Death by a thousand cuts how fine art killed itself

The latest figures are spine-chilling. Cloaked in a fake Liberal shroud the right-wing zealots behind Cameron and Osborne’s ‘realignment’ of British politics are systematically closing down the founts of opposition. Its a tactic worthy of sixties France but because the arts fraternity are trapped like rabbits in the headlights nobody seems to be able to respond. A well aimed boot at Millbank does not change the agenda one iota.

In the Telegraph’s list of most affected humanities Universities Nottingham Trent is near the top. Along with Falmouth, Goldsmiths and Norwich it one of those ‘arts-based’ Universities ( pace old Polytechnics) singled out for attack. The reason simple. A right-wing government will not fund centres of excellence however well or badly run that career to close to a left-wing perspective. Despite years of market-driven forces and business orientated management that all but driven the Marxists to the wall the arts colleges are the last bastion of free-thinking leftism. As Stewart Lee rightly points out this is worse than Thatcherism. She would have loved to have destroyed the ‘luxury’ of such institutions. Now before she slips into history her bidding being done by her political spawn.

Does this matter? Well yes because alongside a direct attack on the fundamentals of a liberal society e.g. education for all is a direct attack on the ideological foundations of that society. You can now express any opinion as long as it free-market.

The long road to the present car-crash is a minefield of good intentions but contemporary art and its institutions and apologists has paved the way for their own slaughter. When a modern University can respond to students with the message ‘we do not want your life-drawing’ we do not ‘do’ painting’ we know we in a sorry state. Justifying further funding against a backdrop of nepotism, slack intellectual foundations and clearly lacklustre and befuddled cohorts no wonder the rightists having a feld day culling the weak and unnecessary.This is not just one institution it has crept virus like into the whole body from the Goldsmiths injection point.

It is almost impossible to defend a system that grew fat on easy money and gorged on flatulent theory. Even a smattering of old-school rigour and skills based training…you know all that messy drawing and painting would have stood us in good stead now. But a lame conceptualist blowing bubbles and chanting Kant is probably as good as it gets. It has been a slow artistic suicide that all conived in to further and feather their own nests and lo and behold now the whole tree being chopped down.

There will be no last-minute reprieves and most if not all fine art courses as we have presently configured will shrink or disappear. We are back in Royal Academy pre Pop-Art territory with only the most cushioned able to learn and create. In the new landscape only commercially viable artists will survive. We will see a rise in conventional conservative buying and creating and curating habits it comes with the ‘new reality’. The Arts Council is finished and only the most partisan advocates of its waste and confusion will miss it (i.e. those most rewarded by its skewed sense of smug righteousness..we are saving art darlinks…yes well done ACE … like the Vietnamese Village that was destroyed to save it.).

I take no pleasure in watching the corpse shudder and leak unto its last breath but unless the leftist arts-world coheres and starts building a coherent and skills-based response it game over. Deader than Marysas we will be left with nothing but the skin of the conceptualists to wonder at. Did we ever really fund their flaky musings?

Moogee International

Not content with just upsetting the great and the good of the British Art Scene Moogee is casting his bark wider in alliance with At Design Cafe Netherlands. Art Design Cafe is a radical mash-up arts portal with a unique combination of Punk fanzine/Radical Curatorship and Celebrity Farce-Art wings….now Moogee has his own little Kennel in this Mansion of Alternative International Art World Culture….

Moogee the Art Dog International PLC

Watercolour in Britain: Sheffield : review

A touring exhibition which started in Norwich and currently at Millenium Galleries Sheffield this Tate Gallery touring show comes with a specific tagline i.e. ‘Part of the Great British Arts Debate’.

Now, if you are not aware this Great British Art Debate commenced during the first wave of Arts Council ‘restructuring’ about two years ago. This seems to be a spin off from that ‘debate’. At the time that debate really amounted to no more than carefully chosen individuals talking in a ‘closed shop’ about how best to redeploy funding in face of cuts by the then blah

Any attempt to genuinely ‘widen’ debate and participation is to be welcomed. That the Tate should choose to wrap a watercolour exhibition in such terms says more about current arts politics than any real ‘debate’ out in the Shires. This exhibition highlights the deep uncertainty and failure of contemporary art to address notions of both identity and place and technique properly. It raises more questions than answers but not in the way intended.

