What is Art For?

This is the first of three blogposts that comment on six short videos prepared by Axisweb. Axisweb is a website and network that showcases all kinds of contemporary art practice produced by its membership. It’s not my intention to transcribe the films so I recommend watching them before going any further.

Watch Part One here

What is art for? Part one – the use value of art from Axisweb on Vimeo.

The speaker in the films is Alistair Hudson, the newly appointed Director of MIMA (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art). He has experience of all sorts of contemporary art provision having previously worked at Grizedale Arts in Cumbria, the Anthony d’Offay Gallery and for The Government Art Collection.

In the first film he lays the ground for a new way of thinking about art and the way it is shown in galleries and museums. Art, he argues, has become something specialist in the wake of the idea of the individual producer of art selling work to wealthy collectors. This, he implies, is a two hundred year blip; for a long time there was no such thing as ‘art’ at all as we know it. He returns to this theme throughout the films. He argues that art has become separated from society and is not really part of our lives anymore and if it is then it’s largely compartmentalised. He’s talking here about non-artists and he’s got a good point.

How many people have contemporary art in their homes?

How much contemporary art would be suitable to put in a home?

In the post-2008 era art is expected to be value for money when supported by the public purse. That is often equated with tourism and/or the ‘attention economy’ and economic regeneration, but what, Hudson asks, if institutions change the way the think about the provision of art?

In the second film he expands this speculation to think about how the museum might reboot itself to change its relation with its public.

Watch Part Two here:

What is art for? Part two – the museum 3.0 from Axisweb on Vimeo.

Art needs to be useful, he says. To do that the museum’s need to reverse the way we think. Putting ‘social development’ first means that the museum would take its place alongside the library and so on as a place much more integrated in the lives of the public.

This would change the purpose of art and the status of the artist, placing some of the onus for a programme with the civic world that surrounds the gallery.

If this model did take root, what would happen to curators?

Would people want to get involved with this or is there something reassuring about being told what to think about a ‘great’ artist?

Would a more ‘ground-up’ model cater the lowest common denominator or be genuinely democratic?

Do contemporary art galleries (MIMA, Tate Modern, The Baltic, and so on) still have a place in society?

What happens to the art that’s being made in studios now?

These questions are troubling to experts and those with vested interests (like me), but perhaps in the current economic climate, they are inevitable.

What else might fall from these changes? The rise / return of the patron of the arts? We’ve already seen a version of this with the Saatchi Collection, but does one wealthy collector unbalance the discussion around art?

I’m not sure what I think about a lot of what he’s saying and he does use on some art-world / academic jargon. You might consider him an art-world insider with much to lose, so perhaps his cause is even more noble. Would he have a job in this Brave New World?

The biggest question – and one we should all ask, even if we never come up with a satisfactory answer – is the title of the series: What is art for?

In the next two films (there are six in all) Hudson takes on the idea that artists are ‘sovereign geniuses’ that point at and criticise society without really getting involved in any positive way, and then asks how artists might get their validation in this new system.


  1. Jmaes Cowan 8 September 2015 at 6:50 pm

    The regeneration of older industrial centres through the building of Contemporary Art Galleries and landmark sculptures has had a chequered history. Parachuting a prestigious building into a town and sending them Arts Council of England devised cutting edge art exhibitions does not always guarantee an appreciative audience. This move by MIMA’s new director seems to be an attempt to re-engage with the local population and the local art scene and with their help try to build a gallery that has some relevance to the area .

    1. bryaneccleshall 10 September 2015 at 5:03 pm

      The danger is with this (well, risk) is that the logic is that certain parts of the country get ‘proper’ art and that others get an easily digestable version of it. Places lie The Baltic and Tate Liverpool show that bringing ambitious shows and outputs to, let’s call them less cosmopolitan areas, isn’t always a failure. In fact, MIMA is part of that narrative too, but these films betray a lack of nerve in the face of economic difficulty.

