Partly, yeah. If I was a politician and was seriously trying to do that, I’d have to really drill down and into data and really think it through. But me, I’m playing with it. I’m very aware of a kind of aesthetic of popularity: I’m interested in the kind of art that people who don’t normally go to art galleries wouldn’t mind seeing. It’s got to be interesting enough to make them kind of think, “Oh, I’ve never thought of that.” But it’s also got to go at some way towards them and be figurative and decorative. Fun. Sensually nice.
I make the work I like. But a nice spinoff benefit of that is that I bring a kind of audience that isn’t necessarily solely into difficult, conceptualized 21st-century art. Formally, my work is very conservative. It’s like: Pots that look like pots, tapestries that hang on the walls. All that sort of thing. Nobody’s going to go into my exhibition and go “What’s that?”
You joked to some students that they all had left-wing views as they described their artwork to you. Do you see that as a problem?
As we’ve seen with Brexit and Trump, the left has suffered terribly from a kind of failure to empathize with people who perhaps feel left behind. What’s happened gradually I think is the left has become the province of the university-educated. So it’s understandable what’s happened. I’m teasing them, but there’s a serious point, in that half their audience potentially is right of center, maybe. Certainly half the bloody British media is.
Would you advise all art students to reach out to communities beyond their own?
It depends on what they want to do, you know. If they want to inhabit a tiny little intellectual bubble of difficult contemporary art — which is also where, traditionally, the cutting edge of art is — often where the money is as well — then, fine. But I think I would quite like it if students were more ambitious.
Have you been to your show at the Serpentine since it opened?
I get a bit, I would get, you know … What’s the word I’m looking for? Mobbed. It wouldn’t be a pleasant experience. I’m not anonymous. Also, it feels a bit creepy, like why am I there, am I just hoping to get recognized?
It opened on Election Day.
Yeah, that was very careful planning with my astrologer.
It’s been almost exactly a year since Britain voted to leave the European Union. You were a vocal “remainer.” Do you feel more or less hopeful about what Brexit will entail, one year on?
You know, I’m not alone in thinking I’m not really quite sure what Brexit is, because we aren’t going to find out until 10 years down the line, are we? I’m not a politician or an expert on E.U. trade, so I can’t tell you what it’s going to be like. Yes, there’s lots of disgruntled people, and some people with a sort of sense of victory. My fantasy is that on the ground we probably actually won’t know it’s that much different, and if we do it will be quite a long time before we do.
You said to some of the left-wing students that their politics resembled those of conservative politicians. Do you think that’s true?
The center has moved leftwards in politics, definitely. When I was young, when I was a student, the center would have been soft conservative. And now the center would be, probably, it’s moved leftwards. The conservative has taken on equality and gay rights that would have been firmly in the left camp.
“Divided Britain” isn’t your first documentary; you’ve also done a series about class in Britain.
One day I’d like to do the same thing in America, but it would be kind of different. I don’t think class has quite the same dynamic in America as it does in Britain. Race is a much bigger issue in America. The coast versus the middle thing is a bit like our North-South in some ways.
I think it’d be a bigger Venn diagram in the States, with different things going on.
The thing here is that for a long time social mobility was one of the defining narratives in our culture. The guy that’s like “I’ve come from nowhere, I was a miner’s son and I’ve made it into the Royal Ballet.” Right back in literature and drama there have been these stories like Dennis Potter’s “Stand Up, Nigel Barton” and “Howards End” and all these stories of class-traveling. But of course I think they’re exceptional and dramatic. You know, I’m a class-traveler, massively. But I think that I’m a rarity. I think that people now are more marooned in their class than ever.
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