The exhibition contains a great deal of stunning work and no-one can complain about seeing (even if in very low light to preserve the fragile colours) a collection that shows Turner, Blake, Sutherland, Burra and Offili in the same space. The Millenium Galleries, to their credit, are showing both local war artists and local ‘amateur/professional’ painters work alongside the ‘masters’. However all of this is constantly being drawn into the shaping argument that a leaflet posits thus:

“Watercolour paintings have become shorthand for a comforting, conservative world view, rooted in the English countryside and largely rejected by the contemporary art scene. It wasn’t always so”

This statement has no author. It is presented as essentially true when it is, of course, contestable. It is illustrated by Burra’s ‘Soldiers at Rye’ which is in the exhibition (see illustration above). Again our anonymous author cannot help but shackle a political point to it –

“” no portrayal of a pastoral idyll”

before drawing a comparison to oil painting which is just plain silly.

The comments also include a statement that this exhibition illustrates a ‘remarkable diversity’ and also asks ‘where next’.

This is, I presume, continued in the exhibition catalogue which I did not buy for the simple reason that the interesting local artists and the work illustrated did not reflect what shown in Sheffield. It appears that if one wants to see the David Jones and John Piper work shown in the Tate publication one has to travel to Tate Britain next year.

The exhibition addresses two fundamentals of the watercolour tradition ‘sense of place’ and ‘technique’ and tries to map them to a contemporary notion of ‘diversity’.

Watercolour paintings have become shorthand for a comforting, conservative world view, rooted in the English countryside

‘Shorthand’ is an unsatisfactory term based on a shallow perception of the tradition. ‘Shorthand’ suggests watercolour painting is somehow inferior to the ‘easel painting’ tradition and involves an almost throwaway sense of gesture usually ‘en plain air’. Anyone with a slight knowledge of the painstaking care that went into a Cotman or Turner can already see there a problem of some mis-aligned value systems here.

Instead of starting with the ‘tradition’ the commentator is explaining the tradition backwards with a rather ‘secondhand’ shorthand of their own. The suggestion they make is that watercolour is merely an amateur’s playground and the contemporary refuge of the conservative artist only. This smacks of the contemporary arts graduate view of art history and technique based on little real comprehension of its true history or creation.

i.e. in short – Watercolour + Landscape = a moribund ‘white male’ tradition.

This notion is so embedded that the whole last part of the exhibition is set up as a failed retort to this assumption which instead of making one applaud the ‘beyond’ as ‘groundbreaking’ simply reinforces that there has been a break in both technique and value system which leaves no ‘beyond’ – simply a sense of closure of that particular tradition.

If the instructional videos and cases of ‘this is how you do it’ sketches and paintings littered around the show inspire one person to try the technique that is fine. However the examples used were illustrative in the manner of the conservative tradition the exhibition is supposedly challenging. Instead of inspiring true engagement it suggests an administrative dumbing down, reflected again in the noble but ill advised attempt to show and sell local work at the exhibitions end. It would have been far better to have a decent contemporary artist showing the technique ‘live’ and ‘signpost’ people to good watercolour artists in the community or have their work for sale in the ubiquitous ‘shop’ than hang a frankly weak bunch of works next to William Blake which is doing neither party much good in comparison.

Because the Millenium contains an excellent Ruskin museum (all be it small) there were a couple of Ruskins and a large scale although slightly mad Burne Jones (a similar problem to most of the Burras being evident where scale and surreal subject matter outweigh a lumpiness and lack of touch in the works). Watercolour is a light and spontaneous medium which gets bogged down into sticky gouache when over-worked. Having said that a single ‘constructed’ Burra landscape retained that effervescance.

The exhibition makes a very good fist of showing (albeit in a fragmented manner – i.e. Offili then Burra then Turner then Ruskin then Blake) some classic work in the medium. Nobody could walk away from the Cotman and not feel that they have seen an illustration of the very finest technique. It is almost as if one is in a hall of greats onto which a slightly amateur exhibition has encroached.

Now before the ‘post-modernists’ cry foul and contest any suggestion of a “hall of greats” or “artistic canon” let me be clear. I do not buy into the notion that certain works of greatness can be explained away by socio-marxist reductionisim or are part of a white male tradition that needs ‘re-examining’. The reason the predominant works in the exhibition are from white males is simple. Historically, the only people able to safely travel the countryside and have the independent means to do so thus creating the topographical tradition, were men and white men of independent means at that. There were as few farm labourer watercolourists (male or female) as there were poets because of a harsh bondage to land. Arguments about impediments to joining ‘tradition’ whilst valid do not change the available corpus of work we are left to examine.

