Art: 1. How did we arrive here?
From community to commerce
So much, meaning so little
Thirty years ago the arts took up half a page in the broadsheets, if it was a big story, today it’s in your face from all directions. What I want to look at here is: Why does so much art , mean so little. The isolation of art from social life. Art as a front for the market economy. Sponsorship as censorship. And as I see it, the ultimate challenge to the contemporary artist, to wrestle the arts away from the corrupting influence of of corporations and state ideology back into the community.
Art for peoples sake
There is a tendency for people when left to their own devices to form bonds through cultural and communal activities. Art can represent an important historical reference to these events. Speaking in the context that: “A work of art is a public act, or, as John Dewey says, an “experience”. By definition, then, it is not an isolated phenomenon, having meaning for the artist and his friends alone. Rather it is the result of a whole life experience of the artist as a social being”. 1. Art does not live in a dusty closet anymore than it should be rendered in neon lights, or whatever the newest fashion is. Art, is to do, rather than to be. Good art transcends the object and the retina and feeds the mind.
Art for business sake
We must not therefore confuse the idea of art, with the business of art, or what is termed contemporary art.
The conversion of culture the verb (peoples actions) to culture the noun (things) by administrating agencies and business is what I wish to discus here.
When culture is rendered as commodity The creative life disappears and art is something “you don’t do” but is rather something that is left to the professional, something that can be altered, fitted in here and there, given and taken at will or controlled by, fiscal policy.
This on-going conversion of “doing” to “thing” would be bad enough, or to some be sufferable to some extent, if it’s only purpose was publicity for tourism, property development, conference centre’s, jobs and such like.This is part of it but it is much more. It is an merciless attempt to isolate the population from its cultural roots, and to detach culture, therefore art, from a reliable sources of memory, tradition and history, to one of commodity.
The trivialization of culture is a major factor in the above goal. This would help to explain, the chaos that the establishment presents as art. In this atmosphere it becomes very difficult to see the joint of when art stops and idiocy and trivia begins. The freedom to experiment that the artist enjoys and should enjoy, in the quest for experience and meaning, is being presented as the art itself. There is no longer any need for withdrawal and development by the artist, when regurgitation and reworking of historical reference will sufis as artistic output.
Once the artist’s expectations are under control and reference to past artifacts, means not something the artist develops from, but something that is regarded as artistic plunder. When art is disconnected from its historical context and tradition, in this way, the art becomes meaningless, mechanical and more importantly, harmless.
The development of culture is awkward, slow, quiet, fermenting, reassuring, continuous, flowing and saturates all aspects of our lifes. Art, if it’s lucky, can capture and reflect some of that experience. Non of this of course, fits well into a structured, economically determined, social system, that tries to render the value of culture, as a commodity, through prizes, fame, winners and losers, success and failure.
1. Theories of Modern Art. Herschel B Chipp p470
Stuart Davis, “The Artist Today”
2. Cultural front line – modernized poverty
There is a rich history of the subversion of culture through the control of symbols and art, that stretches back to the Pharaohs. Here we will concentrate on more recent history and the devices that are used to disconnect the artist, as a “social being” to one of “art entertainer” and the public to “art consumer.”
So many of the beautiful, creative, acts, performed and originating in our communities, gets buried in cultural initiatives, regeneration schemes, restricted funding, imported culture; in the form of truck loads of bricks and concrete, glossy handouts, art, artists and the ubiquitous sweetener of a nice new sports centre, arts centre, or swimming pool. Easterhouse, in Glasgow is a good example of this; of the old poverty, replaced by the “modern poverty”, which Ivan Illich speaks of:
“Subjectively, it is the experience of frustrating affluence that occurs in persons mutilated by their reliance on the riches of industrial productivity. It deprives those affected by it of their freedom and power to act autonomously, to live creatively; it confines them to survival through being plugged into market”.
Autonomous community culture, is being submerged in this modern day poverty. It has become very difficult for a communities creativity, to be heard over the noise of the developers marketing machine. This is the front line in the destruction of city culture. The transformation of the poorer areas by the rentier society, as they blanket bomb with luxury housing, hotels, shopping malls, retail parks, in the process of converting community to consumer. One of the questions I would ask. Is this not where the artist should be? Not as a cultural coordinator, but as a participant in community.
