Monday 3 November 2008

Andrew Macdonald: A call for non-submission

A Call for Non-submission
Andrew Macdonald

I do not need a guidance councilor. Though most people who actually employed in the arts do not understand the creative temperament – which (when one has it) is to forsake everything else, or at the very least, to put that priority before everything else. Quite a solitary life: it is to write something whilst taking a shit, perhaps.
In the economy of cultural capital, to destroy or to repress a thing and the ideas that it represents is inevitably to lend it a certain unintended credibility – to admit the need to embellish it with a new power or value, and then destroy that: Nazi's burning books, or the Reichstag, in the 30's for example, or Malevich and the Supremacists insisting that the museums be gutted and filled with their own branch of geometric abstract art in 1914/15. To denounce something is to admit that it is worth denouncing. This of course can be a good thing: in the creative process, what is important is finding the truth for oneself.

To be able to ignore, though, is vastly more efficient. Established art-forms have already gained their creator's requisite capital through embellishment with widespread set of values – value to those who have an interest in sustaining their own manufactured belief. For an artist to subvert or destroy these in new and creative ways can be very effective. On the other side of the coin, for people to be able to ignore is simply not to imbue culture with any known value, beyond in terms of art, say, that 'Art is good; the arts are worth sponsoring as part of a healthy culture' and let artists get on with their usual scratching around for subsidy. The word 'part' is the key here: it makes certain assumptions about where the art comes from and where it wants to go; where the wider culture comes from and where it seems to be going. To quote JG Ballard in his recent autobiography:

"I assume that the patronage of the arts by the state serves a political role by performing a castration ceremony neutralizing any revolutionary impulse and reducing 'the arts community' to a docile herd. They are allowed to bleat but are too enfeebled even to paw the ground". [JG Ballard, Miracles of life (Harper Perennial), 2008, p234 – great toilet reading].

While I (along with Richard Hamilton, whom Ballard was an early champion) would be the first to say that free entry for all to galleries and museums is very important, what he means is that through state sponsorship, even (or especially) "at arms length" is that whatever is produced in this theatre of ideas can, and is, very safely ignored. To this I would now add corporate sponsorship, which to all intents and purposes means the same thing (it is broadly speaking tax deductible): you can safely assume that to go down the route of sponsorship alone is to make damn sure no-one with any influence will ever know or, if they are a little cultured, care, that you exist. In the case of Arts Council sponsorship, this also makes damn sure that mostly poor people pay for it, via the National Lottery (investment bankers don't buy lottery tickets – the odds are too long). The irony here is that the poor, broadly, will almost certainly never know or care that you exist if you are an artist, especially one with vaguely egalitarian ideas. Bleeding heart liberals of the 'arts community' take note: the poor prefer to pursue the sporting dream.

The situation is that art must exist in a commercial sphere for anyone to buy artists' ideas, and for artists to earn a living. Recent post-war history is littered with quasi-Marxist critical-academic movements that went out of their way in attempts to de-commodify art, distance it from the hand of the artist, or wider cultural norms, in unsuccessful attempts to wrong foot a 'corrupt' (of course its bourgeois and corrupt) market. But all ended up being just more grist for its mill, even if only as secondary literature (Which is why we can look them up: Situationist International, Fluxus, land-art, conceptualism, minimal art and no doubt a good many others that succeeded in the sense that we don't know about them).

In recent times we can perhaps thank Hirst's science of surface commodity, or Sam Taylor-Wood's sociology of hollow celebrity for helping to turn the tide, though arguably their work appears to have been taken to a natural conclusion: it is safe to assume that neither of them need any more money. Back on earth, you may very well be quite comfortable in your life, thank you: steady partner; kids, but if your artwork is not a stylized picture of a March hare, a goose, or a grey washed out street scene with kooky looking buildings, it's not going to get a look-in at a small Edinburgh gallery, where I live - and we reportedly have the biggest arts festival in the world. The lower end of commercial art market in Edinburgh is retarded. The disparity between the works of young artists and the perceived formal constraints of older generations is almost total, and the commercial galleries, for various reasons service the latter - if anything appealing to an older generation still: a present for your grandmother. If she has a nice house to put it in, it was probably not begotten through an absurd property bubble invoked in a shameless pyramid scheme. If she did, she is one shrewd old Biddy not given to nostalgia, and would probably appreciate more thought provoking work from an artist in their ascendancy. The baby-boomer, a sheep so unknowingly obsessed with consumerism, would be wise to learn from her.

Young artists - or most of those having been to art college at least - seem tied to attempts to set up open-minded, 'publicly' or otherwise self-funded spaces that are run seemingly in the interests of artists by artists such as The Embassy (though currently without a permanent home), and loose arts organizations such as Standby and Magnifitat who also utilize temporary spaces during the Edinburgh festival which, however, lack any established and continuing formal mechanism for sales. Clearly not their raison d'ĂȘtre, which is admirable – so much work! - up to the point where a job in an off licence, a series of probable arts administration jobs (which in some cases serves to sustain the whole Arts Council feel-good service industry and not much else), or hunger become the norm. And sadly, for the most part, word-of-mouth ensures only a rolling cleek of artists frequent theses events – not even cheep booze at openings is enough to tempt outsiders into this strange, frighteningly hip sphere. The cutting edge has little outreach to Joe public, despite occasional valiant efforts.

Now it need not be the case, here or anywhere: transitional phases in wider economic, and that is to say social habits, are ideal times to push forward new ideas, when most people who have no wish to think for a living are stuck for them, and are open to suggestion (an extreme example: think what the widespread adoption of TV did for Hollywood: some pretty far-out producers, directors and actors from NY got a look-in and there was a great era of cinema in the late 60's and 70's, before video took off…). I like to think that we live in a transitional time, and it is transitional because what we, in a westernised culture, have been doing does not work: living way beyond our means. What people should realize – or should be taught if they have not a mind of their own – is that while a flat-screen TV (or an over-priced property) will certainly go down in value; a painting or artwork will not go down in value quite so fast. Indeed it may even go up if it is deemed interesting, and these are interesting times. All forms of capitalism rely on optimism – even short selling shares - and for that people need to believe it is going to make some kind of improvements, at least close to home. It might look nice over there… increasing in value perhaps. If something seems pertinent enough to be accruing capital, it, the artist behind it, and indeed the owner far sighted enough to invest, cannot be ignored any longer. At best, art is the medium through which ideas, money and thus influence are intertwined. The 'arts-community' should inverse its snobbery and put something that stands out in a small, local, commercial gallery - even if it has to go through the window. Indeed, it may be an ideal way to make space in there for new ideas if it breaks a few things on the way in. Pay a kid to do it.

Andrew Macdonald

Edinburgh College of Art (eca) is a charity registered in Scotland, number SC009201