So if one removes the ‘diversity’ framework and examines the work one finds a fairly consistent and challenging set of works created by white males over a two hundred year period. The historical ‘romanticisation’ of the ‘wilderness’ occurred in this time frame. When the anonymous PR person spouts about a ‘conservative’ tradition it is one built on socio-economic changes and predominantly male for a reason. Far more interesting would have been a ‘debate’ centred on notions of ‘sense of place’ not ‘diversity’ as both are loaded terms.

The ‘contemporary’ works undermine that tradition by both their subject matter and their technique, or lack thereof, and in my opinion this should have been divided into two shows maybe run concurrently.

Nowhere in the contemporary works do we see a similar level of technique displayed except maybe in the Blackadder (an illustrative painter whose work influenced a swathe of eighties illustrators). Other contemporary artists range from the slightly cack-handed (Offili) to the downright awful..Kapoor and Paolozzi or Houshiary. Indeed worst of all was a very contemporary bunch of splodges on paper by a ‘conceptual’ artist I didn’t even bother looking at. All used watercolour in varying ways, none successful, and none with an understanding of the technique itself. Rather we were in the post-modern’s favourite place i.e. “Irony Island”.

Were these works selected simply for their possible ‘diversity’ tick-boxing? Paolozzi not Peter Blake, Kapoor (not noted as a painter per se?) instead of Michael Andrews? The whole show fell between two stools in trying to concoct a ‘diverse’ and ‘contemporary’ ‘beyond’ that didn’t exist and in so doing it competely ignored a far deeper and questioning use of the ‘watercolour tradition’ that could have included Conrad Atkinson amongst others. That would have been a real debate. Instead we are left holding the bath whilst baby and bath-water both lost and the bath increasingly leaky as a container for ideas……

To that degree ‘Tradition and Beyond’ did reflect the current lack of confidence at the heart of arts organisations trying to hit targets in all areas..footfall, diversity, engagement and failing to concentrate on the matter at hand…..a word no longer politically acceptable above all others.


Quality is now so disparaged amongst academics and administrators that one is admonished for just mentioning the word. However all artists can be judged by that criteria if all could agree on a suitably diverse criteria to encompass works.

At present there is no such consensus and until there is we continue to drift through shows like this……like Turner strapped to the mast in a storm the water blurring our sense of vision….


AXIS RANT #2: Alice and the Curious Curatoriat?

When did it happen? When did the power structure in the arts shift so fundamentally away from the practicing artist and into the hands of a new breed of art school trained curators or as I have re-designated them ‘curatoriat’? The growth industry in ‘curatorial’ courses like the MA at the Royal College of Art reflects a far wider shift and a worrying one for us poor artists at the bottom of the arts funding pecking order. Read the rest on axisweb.orgShaun Belcher: Alice and the Curious Curatoriat, here Feb 2010

You should read the whole article.


Time to close down The Arts Council? AXIS RANT…

From the AXIS RANT page
Feel free to bark back…

Our new Ranter-in-Residence for February, Shaun Belcher, starts off on a topical, if controversial note, asking ‘Has Arts Council England (ACE) failed? Do we really need it anyway?’.

Shaun asks if the lottery years have set ACE up for a fall as we move into tighter financial times and political pressures are heightening.

Read original HERE:

Academic Artist? Oxymoron?


There was a time when the phrase ‘academic artist’ was synomonous with a certain conservatism and use of traditional strophes that reflected the academic virtues of fine handling of paint, drawing of a certain standard and a certain ‘resemblance’ to the world of the viewer who would recognise the metaphors and the world that produced the works. A ‘hang’ may be as crowded as the Rowlandson of Somerset House but like the Royal Academy Summer Show one knew what one was getting.

Now the phrase has more chance of pertaining to an altogether more insubstantial, less skillful and frankly bizarre world…..for now we have a new breed of ‘institutional academic artists’. These strange hybrid creatures (neither fish nor fowl) have realised that their ‘practice’ ( a cosy word for what they ‘do’ that has jettisoned the need to actually ‘do’ anything) is a fair hothouse flower that could not survive in the cruel harsh winds of UK PLC in a recession. having realised that their slender talents are unbankable in any BRITART fab cash in bank way they are flocking to peddle their wares at the feet of Symposiums and Academic meetings. spitting out acronyms like the funnel of one of Turner’s Steamships and generally trying to survive by writing as much about themselves and doing as little actual ‘work’ as in artwork’ as possible.

