Artists supposedly harbour an inherent selfish gene. It glows and pulsates in the gut, excreting a jelly-like substance that protects a deep desire to do one’s own thing. How does the practice of being with ones own thoughts, evolving ideas and making ‘work’ that may or may not be of interest to others, relate to a sense of solidarity, collectivity and the ‘commons’? There is already a problem here of creating a false dichotomy between collective and individual modes of thought and action. I frequently mingle in the corridors of a collective mind whilst my own individual brain wobbles on my shoulders.
The notion of individual self-interest is not the preserve of the artist but when the word artist is muttered, thought bubbles often fill with terms such as ‘genius’, ‘flaneur’ and ‘outsider’. These bubbles are not so easily burst. Indeed, it is often in an artist’s best interest to maintain these associations to build on their symbolic value and hence ‘employability’. Many of us engage with our minds in solitary moments more than other people perhaps have the time for. It is these critical engagements with the self and society that are difficult to justify as ‘work’, let alone work that should be publicly subsidised. So there are those of us who campaign for that right – that critical contemplation, the input we can have and/or the outcomes of these processes should be considered valid professions, on a par with other professions servicing a general, common good, like teaching, nursing and policing.
As artists, some of us are interested in pursuing that contradictory desire to disrupt expectations of the function of art whilst fighting for the right to be paid to do that dismantling. To what extent are we prepared to fight for the human right of practicing that which is not asked for, that which is not ‘productive’ or that which is not motivated by financial gain? It is this right to ‘non-productive’ critical thought and action that is being eroded across institutions of education as well as arts funding in the move towards a safer, economically justifiable model of supply and demand. The ideological shifts that are happening at the moment in the UK are having an impact on the already weak arguments for justifying critical art practice as a common good. Such practices consistently fall to the bottom of the pile (if that’s not its home already) when potholes need mending and students need kettling.
There is an inherent contradiction in protecting ‘me-time’ as essential to the professionalisation of an artistic career whilst calling for a broader, collective model of what I’ll call ‘cultural democracy’ – the idea that everyone, not just artists, have the right and responsibility to that ‘me-time’ that might lead to a critical engagement with the world. Cultural democracy disrupts the fact that from an early age our futures are shaped by paths signposted ‘art’, ‘science’, ‘success’ or ‘failure’ that open up and close down before us. The drive for inclusive (albeit conflictual), democratic self-expression is threatened, however, by the protectionist approach of artists who fight for a state of exclusion and ring fence funding for the continuation of their profession. Likewise, the call for everyone to reclaim their right to their own ‘critical art space’ threatens an art industry of trained experts who define themselves through their uniqueness from others.
This is an especially urgent question now, when we are told there is less money to go round. Artists are pitting against the police, primary school teachers and doctors for increasingly small pots of money. Calls for protectionism from big art organisations and celebrity artists are precariously propping up a teetering ‘industry’ on the verge of collapse. Furthermore, it keeps the ideology of the artist-profession loosely intact whilst still failing to address fair pay.
So what to do with this schizophrenic mind? The right for us all to be selfish artists is perhaps one of collective, common concern. How can we develop an argument for recognising ‘autonomous’ cultural work as work (clarifying when it is work and what is being paid for) whilst encouraging others to think like artists through cultural democracy by demanding and reclaiming unrestricted, unprogrammed, non-profit, self-directed moments which can’t be reclaimed by bigger agendas unless we want them to be?
Posted by: Alice Mallings (MAL)