Dear GentleÂ Reader
It may have come to your attention that I have been less than impressed with what the Arts Council, viagra Academia and artists in general have come up with in the years that I took a Rumpelstiltskin-like snooze from the ‘Contemporary Art’ scene. I’d say my detour down the highways and byways of literature and music coincided with my moving to Edinburgh in 1993 coincidentally just as the ‘BRIT ART’ boom kicked inÂ on the ‘paved with gold’ streets of London (how many ‘Brit Artists’ are actually from outside London is a sore point the further North one travels).
Now there are many in Nottingham and further abroad who will not like the tone nor the content of the following piece but that hardly my concern. I have watched the efforts of the good and great of this city to ‘rebrand’ ‘hype’ and generally convince themselves and others that there some kind of ‘art boom’ happening here. This has been co-ordinated and reached its culmination in the frankly damp squib Brit Art Show of 2006. My contentionsÂ then wereÂ expressed in a piece written for The Nottingham Evening Post but declined by that august journal as being a little too ‘off message’ for a city still hurting from the ‘binge-drink’ and ‘suicide art’ fest the local and national press had visited upon us. For people’s information I and many others feel far safer in Nottingham than we ever did in parts of London like Harlesden where I once resided. Nottingham was unfairly slated and I do not want to add to the harbingers of gloom there. However hand in hand with this there seemed to be a blind devotion, click especially amongst those parties with most to gain, to talk up our wonderful art scene.
That the majority of people with most to lose were middle-class arts administrators and community arts people was not lost on myself or a good many others. The actual artists remain the most unrewarded and badly treated group in amongst all these ‘parades’ or as I believe better titled ‘bread and circuses’ of recent times. A year on and because of the double blow of central government arts funding cuts to pay for the Olympics and more local ‘housekeeping’ – i.e. if you want a shiny new arts venue (CCAN) you have to lose your only two significant contemporary arts venues in the meantime. Costing approx 13 million quids it seems pretty good value seeing as my little old hometown of Didcot in Oxfordshire is spending 7 million on a simple arts centre. Suddenly cutting edge and feted architect for Â£15 million plus (it always goes up) seems a bargain..shame most of it will be hidden under a hill then…
for full bill see arts council document
A year on and those who gained most from the Brit Art show have either moved on or are busy re-casting their Arts Council evaluation forms to convince their patrons of the whole shebang’s worth. Major art events have always been a stepping-stone for the sharp-eyed arts administrator to ‘progress’ which usually means taking what they can and getting the hell out later. For those who want to criticise thisÂ contention I’d point to stints at Festival Hall London and watching Southern Arts in Oxfordshire as proof of this in the past. One poor old helper in my little old home town (now site of that brand new arts centre I mentioned) was moved to brand this activity arts ’empire-building’. Nothing is ever likely to change there especially with less pots of gold to administrate. My point is not that this practice harms the local ‘art economy’ but that generally it hardly ever touches the life and soul of our poor local artist. For him or her life remained pretty similar i.e. plenty of cheap factory space to ‘practice’ in but nowhere to actually sell or exhibit.
Nottingham is blessed with a thriving ‘creative industy’ apparently andÂ indeed there isÂ a plethora of studios and artists all beavering away courtesy of a depressed property market and a manufacturing industry which collapsing and providing new spaces every week. With all this cheap space one of the overwhelming achievements of the East Midlands Arts Council has been to never furnish artists with a decent exhibiting space (Angel Row’s Parade was too little too late) which would have come at little cost if commenced years ago. Instead noble projects like the Oldknows Gallery (closed 1995) were ‘let go’ and funding when it did return in the ‘golden shower’ of the lottery was diverted to those most savvy at form-filling and buttering up or bamboozling their ACE officer with artspeak ( for general public this is known as bullshit). Instead of a vital and artist-led space we got a hundred projects ranging from the blindingly dull and stupid to the quite good. The artist’s talents were immaterial as tickboxing ensured target audiences and other such claptrap obscured whether any of this was actually any good at all. The same can be said of the arts demon twin ‘community arts’. The number of ‘hoodies’ and ‘alcoholics’ saved by t-shirt printing and rapping would, if you believed art council evaluation forms, mean that there were no social problems left in the city at all such has been there impact. As Jonathan Meades pointed out recently in his T.V. series no amount of ‘juggling and street theatre’ ever stopped people drinking themselves to death or pissing in their estate stairwells.