The Botanic Gardens at Kew do not have as rare and flimsy a bunch of Credit Crunch Orchids to maintain as the New Universities (desperate for AHRC money to keep the wolf from the door having spent all the cash the poor students have provided). One cannot turn around these days for collaborative projects, new commissions, artists in residence ( a wide term as will be seen) and lectures by people less able to academicise than actually ‘do’ anything. In the past there were often spurious connections to float the poor artist into the academic flow…

Some artists benefited from a fragile correspondence between their practice and the particular specialism of a department…Lace or plastic, car engines, botany..tie-in art flourished and some artists swiftly moved from garrett to academic offices and never left such was the increase in prosperity not to mention the warmth involved.

Now we are at a fascinating juncture in this process as the wind of time and change starts to blow back on these poor fragile blooms. As the realisation that UK PLC is not only bereft of jobs but the talents to actually do something instead of just talk about doing it University departments are clutching at new straws…economic development and regeneration are the key.

From talking about their practice these hybrid ‘Academists’ are now spouting a whole new range of acronym driven homilies….again to keep their place in the warm flowerbed….it is too cold out in Real Land..too many redundancies too few opportunities.

So as the recession bites maybe one would expect the chill wind to produce some hardier perennials..maybe a return to some of those traditional practices and skills as mentioned in the old concept of ‘The Academy’. No not a jot of it…

No it appears we will wait in vain for hardy snowdrops to bloom in their stead.

I have recently trawled through some academic notions of practice and whilst many reduce the brain to a sponge and yet others begger belief both in description and action none so far has matched my latest prize…..

An artist who shall remain nameless is speaking at a destination which alack shall also remain anonymous
on his revalatory practice of…….

‘Pouring special brew on a station platform and shouting’

I wish dear reader that I could be making this up…but alas it is true. Said artist manages to not only stupify with the nonsensical act but then to explicate it in almost Johnson like hyperbole….Dear friends what looks like the drunken action of a immature less than gifted imposter is in fact art..and not only art but art of a high that bears a direct descendance form the Greek Gods and Hermes himself and yes from a tradition of lay preaching….

This is where we are good kind people mouthing platitudes and accommodating gibberish in the name of art….

I may not know much about art but I do know many kinds of shit when it travails the ear and this is 100% genuine bullshit and some of our academic institutions live and breath this kind of nonsense… far…

Methinks a little pruning in the gardens of the comfortably well off not amiss…and soon.

Maybe then some of those real blooms and real skills can blossom without choking in the avant-garde weed-beds of edification, explication and plain verbose drivel……and we can leave that to rot like any good remnant of verdure on the roots of the finer arts.

And a handy gardening tip if it smells like shit it probably is…treat with caution and dig it under whenever possible.

Nottingham Contemporary: The good, the bad and the ugly..


I have recently had to pull a discussion post from the Nottingham Contemporary Free discussion group on facebook. Here I explain why and deliver a more considered version of basically the same material which less likely to offend the great and the good of this noble art city.

The post was a hasty response to seeing the effect the opening of ‘The Golden Egg’ is already having on culture in this city.

Geoffrey Diego Litherland’s show at the Castle was his reward for winning last year’s Nottingham Open competition. A well deserving winner and a good set of paintings in a show spoilt only by the ludicrous arrangement of hanging on a staircase. Meanwhile pride of place as usual went to a travelling Arts Council show. No better nor worse than many but surprising that second show on this theme in as many months…..are our curators trying to tap into an underlying theme about Nottingham..i.e. are we all trapped..or criminals?

My real disappointment was with the Castle Permanent Collection. It has always been a lacklustre space full of frankly third rate paintings and some gems. But previous visits never saw it looking quite so tawdry. When I pointed out that some of the signage appeared to be little more than blu-tacked to wall I got response..well all the money gone to the Egg. True or not it did make me wonder if Jack hadn’t given the cow away for a hill of beans…

Bad signage aside if one scans the ‘hidden’ collection (including a fine William Nicholson of downland I seen but once) one realises that very little of it gets aired. Something more than occasional Brit Art shows should be done with this space. Which leads me on to my main point. The Nottingham Contemporary..for good or ill and whatever it costs is here now….it has raised a certain part of the profile of the local art scene i.e. the pretentious outward looking side a notch from the days of Angel Row but what does that actually mean? We have lost at least three contemporary gallery spaces..Angel Row, Yard Gallery Wollaton and Bonington Gallery and gained two..New Art Exchange and The Egg. The Castle under Deborah Dean continues the kind of work Angel Row did…tied to ACE and very rarely escaping the confines of a certain tired politically correct viewpoint…..noble causes…dull art. Angel Row occasionally surprised but more often was as dull too and only at the end did it burst into some kind of life with the Parade shows..too little too late.