Even projects that are community led are in constant danger of the philistine and the artless administrator, whose knowledge of the arts is backward to say the least and should be kept as far away as possible from creative ideas. It is thought these coordinators, that when money is spent on community we should be grateful for the above mentioned, generic, soulless, institutionalised, community centre’s, blocks of bland granite posing as sculpture, in a seamless landscape, geared to blend with the new shopping outlets.
So many great ideas conceived in the community have been wasted at the hands of insensitive funding committees, who would rather spend time and money illuminating a building, than enlightening the mind. But then it is a job well done for, outcome here is not to ameliorate communities through empowerment and participation, but to ensconce them in the impotence of the market economy.
Blame it on the young
“Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present, which cannot be pleasurable for those, like the young who are struggling hard to do the opposite – that is, accommodate themselves to the present.”
The young, suffer much through the debilitating effect of soulless communities and have less of a comparative history, or experience to guide them; so they are left to the hopelessness of fame and fortune.
When our young disrupt and complain of exclusion, when they are taunted by the unobtainable, they become an expedient target for blame, as they take their anger out in the community. Youth are an easy target and the least prepared for the onslaught. The young continue to be a convenient sponge for the ills of society, (even though statistics show that the middle aged, commit most violence and crime; take more drugs and watch more television.) This is conveniently ignored by an older generation who may have enriched themselves in the spoils of better times. Meanwhile the youth of the country, (that is the un chosen ones) are left to gloat at the fortunate, in a culture where everything to them, appears to be measured in money, charisma and personality defect.
The contempt shown to the young artist is no different.
Younger artists have only inherited the end product of the systematic commercialisation and bureaucratization of the arts by the art establishment, through government institutions such as, art schools, the British Arts Council or business interests. How can we blame the young for systems that were in place before they were born? Yes the young are susceptible to all kinds of influences, but non so more than the early influence of educational and cultural institutions. Institutions that are becoming more and more divorced from the culture of communities that they are purporting to serve. Instead these same agencies are now vying for their hearts and minds of the young artist, through prizes awarded for conformity and mediocrity, disguised as “cutting edge”
What- you- see- is- what- you- get. The Art success kit.
The encroachment of technology in displacing the therapeutic value of art is another worrying tendency. Not technology per se which is capable for freeing up time for other pursuits, but the absorption of everything else to the dulling impersonality of the machine.
The medium becomes the message.
Earlier on in computing you had to know a bit about code and the technical language and the tools to build a design using a computer. Now, WYSIWYG, (What you see is what you get), theoretically speaking anyway, allows you to work on your design directly on the screen without having to know anything about what happens in the background. The WYSIWYG program hides the tools that build the program and offers the user magical buttons in which to press at random to create your design in the un tactile world of cyberspace. This is about as near an analogy as you would need to describe much of what is term contemporary art and particularly architecture, where buildings are designed by random configurations on a screen, prefabricated by another machine, with the human element consisting of the rote task of screwing nuts to bolts, thuse rendering the craft (art) of the worker redundant.
WYSIWYG Art usually leaves no clues for exploring further, what lies behind the work of art. Apart maybe, from exploring the psychology that produced it. As I say it is generally described as cutting edge, which is another way of the artist saying I don’t need to explain. You either like it or you don’t. These are your choices. Therefore it is art that tends to alienate, or to use the generic art term “challenges” the public – rather than engages.
Conart, is professional art. What I mean by professional, is that it is run like a business. Here the artist is not judged by her or his peers. Success or failure relies only on how much attention the art work can achieve and still remain harmless to the public and the business agendas or agencies that support it.
Symbolism, plays a big part in the Conart, scene in the form of buildings. Never have we been so well off, for outlets for art. There are galleries and showrooms large and small opening all over the place implying a rich culture, but at close examination they tend to be weak in exhibits and spread to thinly. Conart art may have crossed and incorporated many disciplines, opened up new areas of discovery, literally anything or any subject can be found in use in Conart. The artist has no time to reflect. There is another button to press, a new world to be discovered and it is in these disconnected worlds, the prizes lie.