One of the great lies of the whole ‘community arts’ industry is just this. I salute Gordon Brown for axing the golden eggs for some of these organisations which were no more than scam machines that bled European funding directly into the pockets of well off middle class administrators and managers without ever touching the lives of the people it supposedly was meant to change. It smacks of the Victorian ‘do-gooding’ and temperance societies with no amount of evangelical artists armed with knitting machines, paper mache masks and digital cameras saving people’s souls.Â The importance of this industry was not its outcomes at all but was how extremely good it was at papering over the social ills that still affect us andÂ keeping a good part of the ‘chattering classes’ quiet or at least funding their sons and daughtersÂ whilst Blairism privatised national assets and participated in doubtful wars. It is not coincidental that the more frugal Brown hit the ACE bill first…..even before stepping into power. As Blair stood in a gallery and boasted of funding the arts in a typical piece of doublethink to caress his bruised ego over Iraq those who were in the know could see the cuts coming.
So what are we left with post-Blair, post-funding ( these measures may get worse if spiralling costs for the 2012 Olympics take hold as they surely will?) Do we knuckle down and celebrate our ‘thriving international’ art scene and join in with the ironic ‘national debate’ on funding and the Arts Council just as they debilitate most of its funding? Of course we do – those artists still operating in a financially restricted climate are more circumspect than ever at speaking out in case they lose what little nectar left in the ACE flower for the little hummingbird’s beaks.
What artists are loathe to do (having forgotten how to) is join togther and use that reduced budget wisely and for the common good. After twenty years of competitive arts council funding applications where one group was set against the other collective action in art circles has become a dirty word. This has lead to some of the less scrupulous artistsÂ grabbing as much funding as they could by constant ‘reinvention’ and form-watching and some of these even attained a certain ‘glamour’ for their ability to do so. When art students leaving college are impressed by such activities and are not even considering the trivial and amateurish nature of what that money used to fund we are in a bad place. Thankfully as real-world economics and the pot of gold at the end of the overseas student rainbow diminish even the Academic world is coming to its senses.
In this environment where ACE funding reduced and its laughable ‘hands-off’ ‘democratic’ policy re. artistic merit is exposed for what it truly is i.e. a means to reward those most able ( pace the middle class on hospital services, property and just about everything else) to access that funding then maybe ‘artistic meritocracy’ might actually be reborn.
Casual feminists and those with hands on tiller of power will argue that any notion of ‘elitism’ (their words not mine) or artistic standards smacks of a paternalistic and Oxbridge dominated art world of yore. Well yes it was just such types that invented the Arts Council. I think more sense could be got out of that old group…Raymond Williams, F.R. Leavis and Philip Larkin for instance ( yes all men but I’m sure there a A.S.Byatt for every John Carey there too) instead of the pcÂ focus groups and research students who will lead the forthcoming ‘debate’ in London. A debate further more that only those able to attend two nights in London and pay fares down can attend ( refer to the Brit Art comment andÂ the north above..plus ca change) of course even here Orwellian doublespeak is at play as some ‘invited attendees’ will indeed be paid to attend. Every one is equal but not that equal then…..
To me the whole debate is irrelevant for the realÂ power is in the former chancellor’s hands and thrifty as he is when he notices that nothing appreciable happens to the great and good of this island withoutÂ funding and indeed he mayÂ never return that largesse to its former proportions. A damn good thing too in my opinion. A conservative estimate of 6 billion pounds was distributed by the Arts Council in the last ten years (if somebody has actual figure I’d be pleased to alter it). If that money had ben invested in the NATIONAL health service not PFI’s with lovely batik and textile strewn corridors, if that money had been directed to skilling large swathes of under-employed working class male youths instead of frittered away on self-aggrandising art schemes then maybe the country would be in even better shape than it was twenty years ago. My father was a lowly builder but a keen observer and he noted how many people on his daily travels were sat in warm offices administrating things whilst there fewer and fewer skilled labourers to do the basic jobs like sewer maintenance and cable-laying….those jobs now done by ‘imported’ (legal or illegal) labour. As the middle-classes bathed in the Blairite benefits be it PFI management blowouts or arts council jollies abroad the working class slipped lower down the economic food table to the point where some actually fell below the table-top.
