I came away from OpenAIR with mixed feelings. On one hand it was great to see a whole load of AIR members all eager to find out how we can help one-another and how we can affect change for artists for the better. On the other hand, it was confusing and seemed to lack a clear direction.
The speakers were excellent - it was a really good idea to get non-artists who specialised in engineering change to give us ideas about how to motivate ourselves and other people. However, it would’ve been good to hear from the AIR council about what they were planning. Admittedly part of the day was about trying to find out what we wanted them to help us with, but even that seemed a little rudderless: our break-out session apparently had a theme (or themes) but these were never really made clear, and some of us felt confused as to what it was we were meant to be discussing. When mentioning this we still didn’t really get a clear answer and it felt like we were talking around a subject as opposed to about it.
What were we trying to affect change for? Artists face so many problems - many of which aren’t purely artist’s problems but problems faced by many in the current financial climate. Points were raised about whether we were focussing on being artists solving problems for artists or artists working more generally for the greater good (a notion I think genuinely worth pursuing).
As usual I didn’t really think of what I wanted to say until afterwards - I had so many half-formed questions buzzing around my head that never really amounted to actual responses at the time. I left feeling like I hadn’t really taken full advantage of the event - I could’ve asked more things, I could’ve suggested more ideas. I do have a view on the situation but I feel that I haven’t worked it out yet. Perhaps I should’ve taken Carrie Bishop’s advice and not wait until it is all resolved, polished and packaged, but share it now because you think it’s a good idea and you’re excited by it - and then through sharing you can resolve any problems or stumbling blocks.
So what’s my idea?: I’m interested in how we can change people’s perception of art through the art itself; make a case for the importance of art by making art itself more important. This would involve (I think) a significant, but slow, alteration of how art is presented and perceived. I get the feeling today that there is a general slump in the quality of culture - at a later date I’m planning a large rant about the dangers of nostalgia, the proliferation of ‘photographers’ and the problems with the term ‘artist’, but that’s a whole other thing. To cut it short: I don’t think art does itself many favours at the moment. There are a lot people calling themselves ‘artists’ that produce work which creates ammunition for the ‘art is a waste of money’ brigade. I’m not saying that this work is not necessary or important - I don’t believe in censorship of the arts, I don’t believe in telling people what they should or shouldn’t make and how they should or shouldn’t work - but sometimes you are shooting yourself in the foot by making work that, rather than challenging people, physically puts them off art.
One of the delegates said ‘Artists think differently’ - I disagree with this and I think this is also a dangerous route for artists. Everyone thinks differently. The danger lies in perpetuating the idea that artists are ‘different’ and ‘special’. If we continue this I don’t think that we can overcome the particular prejudices that cause people to be negative about art: that it is not for them, that they won’t understand it, that it is a waste of money. Artists are just people who, like many other people, can be very dedicated to what they do. By setting ourselves apart to such a degree we risk appearing like we want special treatment, which in these straitened times is also going to make people wary of our value.
Can 17000 artists work together to create work which makes a case for art? We don’t really have to change what we do that much - just bear in mind how our work is perceived and work cleverly to instill something within it that adds another weight to the scales to tip the balance in our favour.
As I mentioned earlier this idea is not fully formed, but I think it’s got legs.
I went to the seminar ’The New Economy of Art: What are we worth? Artists and the Economic Crisis‘ last night. It’s part of a series of discussions run by Artquest, CAS and DACS. It began with a panel discussion chaired by Gilane Tawadros with John Kieffer, Zineb Sedira and Bob and Roberta Smith, and then opened up to the audience for questions and discussion.
As usual I couldn’t think of a question until later on (I really have to work on that!). It was interesting and the panel spoke well, with tentative advice and supportive sounds (with the best advice coming from Sedira: “ask for a fee"), but I didn’t feel that they actually answered, or at least addressed, the question in the title of the seminar: What are we worth?
The problem I seem to come across most in my practice is that a large amount of the general public think that art is a waste of time and money. The measures the current government are bringing in (or taking out!) only go to compound this idea that the arts are the least important aspect of our society. Granted, they are not the most important either, but they have a place. Both Kieffer and Smith stressed the importance and impact of the arts in England; Smith particularly, eliciting ripples of applause for his rallying cries. But they’re preaching to the converted. Everyone in the room was either an artist, an arts professional or some kind of cultural engineer. We know art has an inherent value, we know that society will be a worse place without art, without theatre, without cinema, without music. My question to the panel would’ve been: what can we do to prove our worth - to convince those that think art is not for them to think otherwise?
In the Observer this weekend there was an article about a new gallery with a slightly different approach to the dealer/artist relationship. The approach is not necessarily new (it harks back to the days of patronage) but could it provide support for artists in this age of austerity?
First of all I want to point out that I don’t begrudge the artists involved for taking this opportunity - to be offered an amount of money that would allow you to just be an artist sounds like a great way of nurturing talent and helping to develop careers. My problems with this system are as follows: Patronage, at least historically, requires some kind of reciprocation. Monarchs and religious leaders would patronise artists and in return they would paint or sculpt the works that best serve the ideology of the patron. Great works were created through this but they may not have always expressed the true views of the artist. The article makes it seem that the reciprocation here is financial - I’ll give you money and in return you make things that will sell. This also bothers me. The work is still being guided by the feeding hand, the artist is possibly not free to pursue their work in any form they wish. Or, to approach it from another direction, the gallery will only select artists whose work fits this sales model - eliminating many artists from even being considered. What they are also saying is that the only value that really matters is the financial.
Watch this short clip of Stewart Lee discussing arts funding cuts:
I think he has got a point about art having ‘an inherent value in and of itself’ and this is what we should be fighting for. Towing the line of making work that sells is, as Lee puts it, ‘engag[ing] on their terms’. Are you making concessions to the financial market that are at odds with what you want to achieve artistically? Are you agreeing that the only value your work has is that which it can be sold for? Of course some artists do make financially viable work that satisfies their creativity. What I’m arguing for is the freedom to not have to adjust my practice to make it commercial. Can a hedge fund billionaire see it in his or her heart to give artists patronage just because they like good art? The return from this would be good art - art produced in a creative environment free from constraints. Good art is a benefit to society, and I don’t just say that as an artist who would like to be able to make a comfortable living from his own work, I say it as a person who feels that if he couldn’t go to galleries, theatres and cinemas to see the work of people who make no compromises to follow their vision then I would probably give up. The message I would be receiving from such a safe and middle-of-the-road culture would be ‘don’t bother trying’. And if every artist gave up trying then culture would suffer. And if all art were produced through rich benefactors paying artists as production line workers then culture would suffer. It would be the X Factor of art.
If culture suffers then society suffers. We will always need new ideas, thinkers and creatives. This does have, as Lee states, an ‘intrinsic value… that has a trickle-down effect’ on society - high art informs low art, high fashion informs high street, and the inspiration is also reciprocated as ideas switch back and forth freely. To live in a society of culture controlled entirely by financial value is to live in a society that has given up.
’One of the impediments to successful democracy in our age is the complexity of the modern world, which makes it increasingly difficult for ordinary men and women to form an intelligent opinion on political questions, or even to decide whose expert judgement deserves the most respect. The cure for this trouble is to improve education, and to find ways of explaining the structure of society which are easier to understand than those at present in vogue. Every believer in effective democracy must be in favour of this reform. But perhaps there are no believers in democracy left...’ Bertrand Russell, 1932