The price of everything

Our arts editor is leaving after three years. Her verdict on the cultural scene is stark: artists, l

This is my final week as the New Statesman’s arts editor. For the past four years – first at the Observer, and then at the NS – I have had a ringside seat from which to observe the British art world. Looking back, I realise quite what a bizarre time it has been. The champagne has flowed and the megabucks have changed hands in ever greater quantities (not, I hasten to add, that an excess of either has come my way). Art has always followed the money, and it was inevitable that hedge-funders, Premier League footballers and Russian oligarchs would want pictures for their penthouse walls. Even so, we might have expected the arts to maintain rather more critical distance from the fat-cat feeding frenzy of the new Labour boom years.

I remember, in March 2007, going to see Tony Blair make a speech on the arts at Tate Modern, in which he boldly claimed to have presided over a cultural "golden age". The arts, he told the gathered great and good, were a vital component of Britain's continued economic success: "A nation that cares about art will not just be a better nation. In the early 21st century, it will be a more successful one."

In new Labour parlance, the arts had become the "creative industries". Like bankers and stockbrokers, artists were expected to prop up the wobbly edifice of consumer capitalism, to generate profit, attract tourists, help Britain market itself as a cultural - and therefore financial - "hub".

Placing culture firmly at the service of finance had its advantages for the arts administrators in the audience, too, as it gave them a clear claim on their slice of the government pie. Blair's speech was received with enthusiastic applause and was followed by polite questions about future funding. Nobody asked whether generating cash was an appropriate raison d'être for the arts - let alone what, if anything, a man who holidayed with the Bee Gees and Cliff Richard could tell us about cultural value.

The contemporary visual art scene has been the most slavishly money-serving, catering as it has done exclusively to the rich. As the buyers often know little about art, there has been no rational connection between the quality of the work and its price tag. During my annual traipse around the strip-lit aisles of the Frieze Art Fair in 2006, I watched as the Chapman brothers dashed off portraits that resembled the output of a primary school art class and for which they were able to charge £10,000 each.

That same year, the New Statesman had run a contemporary art special to coincide with the fair, in which we commented not only on the disparity between quality and value, but also on the lack of any political or social commitment in much of the work on show. Matthew Slotover, one of Frieze's directors, tackled me about it. "If you want challenging, political art you only have to look around," he said, pointing out a large, orange Pyrex sculpture in the shape of a missile. If only it had exploded and taken out the whole fair, I might have agreed.

Getting brief glimpses of the international art set in action has been fascinating, if only in an anthropological sense. At the 2007 Venice Biennale, the spectacular parties, scattered liberally with pneumatic Russian heiresses, supermodels and superstar DJs, invariably put the exhibitions in the shade. As one art dealer told me, "Nobody comes to Venice for the art, darling."

At the opening of the Ullens contemporary art gallery in Beijing in November that year, a crowd bedecked in furs and diamonds jetted in to dine on foie gras in an East German-built former armaments factory. The next day, I went to talk to former workers from the factory, now elderly and living in squalid, soon-to-be demolished housing blocks. "My generation worked hard, but we believed that the government would look after us for life," one old man told me. Instead, he was facing forced eviction and his former workplace had been transformed into a chic location for art parties.

It was still less understandable that pop music, with its anti-Establishment history, did not do better in resisting the lure of the dollar. Where was the equivalent of rock'n'roll, punk or rave for the boom generation? Blingtastic hip-hop has ruled the charts. Music festivals have attracted corporate sponsors, erected security fences to keep the liggers out and raised ticket prices. There was an unpleasant racist undercurrent to the protests about the choice of Jay-Z to headline last year's Glastonbury, but seeing him rap about bucks and bitches on the Pyramid Stage was another era-defining moment, a determined refutation of everything the festival had once stood for. Fittingly, he chose to project Damien Hirst's diamond skull as his backdrop.

There have been structural challenges for musicians: in the age of multi-channels and a vast, ever-shifting sea of internet sites, it has been difficult for new movements - and there have been a few interesting and rebellious ones, such as grime and dubstep - to attract a mass following without serious commercial backing. Perhaps the illusion of wealth has also undermined any mass appetite for more challenging fare, in which case there is hope that the next few years of economic austerity will bring a creative renaissance.

My prize for artist of the era goes, I'm afraid, to Damien Hirst: the diamond skull seems more iconic and prescient with each passing day. At the other end of the spectrum, Banksy managed for a while to challenge the art market from the outside, creating works that were accessible to all and, supposedly, unsaleable - but the market got him in the end. His dealer, Steve Lazarides, told me ruefully in an interview of his failed attempts to hold down the prices of Banksy's work. "Well," he said, "communism was a great idea and that didn't work, either."

The glittering prizes have not, after all, made it an easy time to be an artist.