the social funds, is in itself nothing scandalous. Our society is rich and we can easily afford to support a group of people that play games with each other, reward themselves for it and feel good in their own private world. In regard to the future, there are much more serious implications about the damage these inner circle leaders leave in their wake, stripping terms of their meaning and devaluating them. If the words art, painting or poetry do still have a certain feel at least to some of us, if they offer them a glimpse of something sacred, fragile, noble, it’s a question of how this will change a few years down the road. It’s quite likely a politician and journalist will quite soon have a new company at the top of the most despised jobs list – an artist. Such destruction – in contrast to some kind of funding issues – will take a long time to repair and it’s possible that a parallel terminology will rise from the ashes, since many of the old terms will be contaminated forever. The traditional terms will still be in the hands of the new elite, though, and will slowly and painfully fade away.
Almost all of the public galleries, presenting the contemporary art, are to a smaller or larger degree already contaminated by the artifacts of the inner circle and to avoid them, one has to really be prepared. For the upcoming generation of young people, such searching will become too tedious and many of them will give up after a few unsuccessful tries. The communication between an artist and his/her audience, supposedly managed by the responsible institutions, will continue to suffer more and more and the public galleries will offer more and more deformed views of the contemporary art as a scene without any prominent individuals, without depth, contemplation and the inner honesty – in other words without the qualities that ultimately offer the audience the experience its longing for. As the new wave of art university graduates hits the streets, there will be less space for the talented individuals without a formal education, and it’s not that big of a stretch to expect that the success of the fine art universities will soon become an inspiration for other artistic schools as well, e. g. literary schools, and the inner circle will form there as well.
The essence of the monochrome is not its monochromaticity, like many think, but more likely the fact that it does not, in fact, show us anything at all.
(Michal Novotný, curator)
Not to be mistaken: the goal of this text was not to try and divide the art into good and bad, I’ve been avoiding any specific examples for a reason. That job belongs to others. This text is an attempt to defend the term art in itself with regard to our current artistic scene. The term “art”, or “good art” might not be described formally, but those that time and again point out the fact that you can’t with certainty tell what constitutes a quality work of art and what does not, are more often than not frauds. The sensitive people (in case of music, we’d probably base this on their ear for music) usually agree on that – regardless of the form the music takes upon itself. Should we accept the fact that anything can be considered art, the term itself loses its meaning. If we want to preserve it, we have to keep on thematizate it in comprehensible ways – not cover it with a post-modernist hodgepodge nonsense.
The inner circle is not an issue of art, since the artifacts it provides us are not art. It is, though, a growing social issue, confusing the public and complicating its access to a real quality art. A knowledgeable member of the public should be aware of the fact that artwork, presented by the contemporary art galleries, is not a contemporary art. The intersection of these two sets is quite small. A talented fine art applicant should be aware of the issue of the inner circle to avoid being manipulated and stripped of the joy and inwardness of his/her own art. He/she is not alone. The real contemporary art is mostly found in private studios these days, though, not in galleries and museums. It exists and manages to thrive thanks to the educated and committed collectors. Being kept in half-shadow suits it rather well. As it always did.
Igor Malijevský, Praha, September 2013