The homogenization of art as a component of commercial enterprise is no more highlighted, than in the appropriation of environment. Rather than the use of the environment as a setting or inspiration for an idea, the environment does all the work the artist does nothing. There are no more secret places left where the challenging artist hasn’t been. The empty derelict cinema; the disused factory, the redundant bank, the classical interior. All have been claimed, altered, photographed, in the name of art, then left to the colonization of the brewery, luxury flats and the retail outlet. This completes the cycle, in the appropriation of the artistic act by the psychology of business.
3. Corporations don’t buy art they buy the artist
If we look at examples from the arts over the last thirty years we can explain why the establishment (government and business) shifted their approach to art by appropriating art as a product.
The same people who before the early seventies frowned on experimental; performance, conceptual and minimalist art; art that could be nonconformist and difficult to control, exploit, or contain; by contrast, in the nineties governments and business sponsors, herald such approaches to art as our greatest cultural achievement.
The psychology of business
To understand this shift, you have to understand how art has become involved, or flooded, by the psychology of business. Business with the help of government, buys the artist, not his or her work. The work is superfluous and can be anything.(even mimicking the radical) The artwork is not important so long as the artist carries it out in a business like fashion. Everyone is happy, when art can be anything. In turn, education in art, can be arbitrary. A computer or out sourcing can be used in place of the drawing board: life-class, lecture, space to work, or even a college and so on. In other words, a cost effective culture where everyone can have fun, free of the restrictions of conscience or content.
So how did the Tate gallery arrive at sponsoring celebrity parties?
In the past twenty years or so the Turner Prize, has gone from a practically unheard of, (apart from in the art world) tedious, event, to some would say, the even more tedious event of the ‘art party’. The Turner Prize, is now part of the world of ‘entertainment’, not of art. This shift from the sensuous to the celebrity can be traced back to the early seventies when the Tate gallery purchased Carl Andre’s, (Equivalent Vll). (The Bricks)
Ever since the BRICK’S SCANDAL, the Tate has never looked back. The accountants at Millbank (the Tate’s headquarters) must have been rubbing their hands, exclaiming, ‘this is it’ as the public queued at the gallery door. Why waste money on education, when we can make some on entertainment?
What where The Bricks?
The Tate Gallery, London, around 1972 Purchased a work of art by Carl Andrea, Equivalent VIII. The work, which consisted of a configuration laid out on the floor of 120 firebricks. This piece of art, was to become known as “The Bricks” The purchase of his work caused an uproar at the time, (today it would not raise a whimper), helped along of course by the media. At the time one could walk the length and breadth of Britain, enter any public house and say ‘the bricks’ and you would be ensconced in a discussion, argument, or deliberation, of what was, or was not art.
In some respects, the bricks, were one of he most important purchases the Tate, ever made. For one; everyone became aware of; where the Tate Gallery was; what it bought and whose money was used to buy it. What the general public were not aware of, at the time, was that the Tate, frequently purchased contemporary art, some of it even more minimalist than “The Bricks”. And indeed that is the function of the Tate’s collection – to represent modern and contemporary art. The reason the Equivalent VII ( The Bricks) came to the fore of tabloid sensationalism, was not entirely to do with the fact that, it was only some bricks, although this was enough to keep the tabloids happy.
The story, from what I can remember was. The year in which the Tate Gallery, purchased The Bricks, there were other art works, the Tate, may possibly have purchased. As well as Equivalent VII, there was a painting by the American figurative artist Edward Hopper, an artist of which the Tate had no examples of his work. The Tate may have had the opportunity to buy either work but the buying committee’s funds would only allow them to buy one. They chose The Bricks.
The great kerfuffle, was not the issue of whether “The Bricks” was art or not, that was an issue for the tabloids.
The concerns (in the art world anyway) were created by the Tate’s buying committees decision, to buy an art work (Equivalent VII) which they could possibly have purchased a year or so later for the same price, instead of maybe buying the Hopper, which would increase vastly in value over, even a short period of time, and thus be outside of the Tate’s budget. In other words the committee made a questionable financial decision.
What ensued were resignations from the board over the matter. That is when the tabloids got wind of “The Bricks” and started educated the British public, on the dangers of creativity and where it might lead us.
Normally this kind of stuff would be contained within the art world and the public would have been non the wiser The fact that artist, David Hockney, wrote a full page article in one of the the Sunday, broadsheets, criticizing the art world, in general, and the Tate gallery in particular, did not help maters, or did, depending on how you look at it.
