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To queue for an artist’s postcard

21 November 2010
Published in Culture
by Giovanni Biglino

7.45 am, Saturday November 20th, London. A queue around the block, a couple sleeping bags, foldable stools, thermoses, even a tent. An image that we easily associate with a blockbuster movie premiere, exceptional sports events or a Madonna concert. Instead we are at the Royal College of Art on a cold November morning. It seems that the only other people awake at this hour on the beginning of the weekend are a few joggers in Hyde Park, on the other side of the road. The reason for the queue? The Secret RCA event, opening in 15 minutes from the time I witness the scene.

It all dates back to 1840, still in London.  The novelist Theodore Edward Hook sent the first postcard in history. Today, 170 years later, as Nicola Churchward remarks, “this postal innovation has come to epitomise our aptitude for communicating through images. […] It can inspire and remind us. Calm or excite us. Or indeed make us laugh. A marker in time and place the picture postcard might remain on the wall for a lifetime”.

In a celebration of this medium, the RCA organises an annual exhibition and sale in which hundreds of postcards signed on the reverse – hence the secrecy – are donated by renowned artists, designers and recent graduates from the College. Priced democratically at 45£ each, they are sold to at a maximum of four per buyer and the profit is entirely devolved to fund future scholarships.

Certainly, the affordability of the artworks attracted a wide public. This year’s edition of Secret included works by John Baldessari, Grayson Perry, Jake Chapman, Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, Sir Peter Blake, and also by fashion icons (Sir Paul Smith, Mary Quant, Manolo Blahnik), photographers (David Bailey), filmmakers (Mike Leigh) and designers (Ron Arad, James Dyson). And recognisable names easily attract crowds. A ballot was set up, allowing 50 lucky ones to enter the sale first; certainly an indication of high public demand.

We are used to massively publicised exhibitions, to book tickets in advance to see an art show or to buy a membership to a museum in order to avoid the queues when we can only schedule our visits on the weekend. Art fairs are fundamental networking events for dealers and a restricted number of collectors, but are surrounded by a multitude of events. But this does not mean to be against this trend (or at least not entirely). I myself eyed a dozen postcards and dragged myself to South Kensington from East London on a Saturday morning. My journey did not end there: intimidated by the queue, I seek refuge at Wholefoods and, while consuming an exceptionally early breakfast for a Saturday, I thought of Walter Benjamin and his seminal essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction: “The kind of simultaneous viewing of paintings by large crowds that occurs in the nineteenth century is an early symptom of the crisis affecting painting, which was certainly not triggered by photography alone but, relatively independently of photography, by the work of art laying claim to mass attention”.

An (over?)enthusiastic response to an event such as Secret is certainly positive, with the public showing interest and, ultimately, scholarships being funded.

It is interesting, however, to meditate on the reason behind the long queue outside the RCA. Collecting art, as extensively and more authoritatively treated elsewhere, is driven by a variety of mechanisms – fetishism, social approval and economic investment being some of them. And today, as critic Rick Poynor recently1 pointed out trying to answer the question Where is art now?, “[…] as twenty first-century network democrats, we fervently wish to believe that everyone deserves access, that we are all creative and perhaps even artists, that elitism […] is totally unacceptable from other people because it affronts our ego and sense of self-worth”.

But it would be healthy and objective (and certainly wouldn’t be a first) not only to meditate but also to question the authenticity of this artistic craving and its cultural foundations – when stunning exhibitions are sometimes scarcely viewed and outlandish purchases make the news more and more often.

What we should ask ourselves is: what am I queuing for? Which translates in: what am I seeking pleasure from? Or is it just the prospect of a bargain, the John Baldessari for 45 quid now happily hanged on the wall?

The more sceptical on the subject might enjoy a conversation with independent filmmaker Ben Lewis, who will be answering questions at the Aubin Cinema next Sunday November 28th after the projection of his documentary The great contemporary art bubble. Given the small number of seats I suspect the tickets will sell out quickly, so hurry up to avoid… queuing outside…

(1) Elephant magazine, issue 4, 2010

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