      Re-booting the museum (and let’s be clear, he’s arguing for a new art that is dependent on a rebooted model of the museum which ties one to the other inextricably), might be an interesting project, but what if the audience demand Vettriano and Chips?

      I think – and I’ll go into this more as I post more about the films in the coming weeks – that institutions should be ambitious and awkward in relation to their civic brethren. I’ve always thought of the Tate and National Galleries as akin to the British Museum or British Library and that their smaller, regional, equivalents are similarly related.

      Some of the premises he sets up sound attractive a liberal, inviting democracy, accountability, and so on, but the implications of such a drive are more… I was going to write sinister, but ‘disappointing’ will do.

      1. James Cowan 11 September 2015 at 11:02 am

        The Arts Council of England distributes public money to support exhibition venues around the country and fills them with travelling exhibitions of their own devising. This does not always go down well with the local recipients. Firstsight the contemporary art gallery in Colchester cost £28m and attracted few visitors. The director resigned and the venue is now run by the more successful Colchester Arts Centre. Popular art does not necessarily attract customers either as can be seen in Sheffield’s doomed National Centre for Popular Music.
        Imposing culturally elitist agendas might work in some larger cities or else in already established art centres such as St Ives but it is not always the case.
        In these videos , courtesy of AXIS an arts Council funded body, the director of MIMA seems to be disguising his now more populist approach by wrapping it up in artspeak – a contradiction in itself.

  2. carolsmithartist 9 September 2015 at 10:30 am

    These videos look like they will be interesting (but your comment about ‘insider jargon’ has put me off from diving straight in!

    However the discussion has brought to mind a couple of other points of view:

    Alain de Botton (contemporary philosopher) in his book ‘Religion for Aethists’ suggests that Art Galleries could become the new secular churches, in the sense that they could provide a spiritual refuge from the mad, mad world. So Art could be for the purpose of helping to achieve a sense of spiritual transcendence, or for the purpose of helping to reconnect oneself to the greater universe and sense of interbeing.
    (Its spiritual function)

    Arthur Danto (American Art Critic, recently deceased) in his 2013 book ‘What Art Is’, said that “art is embodied meaning”. So Art is a form of communication of ideas and meaning – and therefore it if for the purpose of opening minds to new ways of seeing and thinking.
    (Its socio-political function)

    I like both of these ideas (although my own work seems to fall into the first category).

    For me WHERE the work is seen is not about What Art Is For, but is more about HOW to best allow art to aid spiritual transcendence, or open up minds to new ideas.

    In this sense I would be wary of the Patron of the Arts, and the Arts Council – because their socio political agenda is going to affect their choice of what they share or champion. But Art needs them in order to reach the widest public possible.

    And we can see why investors want ‘value’ for money – but if they measure value in anything other than ‘spiritual connection’, or ‘opening of minds’, then they are not measuring the real value of art.

    Imagine if they did measure Art this way: What impact it could have on contemporary society!

  3. jsumb 10 September 2015 at 8:10 am

    My first impression was about the notion of an ‘Art market’, finding ways to express ‘value’ to the community, about ‘economy’… It makes me wonder at this ‘slipstreaming’ of the purpose of Art, as a collective noun for all art, to justify itself by employing terminology that echoes other strata of society that are also struggling to maintain a sense of purpose. I’m thinking here of politics especially.
    Carol’s comment on developing the means to express oneself, that interrogates the world as it expresses itself to what it thinks is itself, is one that I can see a purpose in. I’m very unsure of the place that galleries and museums have become, and so I agree that Art’s place in society needs to be rethought, but if we wait for the structure of the Art establishment to conjure it up, it will likely replace itself with a justified version of itself. Art surely needs to reflect where society might be going.

