Skip to content
  • 10 Nov 2016

Penny Woolcock’s keynote speech: Awards for Artists 2016

“I want to hand you this

leaflet streaming with rain or tears

but the words coming clear

something you might find crushed into your hand

after passing a barricade

and stuff in your raincoat pocket.”

(Leaflets – Adrienne Rich.)

I don’t think any of us will forget 2016 in a hurry. It’s been a peculiar year, with great tectonic plates of change crashing into each other and none of us knowing what to make of any of it or what our place will be when the dust settles.

Twice in the last six months I have woken up to very strange news and walked around for days wondering whether I was still in a bad dream.

It made me think about where we are and what it all means.

Homo sapiens in a form we would recognise as us, have been around for about 75,000 years, about sixty percent of all people who have ever lived, did so as hunters and gatherers, about thirty five percent lived by agriculture and the remaining tiny proportion of us in industrial societies. And now all that is changing once again.

Many of the old certainties are in tatters, we’ve see the alarming rise of medieval faith systems stamping all over the Enlightenment, the end of traditional employment in the rich countries and now we’re hurtling towards ending the outsourcing of those jobs to poorer countries where labour was cheaper, because we have created machines that can do almost everything better and cheaper than we can.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari paints a dystopian scenario in which the vast majority of the earth’s population becomes redundant, a massive, useless class of impoverished and ignorant people with no economic or military purpose, a footnote in the history of this planet.

These immiserated masses will lounge around eating junk food and playing computer games, duped spectators of their own lives, while a tiny elite of data masters swiftly evolves into a different species, a super race of billionaires growing their own organs, shaping their own beautiful and brilliant offspring and living spectacularly long lives.

There is a breathtaking lack of imagination in this vision. If finally, we don’t need to force humans to become reluctantly compliant pack animals doing all the heavy lifting and mind-numbingly boring and repetitive tasks in order to keep this show on the road, then why not see this as a glorious release rather than a problem?

For the first time in history we can explore what it could mean for all of us to be fully human and discover our potential.

We have short memories. Hunter gatherers were closer to this than we are. They spent, and the few remaining peoples who still live this way still spend, under four hours a day hunting and digging for food and the rest of the time they were free to tell each other stories, draw and paint pictures and make music. We need to wake up and question the sticky morass of ideology engulfing us, telling us that the way things are is the way they have to be. Money is just paper, not a Supreme Being. It’s a made up thing and nowhere is this more obvious by the way, than in the art market.

The thing is, that the way things are, doesn’t really work for anybody. On our travels to places abroad and even to impoverished parts of our own country, most of us observe that very poor people often smile more than we do. This is not to romanticise poverty but to turn a mirror on our own grim faces. Are we really winning? Why do celebrities who have everything we are supposed to aspire to, perfectly groomed bodies and perfectly groomed lives, so often seem to overdose on painkillers – not even on drugs that might at least be fun.

There are high levels of violence, self-destructive behaviour and mental health problems right across the social spectrum. Drugs and computer games offer extravagant fantasies to escape the drab reality of lives that seem to have lost meaning. According to the World Health Organisation more people – including of course soldiers who have been in active combat – commit suicide than die from war, conflicts and natural disasters combined. And while an unacceptable one million people a year die from famine, a staggering three million people die from causes related to obesity.

Market forces and bankers cannot be trusted to deal with any of this, nor with global warming or the growth of artificial intelligence. We need to do things differently if we are not to allow future generations to become obsolete. And we can’t just leave it to the engineers and the scientists either although we need them to keep coming up with good ideas. There are still lots of things that only we can do, social care for example, machines don’t know how to be kind.

Well what does any of this have to do with us in this room? I’m not suggesting that artists can solve mass unemployment, or maybe I am because we do know something uniquely precious. We know how to find real meaning in days that have no structure, where nobody is telling us what to do. And when we hit a rich seam in the dark sometimes we do it in a way that helps others find meaning too. We’re warriors and adventurers, divers into the wreck, not couch potatoes. Perhaps we can be the trailblazers rather than the decorators.

I’m always a bit bored and disappointed by those who defend art exclusively by bringing up how much money we contribute to the economy. Art is cool, the buildings that house it are cool and nearly six million people visited the Tate Modern last year. (Some of it is what Robert Hughes called “The Mona Lisa Curse”, the forming of queues to walk past something so you can say that you’ve ‘seen’ it. We’ve all done it but we’ve all had great experiences too.)

It’s also a fact that art school graduates are twenty percent more likely to be in full time employment than business school graduates. I think it’s because creative people are nimbler, we know how to be light on our feet, and constantly reinvent ourselves. We’ve never had a job for life or at least not one working for anybody else.

As the old stories run out we urgently need new ones. New thoughts, new ways of helping us figure things out, but in EP Thompson’s phrase, let’s avoid “the condescension of posterity”. Walking past Velazquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado three weeks ago I was swept away, once again across the centuries, catching the eye of the painter looking out of that canvas behind the painted canvas and putting me back on the spot. Anybody in this room who has watched Naked Attraction on E4, or any of the other spectacularly banal rubbish on offer, will agree that we’re in no position to look down our noses across space and time.

