Secret Agents

This essay appeared in Art South Africa Volume 7 Issue 2 2008


I honestly do wonder, without wishing to be morbid, how I reached this present pass. So far as I can remember of my youth, I chose the secret road because it seemed to lead straightest and furthest towards my country’s goal. The enemy in those days was we could point at and read about in the papers. Today, all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of life in terms of conspiracy. This is the sword I have lived by, and as I look around me now I see it is the sword I shall die by as well. These people terrify me but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgment of my peers.

George Smiley in a letter to his estranged wife Anne

from John Le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy (1978)

George Smiley, the most famous creation of spy writer John le Carré, is an espiocrat, a desk man working for MI6.  His interpretation of life as conspiracy might seem a quaint fragment from a genre novel, reflecting the paranoia of an age obsessed with the Bomb and locked in a Cold War of misty grey areas. However, with the looming fear of terrorism and ecological disaster new surrogates for the Bomb, a Berlin mist spreading and settling in for the long haul, the conspiratorial mind doesn’t seem so far off the mark in contemporary life. When interpreting art, this mindset seems well in place and the fear of betrayal, while melodramatic, seems appropriate. The practise of art, right down to its language and culture, is filled with daily betrayals.

The history of art, too, is a treachery both vast and petty. In terms of personalities it is filled with perfidy and vindictiveness. Imagine the moment when Duchamp’s urinal was rejected from the Society of Independent Artists, or when Guy Debord expelled Constant from the Situationist International, or when Clement Greenberg turned his back on Abstract Expressionism in favour of Post-painterly Abstraction. Art History, as a meta-narrative, has betrayed us. In Le Carré’s <I>Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy<i> (1974), the double agent Bill Haydon is described as being “recruited before Empire became a dirty word” and the last spy still working on the Great Game – a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s <I>Kim<i> (1901), in which the Great Game referred to the culture of espionage in India at the turn of the last century in the face of panic about Russian expansion into central Asia. Haydon’s unfaithfulness is more about hurting that which has lost faith in him than any conviction for the other side.

Art history is like that, uneasy with post-modernism, with post-colonialism, still obsessing with its movements and geniuses, especially in the popular imagination, still playing the Great Game. As we start to suspect that it is no longer telling the truth, it lashes out at us. We have to keep prodding and poking it.

American curator Ralph Rugoff gave one such prod, in 1997, with the exhibition <I>Scene of the Crime<I>, which, drawing on ideas he had published in the <I>LA Weekly<I>, offered the metaphor of a detective to help understand (predominantly West Coast) post-war art, when art was largely to record actions. Rugoff, currently director of London’s Hayward Gallery, cast the viewer as a detective, possessing “a scanning gaze able to sift through the details of a scene, to shuffle fragments of information that seem only haphazardly related”. The viewer was responsible for solving the crime, the body of art, not like a sum, but like a gumshoe pulling together an interpretation from clues.

The more one sees art as conspiratorial and paranoid, the more this interpretation makes sense. However, as we move away from the gestural to, as Nicholas Bourriaud puts it, the relational in art certain elements of Rugoff’s metaphor seem out of place.  The idea of art being a passive body, a scene, is no longer viable when interactivity is the new watchword and there aren’t necessarily any objects. An example would be the production of Ed Young, which is entirely based on the cult of personality – objects are incidental. Young’s identity is purposeful and planned as an artwork. Identity too can be active, as in the work of Charles Maggs where he plays continually with an alter ego, Ron T. Beck. Julia Rosa Clark’s production is based in objects and prints, but actively spills into social life via technology like Facebook.  The trace of the artist, the accidental clues at the scene, seems to deny the agency of the artist who is often a very conscious collaborator. Kathryn Smith is an artist who lovingly develops the clues and purposefully obscures them in her work. It is a highly determined art that leads the viewer onwards through a set of gateways and hints. The market, which has become a dominating force in contemporary art, or at least a measure of exchange, is also missing from the metaphor.

Remembering how secretive people are, even to themselves, and with the ghost of art’s betrayal hanging around, the metaphor of the spy is easily tapped to fill these holes. Art is an encoded language; artworks are ciphered messages. Art, like espionage, is based around an exchange of information. In the words of Marcel Duchamp: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

If the viewer is the interpreter of disparate information, the galleries that show their labour and the publications that write about it function collectively as an archive, their staff archivists and filing clerks, enriching the information by cross-indexing and alphabetizing. They produce the discourse, the matrix for art to exist. Within this system, the artist however remains a ghost, a shadow, a secret agent; despite their elusiveness, they are the active encoders, the personalities at the heart of the industry. The artist’s motivation can be as complex as the spy’s, it can be the lure of money, or the pull of idealism. Often it can be about sex and sometimes love. It can be the enacting of rebellion or the satisfaction of a giant ego.

To quote Le Carré again: “A spy, like a writer, lives outside the mainstream population. He steals his experience through bribes and reconstructs it.” Similarly, artists are an insular group, who parasitically prey on, let’s call it “society”, for ideas, for work, for images; and yet their host barely knows they even exist, only has a vague idea that they, artists, are important for society.


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