MAL ‘Art… What is the Use?’ – on the symposia at the Whitechapel Gallery

January 30th, 2011

One day symposia at the Whitechapel Gallery – organised by Visual and Material Culture Research Centre, Contemporary Art Research Centre, Kingston University. Co-organised by Dean Kenning and Gavin Grindon

Art...What's the Use? symposium handout

Symposium handout. With thanks to A.C.

I entered the conference room at the Whitechapel Gallery, with a palpable sense of urgency, wondering how are we going to proceed with the question of art’s use, in the light of the biggest cuts to the public funding of arts since government funding began in 1940 (Arts Council England’s budget has been cut by 29.6%). The cuts to the arts need to be seen as part of the wider assault on public services by the Con-Dem government, which under the pretence of crisis is embedding even further the process of privatisation of education, social welfare and culture. While the arts await the cull, with a huge sense of uncertainty, what do we have to say in its ‘defence’? Should we defend it, and what is it that we want to defend?

(For a brilliantly written article on the currents cuts and their effects on the education and the arts, see Claire Bishop’s recent article ‘Con-Demmed to the Bleakest of Futures: Report from the UK’ on e-flux.)

Can an organic farmer Save the Arts?

Artist and writer Dean Kenning, co-organiser of the symposia, spoke of the ‘Save the Arts’ campaign as an example of the campaign which justified the benefit of art in terms of economics, while drawing on the culture of prestige and celebrity to send the message. ‘Even if you are a philistine, art is good for the economy’, said the organic farmer in David Shrigley’s animation, commissioned for the campaign by the Paul Hamilyn foundation (and what could be wrong with a piece of paid activism?) It was obvious that a campaign such as Save the Arts pandered to New Labour’s vision of art whose aim, to quote Claire Bishop, ‘was not to foster greater social happiness, the authentic realization of human potential, or the utopian imagination of alternatives, but rather to accelerate the processes of neoliberalism’. Accepting that ‘reasonable cuts were necessary’ and failing to convince anyone, let alone the government of the arts use to society (even when it is economically profitable), the campaign fizzled out by the end of October 2010.

What alternatives did the symposia offer?

The symposium set out ‘to challenge the idea that art should be allowed to take critical positions safe from any real intervention’, asking ‘if art can play a more directly functional role in culture’ and ‘how subversive is the social uselessness of art?’ (from the handout). This seemed to put criticality (passive) in opposition to intervention (active), while suggesting a possible subversive role of the art and I was growing curious to hear more.

In his short opening talk, Kenning asked if we can distinguish arts use from instrumentality and proposed that art shouldn’t be afraid to become actionism. Actionism is different from activism, it uses strategies that we don’t recognise, signs that lead us beyond ourselves and our unconscious, said Kenning. While I found the proposition of actionist art intriguing, I felt it needed qualifying – what kind of art are we talking about? What forms does it take? To what end, to what and whose use? Perhaps the answers were coming in the remainder of the symposia.

As the day was strictly divided between art theory in the morning and art practice in the afternoon (why this division?), I have decided to meddle a bit with the order, and begin with artists.

The Carbon Map, Ultimate Holding Company, 2007. A Commission by Platform for the Transport Planning Society


Jane Trowell
and James Marriott from London based artist and activist group PLATFORM whose work focuses primarily on the issues of climate justice, spoke about their exhibition ‘C Words: Carbon, Climate, Capital, Culture’ at the Arnolfini gallery. From the energy inefficient perfect museum climatic conditions set in the policies of global insurance companies, to the murky relationship of BP and the Tate PLATFORM indeed painted a convincing and troubling picture of the complict role that art institutions play in the sphere of global politics, private capital and ecology.

Dimitri Vilensky from the collective Chto Delat? What is to be done? had to present his talk via a video link, due to the rejection of his visa by the ever more paranoid immigration authorities. Vilensky spoke of arts importance as that of having anti-functionality, escaping instrumentalisation by the art institutions. The way to escape this, was to work outside and inside art institutions, proposed Vilensky. He explained their project Activist Club, in terms of a practice of emancipation, connected to education (but not to systematic education he pointed out), where the shift from worker to activist was important, as a way of creating ‘mental prototype for political action’. For more on Chto Delat?’s practice please see their ‘Declaration on Politics, Knowledge and Art’.

PLATFORM expressed some reticence about working within arts institutions, while Chto Delat? seemed to advocate a form of reverse instrumentalisation, in which it is not the arts institutions that are instrumentalising us, it is us that should instrumentalise the spaces of those institutions.

Chto Delat? Installation of the Activist Club at Museum Van Abbe, Eindhoven, Holland - 2009

While on the subject of art institutions and instrumentalisation, the example that Marina Vishmidt brought in, made everyone shudder in disbelief. Symptomatic of neoliberalisation of art institutions, she referenced the forthcoming exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery of the Government Art Collection, selected by non other than the Prime Minister’s wife Samantha Cameron; Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg; Lord Mandelson and other members of the political elite. Thinking it was an act of ill-placed irony the audience laughed and shuffled uncomfortably in the seats (sitting lest we forget in the Whitechapel gallery). Perhaps, by the end of this cull there will be no curators or artists left but the government itself? Ultimate art de tête!

