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FineArtViews Interview: Ben Luke -- contemporary art critic for the London Evening Standard

by Brian Sherwin on 6/10/2011 9:12:16 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


Ben Luke is an art writer and contemporary art critic for the London Evening Standard. Luke has written for numerous art publications -- including, The Art Newspaper, Art Quarterly, and Apollo. He is generally interested in conceptual, minimal and video art and their legacies. Ben Luke offered his time to FineArtViews in order to discuss art criticism, art fairs, and a number of other topics. He has also provided some general advice for artists.


Brian Sherwin: Ben, you are an art writer and contemporary art critic for the London Evening Standard. Can you tell us about your profession and-- for our US readers-- discuss the influence the Evening Standard has within the UK art world?


Ben Luke: I've been at the Evening Standard now for around 18 months, before which I was Deputy Editor for a relatively short-lived but much loved contemporary art magazine, Art World. My work for the Standard consists of reviews of and interviews about almost exclusively contemporary art exhibitions, as well as commentaries on news stories about the visual arts, where I occasionally veer from my contemporary territory.


The Standard is the free paper that is given out across London. It has a very particular and unique place in the British media, often taking the lead on news stories because it appears in the afternoon. Since it went free, its readership has obviously rocketed, but importantly it has kept arts at the heart of what it does. In terms of the visual arts, it is very much associated with Brian Sewell, the art critic, known for his very strong views on contemporary art and on the running of museums and galleries, as well as his florid prose and delight in unusual words in our delicious language.


In many ways, I am a counterpoint to Brian in terms of my attitudes to recent developments in art – I am generally extremely interested in conceptual, minimal and video art and their legacies. Beyond the Standard, I write for a number of specialist and general visual arts publications: The Art Newspaper, RA Magazine, Art Quarterly, Apollo and others.


BS: I understand that you have been critical of international art fairs-- but you also acknowledge their importance. I know of art critics and gallery owners who are wary of the influence specific art fairs have had on the global art scene as well as the art market in general. There is a fear that international art fairs harm the viability of art galleries. Do you think there is cause for concern?


BL: My position on art fairs is that they are largely unpleasant affairs, especially aesthetically, but that they are performing a necessary function in keeping some of our best galleries alive. I was really quite shocked when I spoke to countless gallerists at how central the fairs were to their ability to continue operating. So, while I find the experience of art fairs troubling and unsatisfying – that surfeit of art crammed in, those unfortunate pairings of utterly unrelated artists that are inevitable on the booths, the heat, the light, the airlessness (I could go on) – I recognise that they are vital. But you can circumvent all the commerce if you don't want to play the game – so much of what is done is not about the market side of things. And I've also learnt that you can't treat an art fair as you would a gallery experience, so I probably enjoy them more than I did when I wrote the piece for the Guardian's website.


In terms of concern about the fairs' harming of galleries, there is one trend that I initially found alarming but is now so established that mentioning it is rather pointless. Nonetheless, it was a telling message about the importance of these events: after Frieze was inaugurated, all the galleries, even major museums, clearly changed or planned their programme around it. You could argue that is just pragmatic, it makes sense given that the entire art world is in London, but still, it was a jarring lesson in the market's power. Now, Frieze week in London is just extraordinary – the sheer breadth of shows that open in that week is jaw-dropping.


BS: The Internet has spurred further changes in the traditional model of selling art. The majority of artist sites have some form of e-commerce platform-- be it selling original art online or offering prints on demand, millions of artists worldwide are utilizing personal websites in order to market their artwork independent from brick & mortar galleries, and mainstream ventures-- such as VIP Art Fair-- have been on the rise. What are your thoughts on e-commerce in regards to buying and selling art online? Do you think that buying and selling art online will eventually be as accepted as buying/selling art at a gallery within the context of the global art market?


BL: To be honest, I know little about this, so don't feel particularly able to judge, as I tend to use artist websites for information gathering, fact-checking etcetera: the business of being an art journalist. And most of those artists are already within the gallery system, and that's where they sell their work. But the clear difficulty with this approach is the lack of opportunity to engage with the work physically. If they are in a digital format, then fine, but art reproduces so differently from its reality, especially when online.


I suppose it raises an important question about what art is for. If it works to operate entirely outside the established system, producing work for an online audience of collectors, fair enough. But aren't most artists interested in communicating with a wider public in a more physical way? And doesn't this system limit your choice of media – how can you sell an installation online, for instance? Much of the best art around is getting more site-specific, more dependent on bodily, sensory engagement by its audience.


BS: Concerning art in the UK-- do you have any thoughts concerning Charles Thomson and Stuckism? Are the citizens of London as upset about the direction of art in the UK as Thomson and others have stated?