But let’s not be intimidated by the great work of the past either. George Shaw, artist in residence at the National Gallery recently, had to walk past all the great masters on his way to his studio. He claimed he pissed on the floor to make it his own and I like to think that this wasn’t a metaphor.

We need our own stories, fit for these strange times and we might just need to piss on the floor before we can tell them.

In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes writes: “Doesn’t every narrative lead back to Oedipus? Isn’t storytelling always a way of searching for one’s origin, speaking one’s conflicts with the Law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred?”

Tenderness and hatred. It’s not always comfort we need, although we need that too.

What always strikes me when I go back to the Oedipus story is that Oedipus continually seeks the truth although everyone who loves him warns him against it. They tell him to leave well alone, that it is not in his interests to explore further, that the truth will be his undoing. But Oedipus refuses to live with silence and vague suspicions. He chooses the terrible truth over the happy lie.

But I am not suggesting that we are innocent truth seekers, set apart from the world of genocide and profit. In Hito Steyerl’s wonderful Is the Museum a Battlefield she travels to a warzone in Kurdistan where her friend was executed. She picks up a bullet casing and traces it back to the Western arms manufacturers who produced it. She discovers that the lobbies of these factories of death were designed by Frank Gery and that they display iconic contemporary art, Anish Kapoor sculptures and so on. She sees these pieces as a screen to the bloodbath behind them. But then she gets a shock.  “Imagine my surprise when I found my own artwork being installed there,” she said. “This artwork was actually showing the battlefield, which, in my logic, originated from that site. I was following the bullet back from the place it came from, and I ended up in a sort of weird feedback loop, as if the bullet wasn’t flying straight, from one point to another, but actually it was flying in a circle. It was flying in a loop and probably killing a lot of people in its way.”

And that my friends was Hito Steyerl’s terrible truth. We are all connected.

As a child I grew up in a very conservative, expatriate community in Argentina. British immigration to Argentina was middle class and mercantile so all the adult men I knew were accountants or businessmen, my own father worked for Uniliver and shelved his longing to be a writer. The women all stayed at home and complained about how lazy their maids were. I knew there were other ways of being in the world because I was a voracious reader so as soon as I was able to use public transport I took myself to art galleries and radical theatre and music venues. I set out to find other artists and when I found them it got me into a whole heap of trouble but I welcomed it with open arms. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into but I couldn’t stay where I was.

And so the pain killers stayed in the bottle.

But it was painful. Because it’s not safe, not at all safe to head off into the not-knowing place again and again and try and make something new, full of hope leaving cynicism behind and seeking the sublime. It’s frightening. And there’s also something ridiculous about the whole enterprise, that’s why it’s not only censorious authority figures who advise us to ‘get a proper job’ but their allies, our own treacherous inner policemen, because the other terrible truth is that we mostly fail. Because the sublime is out of reach and you have to be stupid crazy to try for it.

Marsyas was one fool who paid the price for this hubris.

Marsyas was a satyr who picked up a double piped reed instrument that had been abandoned by Athena and he taught himself to play it. He played beautifully so he decided to challenge Apollo, the God of Music to a duel.  All his friends warned him against this rashness but he wouldn’t listen. Apollo agreed on condition that the victor choose a punishment for the loser. Marsyas played first. His music was great. Then it was Apollo’s turn…Apollo is a god. He won. Of course he won. Marsyas’ punishment was to be hung upside down from a tree and flayed alive. The poet Robin Robertson puts it like this:

“So you think you can turn up with your stag-bones

And outplay Lord Apollo?

This’ll learn you. Fleece the fucker.”

(The Flaying of Marsyas from The Painted Field.)

Titian is one of many artists to have been inspired by this myth (as was Anish Kapoor in the Turbine Hall) and his Flaying of Marsyas, painted in his eighties, is pitiless.  Apollo meticulously skins Marsyas inch by inch with a knife in front of a group of onlookers and at the bottom of the painting a little aristocratic dog licks at a pool of blood. Ovid tells us that Marsyas cried out, “Why are you stripping me from myself!

But a closer look at this painting shows us that Marsyas is shocked but almost smiling. Does he regret it? Does he hell!

One redemptive ending to the Marsyas story tells us that his blood turned into a river, that reeds grew by its bank and that those reeds were made into pipes for future musicians.

We never know what kind of life our work will have when it leaves us. It might inspire, act as a fig leaf for mass murder and I’m arguing it is essential for our survival on this planet.

And so to all of you here who have the courage to keep taking that creative risk, to those at the Foundation who support artists; to all who struggle with the crushing feelings of self-doubt and falsely sustaining vanities we all face; who keep stepping into the unknown; to all of you who applied for this award; to those of you who win tonight, and specially to those of you who will feel strung upside down and flayed alive: I salute you all.