“For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
This post is a bit different from the usual, but it’s still about the British art scene because I’m going to write today about the damage recently and needlessly inflicted on that scene by the egregious short-sightedness of whichever numpties at the Arts Council of England had the final say on cutting relatively trifling but vital sums from numerous crucial community-centred or artist-led organisations while gaily tipping ever increasing millions of obscene pounds into the gaping haute bourgeois money pits of places like the Royal Opera House.
The British art scene- at the best of times exceedingly small and fragile- relies upon an even more minute core of vital people and places to do the nuts-and-bolts, pragmatic stuff that every other profession does automatically but most of the art world can’t seem to get their heads wrapped around: chief among these functions is bridging the gap between being an inexperienced, ambitious kid and a working professional with a sustainable career. Another thing these organisations do is provide safe and supportive environments for art and artists that can’t yet or simply shouldn’t ever be subjected to market forces.
I know there are some people who think that everything and everyone, including art and artists, should be subjected to the full and unmitigated brunt of market forces. It’s also a commonly encountered argument that art should always be subjected to some kind of public popularity competition, community approval or public benefit yardstick. These people are just plain wrong, and with every purchase of just plain wrong I’ll add this free pack of you’re a fucking idiot.
I don’t particularly want to set up a Battle Royale of the arts, but nonetheless it’s pretty clear to me that moribund, mummified, undead genres like ballet or opera, art forms that peaked centuries ago and are never going to do anything original ever again or contribute much more to the development, culture or civilisation of the planet could be almost entirely marketised and not subsidised by the general public. The narrow demographic that still treasures or values those art forms is more than capable of paying the full, unsubsidised whack if they want to be sure that the fat lady singing really does signify that it’s over, or watch an anorexic survivor of dance teacher abuse pretending to be a sexually frustrated swan.
Even more cogently in light of the current government’s ideology and ambitions, these art forms experience no difficulty whatsoever in attracting private sponsorship precisely because the retail and banking industries blatantly and greedily seek the attention of their minority, affluent, elite audiences, the kind of philistines who get Bollied up at Glyndebourne then accidentally fall into a ha-ha. Actually Glyndebourne isn’t state subsidised, nor should it be. Why not leave the rest of them to it and in the true spirit of the people who fought for progressive social welfare throughout the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, offer the most support to those who can’t fend for themselves?
Along with about two hundred other arts organisations in England, the small English art gallery ArtSway have had their future jeopardised for the sake of the kind of money that the ROH probably loses down the back of the sofa about once a month. Since I was artist in residence at ArtSway in 2002 and subsequently had my exhibition ‘Werewolves‘ in the gallery, I’ve been continuously in contact with the gallery and the people who work there, so I’d like to share with you all exactly what this means and the value of it to me. I’ve already written a bit on this subject in the book from which this blog descends, and I recommend that you read that part of Career Suicide if you haven’t already. Clearly there are people, including decision makers at the Arts Council, who still don’t understand why two hundred little places are worth exponentially more than one Royal Opera House.
Working with ArtSway for longer than many of the current staff probably makes it almost redundant to say that ArtSway has meant and still means a huge amount to me. Myself and several of the other Associates or artists who’ve done commissions or residencies don’t call it the ArtSway family for nothing.
Sometimes the support ArtSway has given me has been support as in the slightly grim context of “life support”: practically, emotionally and morale-wise enabling me to just stand still and maintain even the possibility of working as an artist when times were tough; when staying in the game would otherwise have intolerably difficult, if not impossible. The past few years have been tough for most artists through no fault of their own (and tough for almost everyone, of course, except for the same old rich people and the piggy bankers). The past few years have been tough for me, and ArtSway helped me stay on my feet.
It’s even been tough for the Arts Council of England and other British arts quangos. “Cry me a river,” you might say, but they’ve been buffeted by wave after wave of contradictory edicts from their governmental masters; the most committed and intelligent people who worked for them have been squeezed from all directions, downsized and ultimately driven out; necessary departments and functions have been merged or moved for no good reason or summarily abolished; they’ve been turned into tools of top-down governmental control freakery and used as conduits for crude attempts at social engineering via “art for everyone” schemes that are nothing of the sort, merely distractions from the analogous dismantling of even more vital infrastructure like schools and libraries or fire, policing, medical and social services. Above all, the Arts Council have most recently been used as a decoy to take the flak for ideologically driven government austerity. As a quango the Arts Council actually had little choice but to do something, even though that doesn’t excuse the fact that the something they did was utterly moronic and will be extremely counterproductive in the long run.
