Memeification of the Metro

David Hockney's work holds the viewer in disdain and furthers public alienation and disengagement from the arts.

The Mayor of London has just unveiled new artwork (via Twitter) by David Hockney, which consists of a Microsoft Paint redesign of the Piccadilly Circus underground station signage, and features in the digital advertisement displays. Sadiq Khan describes the image in his tweet as “brilliant work” and “the first in a series of major art projects we’ve commissioned”, indicating that there will be more visual insults to follow. The piece is a part of the #LetsDoLondon campaign, which aims to encourage engagement with the arts in the lead up to gallery re-openings in the next few weeks. If you consider a quote tweet outrage “ratio” as a legitimate form of public engagement, the campaign is an immediate — albeit cynical — success.

Computer drawing is typical of Hockney’s newer work, which is similarly naive in style, but much more interesting than this latest commission (although still a long way from A Bigger Splash). The Piccadilly sign, however, is deliberately bad, with little to redeem it conceptually. Hockney’s ability to pass this off in the context of fine art is almost entirely due to his past success and reputation. It’s the kind of elitist statement that rescues failed experimentation from the paper bin (or “recently deleted” folder) and forces the viewer to deny the evidence of their own eyes and join the art world and its enablers in nodding approvingly over the emperors’ new clothes. The misplaced “S” is a statement masquerading as a mistake: there is clearly enough room on the above line, but the point is to indicate that the artist has f***** up the letter spacing and yet! it’s still worthy of a major public commission. Oh, contemporary art, how you challenge me! Only, we’ve been having the conversation on the boundaries of art for about a century now, and the average person doesn’t want to be reminded of the postmodern quest to destroy all beauty and shared meaning on their commute to work.

This bourgeois conversation starter is particularly insulting in the current context of the pandemic and the huge increase in poverty and unemployment. The “#LetsDoLondon” campaign is aimed towards reviving the arts and entertainment sector after having been devastated over the past year by lockdown measures (although this art is enough to make the public want to #StayAtHome). To make matters worse, the UK government is now pursuing a “catastrophic” 50% cut to higher education arts funding, effective from autumn this year. Both inside and outside of the art world, those allocating the funds see the profession as unserious. At the top, high-paid, high-exposure commissions for gimmicky statement pieces; at the bottom — well, have you considered a job in cyber?

In his announcement tweet, Khan has made sure to repeat the artist’s name in a “hashtag” to remind the viewer — whose offence is anticipated — that this is a cultural product from someone taken seriously by the establishment. Failure to “get” the work or question its craftsmanship is an admission of ignorance and we need look no further than the replies to see the names of the uninitiated. Those commenting “did a child do this?” are falling into the trap. The artist has intended to challenge the “preconceptions” of the audience. The postmodernist’s will is bully-like in its relentless desire to destroy any sense of acceptable standards or reasonable expectations in the psyche of their victims. Responses of “I could have done this” or demonstrations of such through parody versions bring to mind the scene in We Go to the Gallery: A Dung Beetle Learning Guide, in which the mother responds to the same statement from her child with a smug, “but you didn’t”. There really is no way to engage without having the conversation the artist and commissioner intended you to have because the intention is the conversation. Look what we made without you, with your taxes, that you’re now forced to discuss.

Until recently, the streets of London were bordered up and deserted — a stark visual reminder of the harsh reality of the past year for ordinary people. Now, with the re-opening of society, the public are faced with work that holds the experience of the viewer in disdain and furthers their alienation and disengagement from the arts. William Morris once described art as “the expression by man of pleasure in his labour.” Hockney’s public installation communicates the pleasure of the artist and establishment in precisely the opposite. The memeification of the metro is an in-joke, and it’s the British public who are being trolled.