Dear Vivienne Westwood,
I am a visual artist, and recently when trying to form some ideas for upcoming projects, I was struck by the way that aesthetics change over time — not only through being reimagined, but through being commercialised. And I was also struck by the inevitability of this commercialisation. Perhaps this is too vague, so let me elaborate.
The punk aesthetic that you became so known for has now been commercialised, but it seems to me that this commercialisation of our inspirations is inevitable. As artists, creatives, and designers, we make things inspired by the world around us — by our friends, home, culture. But as soon as we make our work out of these things, they become not only reiterated, but also present in a market economy. This of course, is not necessarily an issue, but it is an interesting phenomenon that seems particularly prescient to me when talking about things like punk, which of course historically is very anti-capitalist. I encounter this in my own work too, because a lot of my work is drawn from the aesthetics and subjects of online subcultures, many of which are very DIY, and if not explicitly anti-capitalist then certainly distant from the principles of ownership, value and hierarchy that govern market systems. So it is therefore somewhat contradictory for me to make things inspired by these cultures, and place that artwork in a gallery in order to charge an amount of money for it.
The mimetic, continuous creation of art and culture collides with the market here in a way that I think is often overlooked by artists themselves — we participate in the market because we must if we want to eat and keep a roof over our heads. However, we also constantly reinvent the cultures and ideas that surround us, often without questioning that there is something rather uncomfortable about using these cultures and aesthetics to earn amounts of money that the original creators of these ideas will never earn. This is also evident in the use of many aesthetics of poverty or class struggle in visual art over the years.
For me, there are many questions around this interaction with the market — for instance, does it matter who the artist is? For instance, the author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell (born Robert Croker, but here I will use his writing pseudonym), was himself going through the class struggle that he captured in his novel. The work is partially autobiographical, and Tressell certainly wasn’t utilising a culture that wasn’t his own. For me, instinctively, this difference is important, however irrational that might be. I personally make autobiographical work, because I don’t believe it’s possible to exploit one’s own experience, as the act of exploitation implies a lack of free consent, which is impossible when making use of one’s own culture or background. However, we are not islands, and our interactions with the market are not entirely isolated — I might be comfortable using my own experience in this way, but with my use of these aesthetics comes along a whole history and culture of references that are not entirely my own. So the web of human experience is always becoming tangled, and resulting in moral ambiguity.
Perhaps these questions are beside the point, as we live within a market system where creativity and art must become forms of labour, object and value in order for artists to survive. But I believe that these questions do carry some importance for us as we make our work — for is it not ironic to reframe the anti-capitalist aesthetics and ideas within a market framework in order to benefit from it? I ask myself these questions on a regular basis, and if nothing else, I think this constant moral interrogation of my work is at least beneficial for maintaining a practice of critical thought and exploration within my artistic practice — even if I cannot yet answer these questions to my existential satisfaction.