This is the second blogpost that acts as a commentary to the Axisweb films ‘What Is Art For?’
In the third and fourth of the six films Alistair Hudson (Director of MIMA in Middlesbrough) expands on his ideas for rebooting the museum and then speculates on the status of the artist in this radical rethink of the way that art, museums, and society interact.
He builds on the second film (covered in the previous post, above) by exploring the implications of rebooting the museum as a civic centre, evoking the memory of the ‘institutes’ that Victorians set up and that were, like libraries, seen a places of elevation and learning for all society.
This vision reverses the relationship of the museum shop, cafe, and so on with the gallery. What if the gallery supported those enterprises? Could work made in the gallery be sold in the shop? What if the cafe was an art project and not just a cafe? What if the museum got involved in housing or healthcare provision?
Hudson argues that by involving artists in these things and not just as content providers for a museum programme centred on display, that these pursuits could become more ‘artful’. Before working at MIMA Hudson was based at Grizedale Arts in Cumbria who have experimented with all sorts of projects over the past few years, including setting up an honesty shop for local products. I detect some of that approach (which I think has its roots in a Ruskinian ‘do-good’ ethos) in what is proposed here.
My qualms are related to the status not so much of the artist (which we’ll get to, below), but of the art. Does the ‘art work’ simply shift register and become temporary or something ‘used’ rather than looked at? I’m interested in this because I do think that art could be more useful, but am also convinced that one of art’s most useful attributes is its uselessness. It can be absurd, speculative, pointless, stupid, wildly ambitious, a grand gesture, and not feel beholden to anyone other than the desire for it to be made that rests in the artist.
In the fourth film, Hudson, challenges the idea of the ‘sovereign artist’, looking to undermine this idea of the genius that sits on the sidelines of society, criticising it but not engaged with change.
Would the artist, in this conception of the art world model, have any real authorship? Is that important? Should artists be allowed to sit on the sidelines and hurl rocks rather then help out? Is that valuable, like a creative version of ‘pure research’?
One weakness in Hudson’s model (which to be fair seems to be a set of discussion points rather than a fixed plan) is that he wants artists to engage in a system they didn’t set up. He speculates on the ‘noodle bar upstairs’ in the gallery being an art project. That makes the artist / workers sound like they’re doing something other than feeding people. Many artists do work in coffee chops, cafes, and noodle bars anyway, so what’s the difference? And why should they muscle in on the territory of people who just want to run cafes, provide healthcare, housing, anyway? Are artists that good at adapting? Or is the artisanal coffee shop that you sit in an art work already?
I’m troubled by this. I think I understand some of the roots of the ideas, but wonder if the authorship begins to slide towards the institute and away from the artist who becomes a worker (albeit paid and valued) in a system not of their making.
Is this a kind of exploitation or would it actually allow artists to make a career of their practice more easily? Does that matter?
It seems clear that the title of these talks ought to be ‘What is the Museum For?’ and that it’s the meaning or purpose of the art that is what has to change.