  4. andhowe 10 September 2015 at 10:26 pm

    I support a lot of what Hudson is saying here in that one way for artists to demonstrate the value of art to society is to make it useful, but then that seems a very narrow scope. I guess the appearance of Assemble in the Turner nominees is a prime example. There must still surely be a place for art to explore pure ideas, philosophy, imagination etc in institutions and art world environments. I appreciate though that it is not so easy to demonstrate its value to a society who are not so well attuned to the visual language of contemporary art. As Hudson says, even when you can show an economic value (and there are plenty of other values) it is not enough when faced with cuts to other public services nearer the front line. So institutions are under threat.
    As someone who has recently retreated from a 30+ year career in environmental engineering to focus on art, I do feel uncomfortable that my art might only exist in an art world bubble. I do feel that I need to apply the art to making a positive contribution to my community. There are projects where one can operate as an artist but where other participants may not immediately be able to identify where the art is. So for example, I have documented the development of new community allotments; I have recently joined a project with Shropshire Wildlife Trust to restore Darwin’s childhood garden and besides clearing weeds, one of the first tasks was to create an art installation along the anti-intruder fence. I am currently curating an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of Shrewsbury’s market hall where we have run a gallery for 5 years. The exhibition spreads throughout the market and partners with another larger contemporary art venue in town – combining art with historical material and narratives of market traders past and present we are trying to show the value of enterprise to community resilience. Most of the traders really appreciate what we are doing for them.

  5. bryaneccleshall 10 September 2015 at 11:29 pm

    I’ve always thought that one of art’s most useful features was its harnessing of the absurd and its inherent uselessness. I stopped worrying about making art that somehow ‘helped out around the place’ when I realised the following things:

    1 – I was making BAD art.
    2 – When they were doing the initial research into imaginary numbers it was seen as esoteric and pointless and the preserve of s a few very bright mathematicians. Scroll forward a few years and how they encrypt your details in onllne credit card transactions relies on this knowledge. If it’s research, it might end up being useful, even if you don’t know how. Don’t ‘second guess usefulness. ( I learned this from listening to In Our Time).

    I refer the reader to the Helsinki Bus Station story: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/feb/23/change-life-helsinki-bus-station-theory?CMP=share_btn_fb

    Some people can make work that seems to be useful or cost-effective, but where does that leave Hockney’s investigation into perception, or Cézanne’s reduction of the world to geometry, or Monet’s rigorous observation of changing light? Those things might not seem very sensible or practical, but we’d be poorer without them (and I suspect they are used by someone in a very practical way).

  6. andhowe 11 September 2015 at 9:32 am

    I agree with you Bryan (most of my engineering degree was based on imaginary numbers!) Art progresses by research, the value of which is often only apparent years later eg Duchamp. There has to be room for diverse approaches, and not a lurch in one direction or another – there is too much of that in politics. The Bauhaus seems to be a good example of an institution that moved along the spectrum from experimental art to design to utilitarianism in order to try and secure its survival but was ultimately stamped out. A bit early to start comparing the current government with the Nazis perhaps.

    I do, however, think there is room for artists to expand into under-exploited areas of “useful” application, which may help build bridges for society to see the value of more esoteric research. It is evident in the current economic climate that institutions will have to fight harder to justify their funding. It depends on how art research is situated in the context of more applied art, perceived to be more useful. The one could support the other.

    Whether individual artists can follow both paths in parallel is open to question – perhaps trying to be useful and conduct research ends up diluting the energy in both. For example, could experimental art emerge from, say, group participation in psychogeographical derives used in mental health promotion, from which an individual artist may draw on multiple experiences to inform artistic response to an environment?

    If a project is worth doing, then executing it artfully can only be a further improvement … but it may not necessarily be good Art. Good/bad art may be viewed differently in the future by a society, thinking in terms of good/bad/useful projects, as compared with the art world. That may not be a good thing, speaking as an aspiring member of the art world, but if changes happen as suggested by Hudson, then the old art world may become extinct and irrelevant.

  7. oliviairvine 14 September 2015 at 4:55 pm

    Another use of art is inspiring others to make it.


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