Interview with Jarvis Cocker: "A show can plant a seed that flowers years later"

The musician and St Martin’s graduate on why access to art is crucial during an economic crisis


This year sees a new addition to the Frieze line-up in the form of a booth devoted to six of London’s leading not-for-profit public art spaces. Going under the umbrella title of “In the Public Eye”, the stand is selling newly commissioned artists’ editions to raise funds for the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Whitechapel Gallery, the Serpentine Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, Studio Voltaire and the Chisenhale Gallery, and to support their creative programmes. Celebrating this initiative, and a regular patron of many of the organisations represented at the fair, is broadcaster and Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, who studied fine art and film at St Martin’s from 1988 to 1991 and who, as a patron of Site Gallery in his native Sheffield, continues to be a passionate advocate of the public art sector.

The Art Newspaper: Why are not-for-profit galleries so important?

Jarvis Cocker: It ties into all the general stuff that’s happening, like the changes in art education. If you try to kill off the ability of people from less well-to-do backgrounds to go to art college, and if you get rid of public art spaces, then art will become just another form of currency, because it will become mainly about its monetary value.

It’s ironic that, in the aftermath of the riots, when everybody is trying to work out what’s gone wrong and how to deal with it, at this point one of the few ways out is effectively being closed down. I think it’s a very important time for the arts at the moment in that debate, because if we’re not careful, a lot of things are going to disappear which, once they’ve disappeared, will probably never reappear again.

Do you feel it’s really that serious?

Maybe things would carry on in London a bit more, but in regional galleries, things would just completely peter out, because it’s a bit like missionary work. There are certain exhibitions that I remember seeing when I was up in Sheffield and [without which]

I would never have known about certain artists. There was an outsider art exhibition at the Graves Art Gallery back in the 1980s and I’d never heard of that stuff before. You can’t really quantify it; you might go to see an exhibition and it plants a little seed in the head that might only flower ten years later.

You did a fine art and film degree at St Martin’s, and your song “Common People” was famously about two people meeting there from very different backgrounds—one of whom would find it much more difficult to go to art school in the current funding climate.

Yes, but I don’t want to turn it into a class war issue because for me, the great thing about going to art school was meeting people from loads of different backgrounds, and I think what always makes any environment interesting is when you’ve got a mixture of people. The thing I’m complaining about is that you will impoverish those institutions if you cut off that sector of society. I’m not saying that it all has to be full of people from council estates, because that would be as bad as it all being full of people from a middle-class background. But the more homogenised a thing becomes, the duller it becomes, and that kind of mixture of people from different geographical places was certainly what opened my eyes and kick-started my creative career.

It probably is especially difficult for funding choices to be made in favour of culture when cuts are being imposed across the board.

It’s just about there being other values than monetary value. We’ve been living through an era where the capitalist model seems to have won out over other ones, but it’s been applied to areas of life that it shouldn’t really be applied to. I think not every human exchange should be about trying to sell somebody something, otherwise it’s a very cheerless existence. One thing about art is the fact that it can actually help you to pass the time without spending money, because if you create art or go to look at art in a gallery, then you entertain yourself, and it doesn’t really cost much. Maybe that’s why they don’t like it, because it’s not good for the economy. If you’ve got everybody walking around amusing themselves, nobody buys anything.

But don’t you think that the expansion of the art market in the past ten years and particularly the arrival of Frieze has been beneficial?

It has certainly reinvigorated the art scene in London; it’s an event now and a lot of people go. I suppose you could say “oh God, it’s a shame that it has to be an art fair for people to get excited about art”, but the majority of people who walk through the doors at Frieze probably haven’t got money burning a hole in their pocket wanting to invest in some art. They are there to see what’s there. You get to see a lot of work in a small space and it does give a fairly succinct overview of what’s going on. However people get exposure [to art], that’s all right—you can’t get too moral-high-ground about it. We have to accept that capitalism is the way of the world at the moment and so we have to find ways to deal with it and make it human. I’m not going to use the phrase “caring capitalism”, but there isn’t another ideology that provides serious competition to it, so you have to find ways of dealing with it.

Will you be at Frieze this year?

I’m out of the country for the opening but I’m going to try to be back at the weekend. I always go to Frieze: I think I’ve only missed one. You always spot some new things you are interested in, the food is always nice and the bookshop is good, and you always bump into lots of people you know as well.


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