We’re glad to welcome Art Plugged’s very own Verity Babbs for a conversation. Verity works in contemporary art and art writing. She is our Chief Writer here at Art Plugged and the Artist Liaison for Rise Art.
Art is communicative in its very nature – artist to artwork, artwork to viewer, artist through artwork to viewer
– so I like dissecting that.
She graduated from Oxford in 2019 with a BA in History of Art. In this conversation with Art Plugged, we will be getting to know more about Verity, her inspiration, how she started, and more.
Q: First things first, why do you do what you do?
A: Everything I’ve ever done has been driven by a love for communicating and making things up. I liked analysing books and artworks in school because I was good at having unfounded opinions on things and running with them. I love the space art gives me to do this. I’m a big believer in having opinions on art even if you don’t feel qualified: I certainly don’t feel qualified. I want to interrupt the art world that belongs to jargon, wealth, and propriety. I also want to be really well liked and be on TV.
Q: What is your inspiration? What made you choose art as profession?
A: I love going to galleries, and art programmes on TV, and I love sounding knowledgeable. Art makes me feel good. I’ve given up with feeling guilty about not knowing about the entirety of art history, or every single artist’s portfolio. Art is communicative in its very nature – artist to artwork, artwork to viewer, artist through artwork to viewer – so I like dissecting that. I’ve always loved my experiences working directly with artists and learning about their thought processes and goals. I also like networking and being invited to events that make me feel important.
Q: Who is your favourite artist and why?
A: I saw Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012 and that’s what started it all for me. Damien Hirst had a restaurant in the little seaside town in Devon my Grandmother had grown up in that we would go on family holidays to each year since I can remember. As a child I thought his pill wallpaper and the fish trapped in formaldehyde in the restaurant were really funny.
And that’s one of the things I really respect about Hirst: he’s ballsy. I took part in a public-speaking competition at school called ARTiculation and I spoke about Hirst’s medicine cupboards and the Sex Pistols. I wanted to be ballsy too. Hirst’s work brings me a deeply ingrained joy that links back to those family holidays. He erected an 65ft sculpture in the town in 2012 and called it Verity. I like to think we’re on the same wavelength. I love his titles, and the concepts he’s grappling with, and how big he became. I find the idea of artist-turn-celebrity and the sort of vast wealth that comes with that really interesting.
Q: Which artist do you think has made the most impact in last 20 years?
A: Banksy. Banksy makes art that people who don’t like art like. I think he also makes people aware of things we ought to be angry about. Banksy is a really interesting case study for when we’re talking about the financial value of art and what art is and what it’s meant to do. There are a lot of t-shirts and mugs and duvet covers with his supposedly inherently anti-capitalist art on. Original Banksy’s in Shoreditch are covered with bulletproof glass. Does that defeat the whole point? Probably One of the best things I’ve ever seen was Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’ in Weston-super-Mare in 2015. I did buy a T-shirt.
Q: What is your favourite piece from your collection?
A: I’m really lucky to have collected some beautiful pieces over the last year or so, mostly from art fairs. I’ve got a really low budget so each piece cost me under £50. One of my favourites is a monochrome photograph by Mark Christopher Long that I picked up at a Print & Zine fair at Peckham Levels. It’s of a bloke in an England hoodie crouching down with his two bulldogs. I remember seeing it in the folder and falling in love with it. It’s got so much character. I’m also really interested in the concept of England and Englishness.
Q: What do you find valuable about art history?
A: I’m not an artist myself so can’t vouch for how valuable it is for one’s artistic practice. I do know that I’m able to analyse art in a lot more depth now that I have a mental bank of other artworks and art references introduced to me through studying art history. I think it’s imperative to preserve art history but also to expand it to include the visual matters that we come into contact with every day.
Art History hasn’t got its stereotype of being studied by privileged independently wealthy white girls for nothing: it’s elitist in plenty of ways. The idea that some art is purer, better, and for a more intelligent audience than other types of visual media is dodgy. Some of the most interesting stuff I studied were pieces of advertising and ephemera. Art history, like any history, is important because of what it tells us about how people are expressing themselves, communicating with others, and how/what societies consume.
Q: Do you feel there are still gatekeepers to the art world?
A: Yes. And it can be nasty. Commercial galleries and big institutions like Frieze certainly still rule the roost. I’ve worked briefly in galleries where the managers have fessed up to not knowing the names of the works on display, but definitely knowing their prices. Like any industry, money rules. ‘Outsider’ art has far more heart than the institutions based on art as a financial investment. I think it’s this ‘outsider’ art that we’ll see take over public spaces more and more in the future.
Q: What do you think is the primary challenge facing exhibitions today?
A: I think the main challenge facing exhibitions is that there’s loads of them, especially in London. That’s also brilliant, but getting viewers in can be tricky when you open on the same day as 10 other exhibitions in the same postcode.
Q: What do you like and dislike about the galleries/exhibitions?
A: I like going to exhibitions where there is no pressure for me to know anything about the artist from my studies. I love going in just letting myself feel. I’ve got a pretty short attention span so I’m not great with large galleries. That’s another reason why I’m anti-Frieze – it’s massive. I’m reading a lot at the moment about Slow Art and the importance of Slow Looking, so smaller exhibitions give me the opportunity to practice this. I feel bad skipping past lots of work at an exhibition, but I’m getting over it.
Q: Is there anything that worries you about how social media is affecting the art world?
A: Social Media is brilliant but by no means without problems. Social Media has been invaluable to me in my career: starting an Instagram account where I posted pictures of the talks or exhibitions I’d been to has introduced me to wonderful people with whom I now collaborate.
I think social media has made the art world more collaborative and has obviously made it easier to find art work you like. My problem with artists on Instagram is just like the problem with exhibitions: there’s loads of them. Social media is oversaturated so it’s hard for artists to get the recognition their work deserves.
Q: In your opinion, where do you see the future of art in 10 years?
A: I’m hoping the public realm will become more and more filled with art. I reckon our public spaces will need to become symbols of community and creativity in the face of the climate change crisis and growing political apathy.
Q: What upcoming artists do feel are challenging the status quo of the art world?
A: Loads. I think most people making art at the moment want to be challenging the status quo, or at least to be adding their voice to the mix. If I’m going to do two shoutouts it would be to Ellie Pennick of Guts Gallery which focuses on giving a platform to underrepresented voices in the art world, and to Elaine Robertson, a brilliant artist and comedian who I met at uni, who set up Conny Festival – an arts festival in Consett, County Durham – last year with Ellen Ranson. It makes me really hopeful for the future of the art world to see people taking up space, creating platforms, and going for it.
This was Art Plugged in conversation with our chief writer Verity Babbs; you can stay up to date with Verity by following her on Instagram to view all her latest finds of emerging artists, exhibitions and more.