Things show no sign of getting much better any time soon, so the timing of the Associates scheme and my participation in it could not have been more vital. At other times the support from ArtSway has been equally constructive and necessary but much more pragmatic; things have happened and projects have taken off where otherwise they wouldn’t have done.
There’s also the support that comes in formats that can’t be monetised or reduced to tick-boxes: trust, kindness, the benefit of the doubt, words of encouragement, fun, being challenged and pushed out of your comfortable (or very uncomfortable) rut, and opportunities to just talk and be with like-minded people. There’s no metric or statistical analysis available for these things, but anyone with an iota of sense knows that these things are important in life, in a person’s career and in an arts organisation that is genuinely engaging with the real world, its people and ideas. They’re crucial precisely because none of these things can be manufactured artificially or bought in from a private contractor. Anyone who knowingly undermines a place where these things happen naturally and organically (whether it be an arts organisation, a school or a local post office) is at best a fool and at worst a selfish, nasty excuse for a human being who may understand the cost of everything but knows the true value of nothing.
A similar thing to the aforementioned goes specifically for being in ArtSway’s truly pioneering first New Forest Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia in 2005: it was a tough thing for me to do in some ways, there’s a lot I’d do differently if I had such an opportunity again, it was even traumatic in some ways due to my own inexperience and dismay or disgust at most of the things that are taken for granted at the higher levels of the art world. One of the other artists was a total dick, and he totally didn’t get the ArtSway of doing things- oh, see what I did there?
But here’s the point: I got the chance to be at the higher levels of the art world, more or less on my own terms, terms that the establishment and their established way of doing things could take or leave. What they couldn’t- and didn’t- do was ignore the powerful statement of us simply getting ourselves up in their faces and having the balls to defiantly be there without asking for anyone’s approval or consent, even if some people might think they (or their pet artists) “deserved” it more than I did.
I will remember for a long time being at Tate Modern for a show (which, tellingly, I can’t even remember the content of…) a few months after being in Venice, and overhearing a trio of what were evidently pretty high-level gallery people or arts professionals walking around, more or less ignoring most of the work on the walls because they were equally evidently talking about ArtSway and the New Forest Pavilion.
The conversation itself was fairly stupid, frankly, and two of them had to clarify to the third what and where ArtSway was, but the point of this is that more or less at random (allowing for the fact that I was in a major public art gallery) I overheard total strangers talking about the show I just had work in, in another city hundreds of miles away. They were 100% positive, too, expressing amazement that such a tiny gallery and what were to these people “unknown” artists had put on such a slick and high-impact exhibition independently at one of the world’s top art events. They admired the audacity and the tenacity of it, and so did I. I still do.
There is no question that the New Forest Pavilion also opened the door to the massive proliferation of collateral or quasi-official offerings by what might be called non-National pavilions and brought a definite independence of spirit and ambition to the Biennale. The Biennale is otherwise a pretty stifling, mummified, straitjacketed cavalcade of arrogance, irrelevance and pretentiousness. The Biennale and the art world as a whole desperately needs young and independent artists, galleries and ideas coming up from underneath- ArtSway has been taking them there.
Virtually every artist or curator I meet who finds out that I work with ArtSway and that I was in the New Forest Pavilion exclaims “oh!” delightedly and wants to know everything there is to know about it. Usually it’s a combination of happy curiosity and determined dissection of all the things it does right, presumably in the hope of replicating it. I can’t even remember anybody ever saying “what’s that?” or “what’s an ArtSway?”
Especially in light of the recent, vicious 100% cut, these same people have been making a point of anxiously asking what’s happening with ArtSway, do I have any inside information about its future, and so forth. Artists constantly ask me what the Associates program is like, how I got involved with ArtSway: either openly or tacitly suggesting that they’d love to be a part of it too, or a part of something like it. People who work for galleries in various capacities have told me directly that ArtSway and especially their Associates scheme is and should be a model of best practice for publicly funded galleries in their dealings with artists- not to mention the fact that ArtSway needs to stay open so it can continue to be the beacon for best practice that it is. I’ve had this directly from the staff of several places that managed to hang onto their funding.
An advanced, peaceful and civilised society can exist without TV talent shows, advertising “creatives” [sic] and management consultants. An advanced, peaceful and civilised society cannot exist without teachers, nurses and artists. An advanced, peaceful and civilised art world can exist without art dealers, Frieze magazine and the Arts Council. The art world cannot exist without art and artists. I’ll leave you as I began, with another piece of folkloric wisdom that some people will never, ever grasp. This one is from Anne Herbert:
“Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.”