23 May 2007

Art as the new (phoney) politics

Ooh, this Grauniad article by Madeleine Bunting is just too good to pass up, it ticks so many mediocracy boxes. (Not that I wish to single out Ms B for ridicule; she is simply echoing phoney platitudes about art that have been fashionable among the mediocratic elite for some time.)

I'm not going to apologise for turning Guardian verbiage into my own cultural product, by means of the sneaky device of copying it but sprinkling a few subversive elements. If it's good enough for Mark Wallinger et al, it's good enough for me.

Antony Gormley has done it again. He has used castings of his own naked body to provoke national conversations about big questions — about the meanings of places as disparate as the north-east region, a Merseyside beach and London, and about our place in them.

The critics may sniff at both Gormley and Goldsworthy (some do so very loudly) but when has art ever been this popular?

It's about much more than the elite world of collecting. It's about how central a role art now plays in the public realm. No one needs convincing any more. Leftwing local authority council leaders, property developers — these were the types that once dismissed art as an unnecessary and frivolous accessory to the business of relieving poverty or making money. Now both constituencies are falling over themselves to commission that Gormley factor. Council leaders talk as earnestly these days about "place shaping" and the "narrative of place", as they once did about fighting job cuts.

The very success of visual artists, facilitated by the generous funding they've enjoyed since 1997, is putting them under new pressure. Now that they have such a popular, well funded place in the public square, what do they have to say? What do we expect of them? Are they just a form of entertainment to delight and surprise us with unexpected invention (slides in Tate Modern for example) or is it rather that we want them to be saying something weightier, providing insight into ourselves and the conditions of our time? Artists now get lumbered with expectations that in other cultures might fall to shamans, preachers or prophets — or once fell to politicians.

What inflates these expectations of artists is a frustrated desire for change, and an equally profound sense of confusion as to how to effect that change. Over the last decade, art has scored some striking triumphs on this score: Marc Quinn's statue of Alison Lapper pregnant in Trafalgar Square arguably did more to challenge images of disability and beauty than the most carefully constructed anti-discrimination legislation. (*) The Angel of the North's aspirational optimism helped overturn the reputation derived from two decades of industrial decline and demoralisation. Our understanding of how art can bring about certain key aspects of change has increased: it can transform reality by inspiring the imagination.

Art can never do the messy business of politics — the negotiation and compromise. But politicians are now grappling with a new politics about how to change the way people behave in their private lives: how they eat, travel, shop, exercise, drink. And art can open minds and change hearts in a way that our politics is singularly failing to do.

Art is not about the simple certainties of political soundbites. It engages emotionally, prompting a self-questioning. There is no predetermined answer. As Gormley puts it: "The beholder has a share in the giving of significance to a work." The passer-by can interpret Gormley's figures on the skyline just as the art critic and the artist can: art is about opening up conversations and connections in a myriad of ways, even between strangers on the street who share their delight — or contempt.

Some of the most fraught political controversies of our time are migrating into art. In the case of Mark Wallinger's State Britain, this is literally true. One of the entries on this year's Turner prize shortlist — which is billed as the most political ever — State Britain [commentary here] is a re-assembly of more than 600 of the posters and objects of the anti-war protester Brian Hawes that were forcibly removed from Parliament Square in 2006. Now they're sitting in an art gallery.

After the failure of the political process either to prevent the war or to call to account anyone for its prosecution and subsequent development, art appears to be the only vehicle left by which to express the anxiety and unease. Steve McQueen's work, Queen and Country, in Manchester, depicts 98 of the British servicemen and women who have been killed.

The biggest challenge of all to artists is the environment. There is growing pressure on artists to use their new-found authority and audiences — prized assets not available to politicians — to increase awareness of our environmental emergency.

Gormley's figures, with their references to the human race's ecocide, are looking over to the National Theatre flytower, seeded in grass that will flourish and slowly die back over the next six weeks: two installations in conversation across the banks of the Thames. If art has the power to shift engrained habits of mind, if it can prise open the apathy and indifference that is deaf to campaigners, scientists and politicians, then it must be enlisted, insists Matthew Taylor, director of the Royal Society of Arts, which is launching its big programme on the arts and ecology next month.

(*) Apposite comment from NathanPCoombs: "Er, what exactly does [the statue of Alison Lapper] challenge? It seems quite obvious to me that Quinn just saw the potential for PC box ticking and took a shot at it. His only achievement is to convince people that doing enlargements of casts is an adequate substitute for real sculpture. It will be forgotten as quickly as it was made, because technically the work is p*** poor. Its appeal is only limited to social engineering types in the media."

Picture source: Wikipedia.

Re-definitions: from Mediocracy: Inversions and Deceptions in an Egalitarian Culture

Verbiage: copyright The Guardian.


Roger Thornhill said...

The statue challenges my ability to consider the creator an Artist, that is for sure.

TDK said...

Marc Quinn's statue of Alison Lapper pregnant in Trafalgar Square arguably did more to challenge images of disability and beauty than the most carefully constructed anti-discrimination legislation.

Unlike say the statue of Nelson, above it, which clearly reinforced our perception of the disabled as helpless people unable to contribute to public life.