Love it or hate it Angel Row did occasionally show a mix of local and ‘international’ (i.e. what somebody saw in a magazine made it international…generally this meant American as most Art Press is USA dominated). There were never contemporary Spanish or French shows….I may be wrong as frankly I hardly bothered going in the place and when I did just got annoyed…

But it did (particularly in earlier days) show local ‘semi-professional’ artists. What worries me about The Egg is that it is a Tate Lite for the region and nothing more……in this sense it very similar to the Museum of Modern Art Oxford which apart from a ‘local artist’ space in their cafe (still operating after 20 plus years) never showed local artists unless they had made it to the glossies….

This may be one of the reasons that Oxford has virtually no thriving local arts Nottingham had up to now….it virtually ended ambitions before they flowered….I knew however hard I tried I would never ‘make it’ there….

So if The Egg shows international ( USA and Bradford born Hockney so far but he famous so that OK) and New Art Exchange is so heavily ring-fenced by its own mission statement (although I hear the curator there is trying to reflect the changing nature of the environment..) then with the loss of so many spaces for exhibition where are local artists to show? If you then say but look at the plethora of cutting edge spaces that sprung up recently I’d retort with yes and how long without funding will they last? A few have been primed with money by the Arts Council to create the impression of a vibrant local art scene to spin around The Egg but truth is ACE finding will not keep them alive forever…..just long enough to get through next year’s Brit Art spectacular is my guess then what…?

Meanwhile the mid-career (i.e. older not dead yet but been going 25 plus year artists) who actually created the ‘Nottingham Art Scene’ have been turfed out of their studios or faced rent rises and most scrabbling in the gutter or the studio equivalent. Apart from the bitterness this provokes this also bodes ill for the future as younger artists see the good and bad side of dedicating a life to their noble career…

Discounting local anarcho-capitalist venture The Art Organisation and volunteer driven/ace space The Surface there is little in the way of a middle ground fact nothing left…for a serious artist who not on the Faberge Egg list (i.e. international by the magazines definition or on the Tate’s radar etc etc ) to aim at.

My ill thought out and pulled rant did raise one serious proposal that would help but which will not get funding. A serious space for local serious artists on a more permanent basis like replacing the tired dusty Castle collection with a proper survey of local artistic output (not the Open…that’s too much like a jumble sale) would help…..then we would have less bitterness and less frustration.

At present to be a mid-career artist in this city is to feel like a unwanted guest at a shiny teenager’s party we not invited to…and when we do arrive we constantly reminded that ‘making it’ is more important that actually making it…the art work… the disease of contemporary art institutions and education…..until that addressed we will continue to clutch at Golden Eggs that when cracked leak sand not gold…eggs…just eggs..


Hill of money – mountains of cash

It has come to my attention that the Arts Council of England. A glorious body of noble souls are at this time perusing some submissions for a large wad of cash – 12 X £500,0000 – for specific art projects related to the glorious Olympiad of 2012.

Now I thought that every hair-brained, stupid artistic nonsense in the world had been explored..but no..where there’s money there’s crap to reverse the old adage…

An individual has proposed a fake hill somewhere in a Midland City centre…….yes you read rightly..a hill……there being no real, natural or god help us any reshaped urban landscape already available….hills are hard to come by these days…..

On said hill would occur many an artistic event, you name it the application scrapes it up..interventions, installations, finger painting , rap is as wonderful a fiesta of all that truly original and beautiful in the U.K. arts scene as any arts officer has ever seen….maybe even a dolphin in an aquarium if the money doesn’t run out?

In yours and my name the infallible Arts Council will build a tawdry heap which no doubt will collapse after construction and how much carbon will be used in constructing this edifice to stupidity???

Enough is enough! That such a stupid piece of self promoting garbage has actually got through the submission process shows the gullibility and fatuous nature of our supposed Council of the Arts…..

I suggest a pressure group to stop this kind of garbage in its tracks before it pays the protagonists mortgages and leaves everybody else bemused and angered….