Anyway. How the Tate, “Bricks” commotion happened, is not that important, it is what happened after.
It is of interest to note here, at around the time of the ‘Bricks scandal’ the British Arts Council, was making inroads into business sponsorship of the arts. It is also of interest that public attendance at the Tate increased markedly as the public advanced in their droves to the Tate gallery, not so much to view what could be accepted as ‘good or worthy art, but what had been deemed as inappropriate and unworthy, art by tabloid journalism.
The public had to see for themselves, what to them was a couple of dozen ordinary building bricks lying on the floor. (Art of the Degenerate comes to mind in Hitler’s Germany, where the German public came in record crowds to see the banned art and less so to see the art of the leaders choosing)
But this was the dawning of a new era in British Art, that leads us to the present. Where as then, instead of gallery directors resigning when they caused controversy, nowadays they could well be sacked if they can’t. What at one time might cause committee members to resign from the Taite board on principals of art, on the other, was soon encouriging captains of industry and bankers on to the board to encourage setting up a new Tate, money-spinner. If you can’t be original be controversial, pander to the masses.
But As I said at the top, as soon as you let business into the arts, the arts get flooded by the psychology of business – and when this type of animal gets out of its cage it is almost impossible to get it back in again, and once out it attacks every thing it sees- which is why our art galleries, have eventually come to resemble car showrooms on steroids.
4. From community to commerce
How the arts are used to make corporations respectable
Club art CCA (the art gallery)
2002. The literature for the new refurbished Center for Contemporary Art, (CCA) in Glasgow, read:
“Five different buildings have been combined to create one complete artistic space with a bang- up- to- date contemporary twist’. ‘The priority was always to create an open space that people would enjoy hanging out in’.’ CCA’s commitment to fusing night clubs with other art forms’ ‘an essential destination for Glasgow’s clubbers’ ‘Artists will really be able to play here.’
‘His art transcends definitions of sculpture, architecture and interior design; its an art – instillation bar.’ ‘Tempus (bar and restaurant) will provide the key dancing area as seats, stools and tables are shifted for the event’…’ flexibility is the key word. So is innovation. Why do people come to exhibitions? Why look at an object sitting in an art gallery? Why an exhibition? Not just an empty space waiting to be filled with art works, the CCA aims to inspire artists to create something unique. Expect the unexpected.”
Above are comments from a brochure on the CCA’s re-launch, produced by the List magazine, (events guide) which is housed within the CCA, among other commercial businesses. The CCA, has the ambience of a fashionable shopping arcade, with expensive food. Not really the kind of place the uninitiated public would wander into, but very well suited for dancing, drinking, artists to play in, and corporate functions.
The art school perspective on the warring corporations
Two worrying examples I experienced recently that illustrates, the increasing singularity of contemporary art. One was in Glasgow School of Art, and the other took place at the above CCA.
After walking around the art school degree shows (1993), I couldn’t help being struck by the almost complete absence, in the work on display, any reference of the recent war in Iraq. If there were any, it was well hidden from view. I viewed one students work in the graphics department, which reflected on branding and corporate logos. The product design department, showed a collective of work, dealing in perceptions of ugliness and torture, some important issues of our times. Apart from that, I could see nothing, that reflected on this major infringement of liberty, and the democratic process, namely the invasion of Iraq.
OK these were students, submitting their final year show, with jobs and careers to think about. Maybe the four months since the end of the war,(or the real beginning), wasn’t enough time to come up with a few ideas on this important issue. (What an historical theme to miss). Maybe you don’t get any points in art school, for being a human being.
I am not suggesting here, that every art student should drop everything and concentrate, or reflect in their work, on the death and destruction created by their government in an illegal war. (well maybe I am) The thing that is worrying, is none of them did.
Is corporate sponsorship killing the arts?
The second occurrence that concerned me is, I attended a discussion at the CCA, shortly after my visit to the art school. This further convinced me of, the disconnection of the art scene, from what is happening in the world. The topic of the debate was, ”Is Corporate Sponsorship Killing the Arts” A more fitting title could have been, “Stop corporate sponsorship killing the arts” or maybe,“Corporations have nothing to fear from the Arts”.