BL: I can't speak for the citizens of London, but you only have to see the numbers of people who visit exhibitions of contemporary art at venues across the city to know that there is a significant proportion of Londoners who don't agree with the Stuckists, and enthusiastically embrace contemporary art in its many and varied forms. But of course some people are upset about the direction of contemporary art and I believe it is tremendously important that people should question our institutions' approach to the visual arts. However, I don't think that the Stuckists are providing any real alternative to the art that they rail against.


Their manifesto, while quite funny, is deeply flawed, and the art that I have seen by Stuckists up to now falls miserably short of that manifesto's aims – in order to make a claim for the superiority of painting, you need to be good painters. I have a deep love of painting, but everything I've seen that has been made in the name of Stuckism seems very thin. That even David Lee, a similarly impassioned critic of much contemporary art, and in many ways a natural ally of the Stuckists, should have dismissed their work says it all.


Stuckism seems like an advert for new media, in a way. They present painting as a total dead end, when in fact, outside of Stuckism, it is very much alive and well.


BS: Groups opposing specific directions of art and public funding are not uncommon-- but few have had the international appeal that Stuckism has experienced in the last decade. With that in mind, what are your thoughts on self-described art movements in general. Do these art movements have historic significance or do you view them as only having gained momentum due to the ease of sharing information online?


BL: I think it's fantastic if like-minded individuals can form communities, or movements online, but historical significance can only be determined much later.


BS: I've been involved with a few debates lately that focus on the potential for social/political bias within the mainstream art world. As an art critic would you say that bias of that nature exists in some circles of the mainstream art world? For example, would you say that artwork that explores conservative themes is less likely to end up in a museum than artwork that explores liberal themes? Does political, social, religious bias exist within the mainstream art world? What are your thoughts?


BL: I think it would be foolish to claim that the UK art world isn't predominantly left-leaning, and many art-world people find great comfort in that. But look at Gilbert & George – their frequent declarations of their support for the rightwing Conservative party has done them no harm, and Tracey Emin purportedly voted Tory at the last UK elections and she has just opened a massive show at the Hayward Gallery in London.


After reading your question I tried to think, 'What is a conservative theme?' I just think there isn't much art being made about the benefits of free market capitalism and immigration quotas: political art often offers a critique of dominant western political structures and attitudes, and thus it is "liberal" in nature. If by conservative themes you mean traditional genres like portraiture and landscape, then no, I don't think it is less likely to be displayed in a museum – there is plenty of such art about.


BS: Another issue facing art criticism-- and the art world as whole-- is the issue of sexism, ageism, and racism. The gender gap has been a long debated topic, the concern over ageism has reached a boiling point in the last decade, and some writers have suggested that racial labels-- such as addressing an artist who happens to be African American as an 'African American artist' is a form of inadvertent racism. After all, you never see a white artist described as a 'Caucasion artist' or 'white artist'. Is there cause for concern?


BL: I don't think I've seen any ageism in my entire art-visiting life. In fact, the art world – more than the media, say – reveres its more senior figures. Look at the way that Louise Bourgeois, Nancy Spero and others have been increasingly lauded by artists and critics in recent years. I agree that artists should not be defined by their colour, and, again, I don't think they are. In the UK, at least, it seems to me that an artist's racial background is only seen as relevant if their work addresses it directly.


BS: What are you thoughts on how the Internet is changing the 'landscape', if you will, of art criticism. Several 'voices' have made an impact beyond traditional print publications-- that said, one could suggest that they are not held to the same standards as an art writer or critic who works in print. Does that concern you-- or would you say that there is a need for art criticism to take several directions... even beyond print?


BL: I think it's healthy that there are numerous forums for reading about and discussing art. But I genuinely believe that really good art criticism requires time and thus it is difficult for those writers working on an unpaid basis to be able to hone their craft in the way that traditional journalists have been able to. We're still in the early days of the phenomenon, but it's obvious that current use of the internet doesn't provide a model for the long term funding of professional journalists and clearly, newspapers and magazines across the world are concerned about that. And while I do check out numerous art sites, I still seek out those must-read critics – people like Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker or Adrian Searle in the Guardian.


BS: As you know, the world of art criticism and exhibit reviews is a very tough field to break into professionally. With that in mind, what advice do you have for art writers who are just starting out?


BL: As you have just said, there are infinitely more ways to write about art now, and nothing helps more than regular experience of sitting down and distilling thoughts on exhibitions into words. In terms of getting commissions from established titles, I think the most important thing is to keep looking, keep exploring different avenues, and to not be afraid of being knocked back. Part and parcel of being a writer is the rejection. But then when you do get a commission, you have to work hard to make sure you are doing the best job you can possibly do. And when you are in the system, you have to keep on your toes – you are only ever as good as the last article you wrote.


BS: In closing, what advice do you have for artists who have been unable to attract the attention of art writers in general? Aside from presenting 'great' art-- what can an artist do to help attract press? Do you have any advice for emerging artists in general?