Vishmidt continued by explaining the current cuts to public funding and tripling of student fees as attempts at real subsumption of cultural and educational sectors, proof that social production organises around debt and devaluation of labour power.  In this process, art labour can be used as a legitimating process of the new normal claimed Vishmidt saying that ‘it is the workers remuneration that should be brought to art, and not vice versa’. It is here that she referenced the work of New York collective of artists called W.A.G.E. (Working Artist and the Greater Economy) who are campaigning for artists to be paid for their work.

While the work of W.A.G.E. is indeed important in addressing unjust practices of remuneration of artist labour, I still find their lack of critique of neoliberal ideology which facilitates and promotes exploitation somewhat troublesome.

All this raises further questions – would artist union be a useful model of representation and lobbying for artist’ rights of pay and conditions of labour? Would a campaign similar to W.A.G.E. be useful in the U.K. at a time of cuts to the arts? With the Arts Council England being effectively ‘gagged’ by ‘anti-competition laws’ and therefore not allowed to advise artist on their fees, is there not a time to start re-defining what use art institutions are to art?

Writer and lecturer Stephen Wright, from the European School of Visual Arts, proposed ‘usership’ as an opposition to spectatorship, as a potential new frame for transformative art to emerge. While museums have incorporated normative framing devices, namely performative and participatiory frames, allowing activities to appear as art, these frames are also, said Wright, limiting transformative potential of the arts – once we are aware of the frame then it just becomes art, it is powerful and debilitating at the same time. Writer and lecturer John Roberts from the University of Wolverhampton, spoke of the neo-avant-garde, which he claimed, without distance or negation can become used as either a form of ‘social decoration’ or a form of ‘social work’.

Tania Bruguera, Untitled (Havana) (2000)

Artist and curator Artur Zmijewski ‘did not have good news for us’, he said, as ‘examples of useful artistic practice are not easy to find’. He referred to an educational project by Cuban artist Tanya Bruguera, who founded the first school of performing art in Latin America, called Arte de Conducta (behavior art), as one such example of art that is really useful. Zmijewski painted a rather pessimistic picture of an artist as someone who does not want to be responsible for the possible results of their art. Art, he said, usually produces difficult objects, languages difficult to understand, and foggy situations which are often undefined. In his view the art field attracts people who need undefined situations, undefined languages, who don’t want to be confronted by clear proposals, which prevents them from inventing a social movement and taking responsibility for the results.

Is art only seen as useful when it is educational? Could this be seen as potentially patronising or potentially emancipatory? Should we be more explicit in what we set out to achieve with our art? Do we know what we want to achieve, or do we prefer the foggy lands that Zmijewski talked about?

Instead of a conclusion – a call to new ethics?

During the morning plenary, a member of audience called on us to acknowledge the weakness of ‘relational aesthetics’, which when co-opted ends up being a space in which artists pretend to have relations with others.  Is ‘relational aesthetics’ just a sexy term for capitalising on social relationships, or is it making something else possible that would otherwise be absolved into life? Could Wright’s use of ‘usership’ really provide the kind of porous and fluid frame that allows the art and artists to take positions of insider and outsider at the same time? How to strike the balance of what I would call ‘autonomous inter-dependence’?

As I write this last section, I am sitting next to a twenty-something couple, in a trendy bit of east-end of London where, I hasten to add, I do live and work. Snippets of their conversation start to invade my space – we could write that we are working on the social history of the area… how many gates are around the Olympic village… we could pitch it to this gallery and roll it out even to Radio 4. I was sitting in the hub of the business of creative industry, which has become very articulate at selling poverty and the marginalised to the funders. It was in this context that Adorno’s ‘radically useless art’, mentioned throughout the day, began to make sense as a form of resistance to the process in which our relationships and empathy become the capital.

Arts Against Cuts Protest at the British Museum, January 2010

Arts Against Cuts Protest at the British Museum, 29. January 2011

What will be the role of art in the months and years to come nobody knows. Can it indeed afford to take critical positions safe from any real intervention? With the student occupations and protests, there is a renewed sense of re-working spaces of resistance, and forming processes of participatory democracy. When we speak about co-option, and instrumentalisation, we tend to give art a sense of passivity, and there is something in the energy of the campaign ‘Arts Against Cuts’ which refuses that role that I find truly refreshing. Having taken part in the Turner Prize protest, the National Gallery teach-in, and Direct Weekend, I was inspired to find non-hierarchical structure of decision making, the willingness to have a go and muck in, make mistakes as well as headlines. It is these new forms of self-organisation that give me hope in what indeed could be a bleak future.

While I write this under the auspices of MAL, and a pseudonym name, the words and their implications are mine and I take full responsibility for them.  Malgorzata

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2 Responses to “MAL ‘Art… What is the Use?’ – on the symposia at the Whitechapel Gallery”

  1. anna francis says:

    Hallo Making a living, really interested in the debates raised by your longhouse residency.
    Thought you might be interested in a conversation I am having with Rich White, asking ‘Should artists clean windows for money?’
    http://annafrancis.blogspot.com/2011/01/should-artists-clean-windows-for-money.html

  2. Making a Living says:

    Hi Anna,
    Thanks for letting us know about your conversation with Rich White, what an interesting discussion! Curious to know whose windows will end up clean.
    Let us know how it develops – and we will keep an eye on your blog. Thanks again. MAL

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