At this event I felt like someone from another planet, who had a completely different value system, to the assembled panel and, audience. There were about 6 people on the panel, consisting of a cross section of the “art” world, artist, media, lecturer, arts’ council.
Here again the War hadn’t’ happened. The audience and panel alike, ignored and seemed to be ignorant of two facts, as they discussed the ups and downs of corporate sponsorship. One is, the president of the United States, far from being democratically elected, was put in power by corporations, and the other was, the recent slaughter in Iraq, was perpetrated at the behest of corporations.
Can the discerning artist be ignorant of how corporations work? If so, he or she should try a search on the internet. Type in “corporations, arts” and in a short time the artist, will have some serious concerns and reservations, concerning, the aims of art’s sponsorship, by corporations –
“…Among Neuron’s woes surrounding its collapse last year was the loss of its ambitious $20 million program for the purchase of contemporary art and… Cultural capital is especially important for companies that make things that can hurt people, such as tobacco and alcohol. It’s no accident Philip Morris and Sidearm have two of the most respected corporate art collections…The problem for art in all this corporate activity, however, is that the art usually represents the corporate image and interests rather than the other way around. Art that facilitates a productive work environment or solid investments usually does not include controversial social criticism, nudity or political statements of any kind…Such appropriation of the popular conception of artist as innovator is rarely described as image enhancement by corporate spokespeople. Instead, it is often placed in a philanthropic context. The company has a “deep commitment” to the arts, or it wants to make a “lasting contribution” to its local and national cultures. The fact that such commitments and contributions often require millions of shareholder dollars, shift the focus of culture from public domain to private enterprise and turn tax-supported museums into tax shelters for big business seldom gets mentioned. “(See link below)
Who are the real sponsors?
How can artist’s teachers, and the discerning art public, discuss different ways to get into bed with corporations (which was what most of the above panel discussion was about) and completely ignore or be ignorant these facts? Then. Maybe it is me who expects something more from artists, or maybe artists do not see this kind of involvement as part of their work. Or. Maybe I am looking in the wrong places
Interestingly enough the show on at the CCA at the time was “New Contemporary” art winners, sponsored by Beck’s beer. It turns out, from what the CCA curator had to say, was that the gallery received very little funding from Beck’s, to put the show on and basically it relied on the hard work of the staff. So, in actual fact the CCA was sponsoring Beck’s not the other way around. And the final irony was: the talk was also sponsored by Beck’s -That’s why it cost £3 to get in.
I mention this to an artist friend who said he was going to go to the talk, but “wouldn’t’t give them £3 admission.” I didn’t notice, though, (unfortunately) any concerned, or interested, artists outside, demanding to get in for nothing.
5. Where does the artist go from here
Of course, all the afore mentioned has nothing to do with art. Art is all to encompassing to be defined, or limited to a political or business ideology. Art is still in the community, where it was before Distillers co, Enron, or the Arts Council tried to reinvent it in their own image. The difference is it is an art of hope, not of frustration and bewilderment.
I attended an event last summer in the community of Govan. I watched a boat being pulled by eight ores coming up the Clyde towards an assembled cheering crowd. Each person on the boat was involved in the crafts construction. Each one in the crowd were involved with supporting the crews ambition. Each passing observer had a smile on their face.
The boat was an object of art, but the real art is weaved into the spirit of those who built it and the community who now celebrated its creation. The real art was in the kinship, creativity, generosity ups and downs, problems, struggles, banter and laughter as the planks for the hull were shaped. The real art, was the blossoming of a community of disparate souls and disciplines, whose aim is real participation and diversity in art, created in, and by the community and not the by product of artistic institutions.
I also watched recently a group concerned in the fight against poverty, rehearse a play on the pavement in Govan. Passers by and shoppers were exited and wanted to know more about what was happening. The cast of mostly unemployed people, radiated confidence in a new, creative form, that gave a voice to their concerns. This is where the artist can find a dynamic of inspiration, missing in the icy, climate, of the art showroom. In the community that’s where the artist should be. Not just as a visitor but as an integral part of community life. The last question that the audiance was asked at the CCA talk mentioned earlier was. What did we think was lacking in the arts and how could it be improved. The answer to that question is what I have described above. Vision. That is what the “other” arts community lacks. It is a ship with no course to steer.