BL: I think ultimately good art does get noticed, but of course you need to tell people about it, and as I said above with regards to writing, you just have to keep exploring your options, keep prompting, keep telling us critics and curators what you are doing. It's true that as an emerging artist, you initially face a steep uphill battle, but I advise artists to believe in what they do, and to make sure that people know about it.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Topics: art appreciation | art collectors | Brian Sherwin | exposure tips | FineArtViews | sell art 

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Duncan Long
Very good information with lots of worthwhile views - just Luke's thoughts about Stuckism was worth the price of admission. Thanks so much for this interesting post.

Floyd ALsbach
Observing from a distance the tragedy of self imposed blindness is still disconcerting:

-Historically artists or a group of artists having their work dismissed by prominent critics is a Rorschach test for future relevance and value.

-Is it too difficult to understand the relevance and originality of Stuckism's openness (to artists at all levels of development) vs the art world's traditional reliance upon elitist exclusivity?

-Only through movements like Stuckism can art be revitalized after the devastation of decade after decade of the art worlds pseudo-intellectual soft brained self immolation. Does anyone really think that another cute little public defecation, vaginal stimulation, or naked barnstorming is going to save the art world from it's vapidity? Hey maybe the lightweight, pretty little picture Plein Air movement will help!

-"Their manifesto, while quite funny, is deeply flawed," B.L. The Stuckist Manifesto is brilliant in it's naivete' it's frank openness. The Stuckists Manifesto's rejection of Art World exclusivity is completely radical. Art Historically Stuckism is a wonderfully constructive revolution. Most manifesto's call for the destruction of darn near everything and some imply the destruction of nearly everyone i.e. The Futurist Manifesto

-100 years from now Stuckism will almost certainly be seen as the most important art movement since the 1960's, at least in part because of it's inclusiveness, it's welcoming attitude to artists at all levels of development. Through Stuckism London has usurped the hegemony of New York City, can't you see the value, the pure power of that fact? Perhaps London has enjoyed being an art also ran first to Paris, then to New York and at times LA and/or San Francisco (excluding the work of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud). Stuckism has put London in the lead, yet you enthusiatically ignore it, what will save you from the histories fools club Ben, my friend?

Meltemi aka Phil Kendall
An interesting read even from the UK perspective. Yes we have to vocal opinionated old-fart brigade of arbiters of good taste [i.e. they thrust it down our throats] in all things they know about and how dare we criticise them and what do I know? they do the rent-a-mouth quote every time a UK TV news programme features the world of art. and few others ever get mentioned or listened to. Stuckists? I like. So sad that a UK writer/journalist/critic is so out of touch with artists with websites and E-commerce platforms.

Regarding the above, consider first that the Evening Standard is such a prestigious newspaper that it is now that free paper that you find discarded on subway seats..

It is effectively an ad-driven fanzine, but lacking the honest enthusiasm for the subject that genuine fanzines have..

Most artists I have ever met hold the Guardian art column in similar regard.

I'm no stuckist because I never was much of a "joiner" but I can assure you as a UK resident painter all but a few are [i]tired[/i] of Saatchi / Guardian Balls.

A lot of their manifesto makes a whole lot of sense.

Saatchi is an investor more than a collector. He knows he can invest in an artist and make that artist a star almost over night.

It shows how much someone can impact art history simply by having the money to make things move.

The work of the YBA's is just as good as any art you could have found at Goldsmiths at the time. More power to them for having the position they have in art. But they could have been anyone.

Floyd Alsbach
Glena: Saatchi does enjoy playing the kingmaker, nice points and "they could have been anyone" cuts to the bone.
-Steve: Though rarely a joiner myself I am a proud Stuckist. Print media still has a predominant though clearly waning influence.


Ron Grauer

Brian- Once again I wonder about writers in general...and about artists specifically. Like Stuckists. Yet another organization of academic people who cannot draw, attempting to manipulate the "uneducated" folks of the world to believe that drawing is bad and scribbling is good.
As Mat Gleason, one of your clan of critical writers says: (I'm sure you're aware of this)
"The realm of the visual is inherently non-verbal. Academia is a lecture-based system of auditory and linguistic learning. Pretty much the polar opposite of art. And yet here come the pinheads with their Ph.D. theses (rhymes with feces) getting every damn thing wrong about the art and making sure none of their presentation is enjoyable nor accessible to people outside their peer group. Their ruse is the implication that art is intellectual. Art is sensual. Academics are not. Sleep with a few (your grad school professor is almost always willing) and tell me I am wrong".
This is somewhat akin to out last discussion about writers et al. This particular scholar, however, is somewhat in the other direction in that the reference here is re-enforcing "The Painted Word" concept. You can't tell good art from bad without a program. RonG


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