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Is the art world too obsessed with celebrity?

1 July 2019

From the promotion of Old Master sales, to the making of pop videos in museums – not forgetting the rise of the superstar artist – can a famous face make art more accessible, or have things gone too far?

Stephen Patience

About 20 years ago, at a time that was not so much the fag end of the YBA era as its overflowing ashtray, I spent a ridiculously protracted lunch hour in a queue that snaked its slow way around the gardens of Tate Britain. The reason we were all lined up there was that the artist Gavin Turk was signing pieces of paper, in an effort to conjure a work of art into existence using nothing more than sheer force of will and the application of permanent marker. The similarity to a celebrity autographing photos was striking, and doubtless intended.

This warmed-over Duchampian gesture has since largely been forgotten, and some would say rightly so. But all the same it indicates that art’s perceived obsession with fame is nothing particularly new. The paper Turk was signing was a rather tacky (in both senses) laser-printed montage depicting his ‘greatest hits’, including Pop, a self-portrait waxwork of 1993 where he is dressed as Sid Vicious in the gun-toting pose of Elvis Presley, filtered through the aesthetic of Andy Warhol. It’s a knowing and sarcastic positioning of himself within the canon. The celebrity references build up like the layers of a screenprint: alongside the fancy-dress attitude to stardom, there is also a calculated play to become Warhol’s heir and imitator. Remember this face, it seems to say.

From Renaissance Florence to the salons of the 19th century, the bon ton of society have looked to artists to immortalise their fame, but it has always been a parasitic relationship. The artist’s celebrity was what cemented the patrons in the public eye, not just by recording their appearance for posterity but also by indicating that they were important and wealthy enough to commission such painters. (Osbert Sitwell remarked that when they looked upon their portraits, those who sat for John Singer Sargent ‘understood at last how rich they were’.) Warhol’s decision to place stars such as Presley and Marilyn Monroe in a gallery was a democratising act, replacing these moneyed patrons with those whose millions were crowd-sourced from ticket sales and hit records. But in so doing, he also elevated himself to something approaching their level: a celebrity artist, a bewigged epicene whose mere signature elevated a mass-produced screenprint of somebody else’s imagery into high art. This was not unprecedented. Salvador Dalí was nothing if not a publicity-seeker, while Picasso’s cubist techniques and talent for self-promotion ensured that his own face became far more familiar than those of his sitters; in transplanting the features of a Benin mask on to Gertrude Stein, he recognised that the fame of the Picasso portrait would eventually eclipse the memory of the woman herself.

There is a sense, though, that now this has all got a little out of hand. We live in an age in which a Beyoncé and Jay-Z music video draws unprecedented crowds to the Louvre, and former Spice Girls profess their love of collecting Old Masters. The mass-appeal celebrities have now become patrons of the arts themselves, their tastes catered and pandered to. Take the recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery dedicated to the late Michael Jackson, in which the self-styled king of pop’s kitschy sensibilities were indulged on a grand scale with very little acknowledgement that this somewhat controversial idol might have had feet of clay. Meanwhile, the artists in turn ratchet up their quest for celebrity, and their work becomes even more commodified, retreading shopworn concepts of the avant-garde while being co-opted for Louis Vuitton handbag collaborations. Jeff Koons, who elevated a press photo of Jackson and his pet chimp into gallery fodder, is now the most expensive living artist. Grayson Perry is arguably better known as a public figure than he is for his work. Banksy is not known at all, yet his celebrity is pivotal to his perceived value.

And as for Gavin Turk? Well, as I arrived at the front of the queue that lunchtime, the Tate officials announced that Turk would be signing nothing further, and gave out, as consolation prizes, copies of his collage – without the magic mark of the Magic Marker that alchemised it into a priceless work of art. Faced with disappointment, I hit upon a scheme to transform it into a genuinely unique piece. Reader, I signed it myself.

Stephen Patience is a freelance writer.

Kate Bryan

If you were following the inaugural edition of Frieze in Los Angeles on Instagram you may have been forgiven for thinking that a performance artist had cloned Brad Pitt and programmed him to walk into every booth to pose for a selfie with journalists, curators, dealers and collectors. It might have been a searing commentary on how ravaged the world has become with idolatry of famous folk and an insight into the continuous pursuit of new money by the ever-hungry art market. But, alas, it was the real Brad Pitt, and not an inventive ploy by someone like the German artist Christian Jankowski (who has pulled off nearly-as-insane tricks at past art fairs). ‘Not-a-performance-artist-but-the-real-Brad-Pitt’ made slow progress down the aisles filled with art that was now serving as an attractive backdrop to one of the most famous men in the world.

Naturally some exhibiting artists may have been disappointed that the light was shining in the wrong direction, but emerging and even deadly serious, museum-level artists have been of the opposite opinion for some time, and I agree with them. In a constantly shifting art world, we need to harness star power for the greater good. We are so jaded by the gargantuan numbers achieved in auction sales by a handful of living artists that we are becoming immune to the devastating opulence and greed that is swirling at the peak. Emerging artists are hanging on to Instagram and other forms of self-promotion as a life raft in a market so top-heavy it threatens to sink. Every year I witness another edgy, quietly important gallery close its doors due to impossibly high rents and other overheads. What becomes of their stable of young artists who are now left to pursue alternative ways of exhibiting, selling and advancing their careers? With the billions washing around at the top of the contemporary art market, it’s a playground for an artist if they are ranked near Koons. But, otherwise, the lights keep going out and it’s getting pretty difficult down at the bottom end, especially if you are a woman or from an ethnic minority.

Thankfully we are seeing an ever-growing appetite for contemporary art and it may very well be a celebrity who can help a young or newly converted art addict know where to look and develop their taste. Beyoncé and Jay-Z have amassed a very significant art collection and have, on several occasions, used their almost unrivalled profile to spotlight young talent. I have recently commissioned the hugely gifted Sadie Barnette to create a floor-based installation in the Soho House Art collection in downtown L.A., but Beyoncé got there a year before me with her promotion of the young Oakland-based artist. We may also say that the Louvre never looked better than in the music video Beyoncé and Jay-Z made for ‘Apeshit’ in 2018. There can be no doubt that they bring new audiences to museums in numbers otherwise impossible to achieve. Meanwhile Victoria Beckham is making Old Masters sexier in an era dominated by immersive installations. The actor Russell Tovey is not just a collector but a bona-fide art expert, co-hosting a brilliant podcast, Talk Art, with his friend the art dealer Robert Diament. Their audience grows steadily and is of course helped by Tovey’s appearance in recent hits such as Years and Years on BBC1 and his more than half a million Instagram followers who are treated to regular doses of art.

For me this kind of activity is extremely encouraging and exciting. We need to find easy and elegant doors for new converts to walk through, and to defeat the elitism that has persisted in acting as a barrier for so many for too long. My book, The Art of Love, has an unashamedly ‘millennial-pink’ ground, on-trend illustrations, rather than photographs, and a global art-world celebrity – Frida Kahlo – on the cover. Star power can be a force for good. It may be nothing short of snobbish to claim otherwise.

Kate Bryan is an arts broadcaster and head of collections for Soho House globally.

From the July/August 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.