I have no time for the apologists of the Blairite regime they have done very well from those years and with escalating property prices have never been better off. The net effect of this has been a ghettoisation of our cities where these people have walled themselves into whites-only comfortable estates whilst the rest…black, asian, bottom rung whites are left to flounder. Significantly it just these groups that no longer represented at the educational establishments. Grant cuts (thanks Tony) and failed schooling have meant that many of the groups I and a lot of my fellow students in early 1980’s came from – white working class and ethnic minorities – simply have no chance of getting to university. This has reinforced the class divide and barring the occasional very gifted student (Hirst and Emin take a bow) this cultural apartheid has got worse.
The majority of arts graduates ( have a look at facebook for a snapshot) are now white middle-class and/or new rich and female. This has had a major impact on arts administration posts (Arts Council but one amongst many) and the kind of people who can become artists. Social groups bind like to like so the more middle class women become curators and even those not enthused by self-fighteous feminist idealism will be default tend to employ, show…and yes debate with like minds and social group members. Perhaps the Arts Council should do a survey of class background instead of tickboxing ethnicity and sexual orientation. Because this process is well advanced and even the most ill-equiped have used it to progress up the academic ladder it will be a major problem to try and put right this nepotistic and classistÂ impulse in the arts.
Artists and ‘cultural producers’ are notoriously opinionated that their ‘ways’ right and can manufacture quite successful ‘in-groups’ that exclude others. Sometimes language and background are signifiers that lead to this exclusion before a picture painted or a book written. Good people have worked hard to stop this but it still exists as long as we live in a class-based culture which we do. Sorry Tony your only revolution was to replace one elite with another looking and speaking the same. In other words there was no New Labour revolution at all. In fact this chimes perfectly with the Saatchi driven Brit Art revolution which also was not New or British or particularly revolutionary unless being beholden to a full-on capitalist advertising executive who good friends with that old Queen of Art funding Margaret Thatcher was what left-leaning artists had dreamt of all along. Funny how a wad of cash can silence the most ‘political’ of artists when they see the palm crossed with silver. Bell and Langland….socialism is only skin-deep then..
Brit-Art, Lottery funding, Hubs of excellence…the hype merchants can spin most of the last ten years into a veritable art banquet. Nothing could ever dent this facade of artistic wellbeing could it? That is one version.
My version is slightly more jaundiced and maybe the truth somewhereÂ in between. What is true is the arts schools facing a funding crisis, artists ..community or otherwise (those who lucky to have cadged any that is) are facing a funding crisis. Here in Nottingham we have a rather splendid council who funding not one but two major art galleries with the noble intention (as revealed by new manager Alex Farquharson) of ‘creating a regeneration alley through a moribund city and promoting shopping’…I kid you not we were all sold a pup it isn’t about art at all…so blockbusters it will be and lots of London advertising to draw social groups A & B here to shed lots of cash on our poor huddled masses. One could truly not make it up……when did digital installations and site-specific projections become the generators of high class shopping experiences I wonder….or maybe they were all along andÂ those of us who thought art meant something and had intrinisic value were just deluded. On a side-note the advetising for CCAN awarded to Fresh Communications ( see the news document credit) who proudly re-launched Paddy Power recently….seriously…..it all fits.
Last year’s mighty ‘Underscan’ flop was just paving the way…. no pun intended our lucky Mexican-Canadian artist pocketed over Â£100,000 for showing pictures on the pavement which but a small part of the consultants fees for setting it up…).Little did those leery chavs pissedÂ up on white stripe on their way home realise that the projections they vomited and pissed in on the way home wereÂ not art but forerunners of this years talking surveilance cameras and Â£500 fines for dropping a cigarette. Art as social control and intrusion and cutting edge technology ..the boundaries of where artwork stop and social engineering start have been blurred…those lacklustre community artists trying to stop some poor begger pissing hisÂ life way were just the forerunners after all of something far more sinister. It is not such a giant leap from potato prints and grafitti murals to directed ’employment’ and state surveilance after all….is it.
Meanwhile those artists stupid enough to plow on with redundant technology like pencil, paint and brush can have no part in the brave new world of ‘spectacle’ and circus. As long as it cleans up our city centre and pushes the human trash out of sight it worth backing….it must be the consultants told us it was for the best and no-one argues with a consultant.
In Apocalypse Now there a famous scene where the Marines shoot up a civilian boat. then medics go in to repair the damage. Its described as ‘machine-gunning’ a people in half then administering a ‘band aid’. That in my opinion is what new developments in Nottingham will do to its art scene, and I not alone, when CCAN and Art Exchange are finished the same ‘able’ few will coin their shining coins and the rest will be given band aids. It is a salutory lesson in misguided interventionism. Everybody has right intentions. Ask Tony..he had more than most….