What is Art For? Part two

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.

Part Three:

What is art for? Part three – everything is a project from Axisweb on Vimeo.

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.

Part Four:

What is art for? Part four – artists as citizens from Axisweb on Vimeo.

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.

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3 comments for “What is Art For? Part two

  1. rattenfenger
    7 October 2015 at 11:21 am

    Love this Bryan, some of the issues or questions you raise remind me of debates I had internally and with others about the scope of relational aesthetics or dialogical practice (see Grant Kester ‘Conversation Pieces’). I worked in a research centre for 2 and half years exploring the potential for social usefulness of art on the lines of dialogue, talking to people on the ‘ground’ etc as a form of validating and renewing the relevance of public art. I liked the socially concerned ethos of much of it, but I was never convinced that artists (untrained in such matters often) are better social workers, or if they engage in social work, that this is conceptually a different matter from social workers handing out soup, or whatever. In fact, I was often very concerned about artists becoming rather prescriptive when advocating dialogue, so it was dialogue (or action) controlled from the point of view of the artist, which is the artist’s privilege, but when involving other people there are ethical implications and it is also questionable that an artist will make the process more democratic. Of course state initiated or charity initiated social dialogue or engagement is also controlled from above. If the job of the artist is to raise awareness of the way matters are controlled and to lay open the structure of a system or to interrogate values prescribed (by whom exactly (?)- and that can be also be a point) – that is a fine thing to do in my view. But is the idea of participation democratically explored? Need an artist subscribe to democratic values? This all in all raises more questions …. before I box myself in, just to say that I also agree with the stone throwing ‘back bencher’ position of artists needing to remain an option. Being ‘useless’ is just what we are losing sight of. Artists can perform many roles and functions, and have done so historically and continue to do so presently, at times supporting and being supported by patrons, at times throwing critical questions at establishments, often rather paradoxically occupying both grounds at the same time (see Goya). I rather like the idea of artists having the right to perform freedom of speech / image a bit like the court jester/ agent provocateur. In theatre and literature this is accepted – play writers don’t have to earn social respect by sweeping the street. (Although Oscar Wilde allegedly did help Ruskin’s road mending scheme…. did that contribute to his way of holding up the mirror to Victorian society ? Perhaps).

  2. 9 October 2015 at 6:33 am

    I believe artists like any other profession include the whole spectrum of people, those who want to use their skills to ‘help’ and those who want to simply create work for its own sake. I have worked with artists, in Africa, who used their skills to get across a message to people who could neither read or write. There is plenty of place for everyone and I don’t believe artists will be forced to participate in any of these activities but those that do will do so voluntarily. I think ti is a very worthwhile aspiration.

  3. 9 October 2015 at 11:26 am

    That’s true Nuala, but I wonder what the impact of this thinking ought/could/should be on how art is taught. None of the courses (as far as I’m aware) that the OCA offers would prepare anyone for this sort of practice, unless there’s some value in ‘muddling through’ and brining a different kind of sensibility to the world/ Maybe that is the point of art school: it trains people to be critical, to solve problems in unconventional ways, to be absurd, to hold on to something ludicrous until it pays off.

    That confidence in a process (and not in a technique) allows solutions to be found where they didn’t seem apparent.

    I’m not arguing against artists being involved in the world or helping out or even in doing residencies or consultancy work with non-art institutions, I just worry that what is being discussed here id actually a ‘curatising’ of art practice. The curator gets to do what they do now — seek funding, go to meetings, run institutions, liaise with artists — but the artist is not able to do what they do best, but rather apply some of their strange knowledge to fix stuff.

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