19 Nov 2010

AHM Symposium Report

After a great deal of reflection, AHM have produced a report on their first State of Play symposia that took place on Saturday 9th October at Gilmorehill, Glasgow.

It reads:

AHM were determined that the artist’s voice be heard and the Symposium began with a sequence of 27 one-minute manifestos - with the artists entering the darkened auditorium one after the other, lit only by a single spot - a dramatic and thought-provoking event in itself. The views expressed were wide-ranging in content - Jac Mantle argued that the proliferation of social media and digital content is displacing the national mainstream media as the main source of arts criticism for the general public and that artists should make more use of these new digital platforms. Chris Freemantle presented a manifesto for Art and Ecology quoting John Latham “ the task of the artist is to look from a very great height and over a long time span “. And there was some plain speaking from Jimmie Durham “ we live now in a world that is on the edge of destruction: let us then not act stupid. Let us resist. We must make art that is useful and moral, in the same way that we demand that writers write books that are useful and moral. “

David Harding, chairing the Symposium, began by setting out the main aims of AHM - to raise the profile of artists in the public domain whereby they can make a more significant contribution to the future life of Scotland - and to directly influence institutions and politicians of the vital importance of the arts to our society.

Philip Schlesinger’s main theme, given that cultural policy is a devolved matter, centered upon a critical examination of the political (New Labour) origins of Creative Scotland. The core of the idea, developed by “think tanks” in London and surprisingly adopted by the SNP government when it assumed power in 1997, is a classic neo-liberal model, deeply influenced by the ideology of the creative economy and based on vacuous assumptions that the UK would become the world’s creative hub in the new digital age of the 21st century. Schlesinger argued that although Creative Scotland is officially presented as democratic, in reality decisions will be made by a small inclusive/exclusive? group.

He explained how Scotland is deeply effected by UK politics with expenditure determined in London and as a result devolution itself will be challenged in the coming age of austerity. This means how Creative Scotland performs will be of major significance. Will the new body be successful - will it convince the public it works? As yet there are no clear set of objectives - only a vacuum of silence - although it appears that a business plan will be finalised in December. Schlesinger noted that The Symposium offered the first real focus for debate since the establishment of Creative Scotland in July, 2010.

Schlesinger pondered how artists might make an effective intervention at the heart of cultural policy. He pointed out that to achieve credibility has high costs in terms of understanding the political processes involved...in gaining knowledge of how things work, what questions to ask, how to access ministers...all of this involves an engagement with legislation and needs dedication, resources and people who are prepared to do it.

The discussion session was mainly about how artists could achieve a “voice” with Schlesinger suggesting that effective lobbying should reach out beyond obvious self-interest and that a more sophisticated argument, involving others, needs to be thought through. Susan Galloway, who recently completed a study of the Scottish Arts Council and its policies from 1968 onwards, said there is evidence to show that artist’s groups (such as the Federation of Scottish Artists in the mid 1970's) intervened successfully in the democratisation of SAC decision making. She asked “ do we have to accept the inevitable ?” and suggested that forming new kinds of political alliances could be a way forward. Others thought that the Scottish Artists Union already provided a good model and there was no need to form a new organisation.

Christine Borland talked about her experiences as an artist - a journey which began at art school and proceeded via artist-run spaces, private galleries, art fairs, to being on the dole, then teaching - experiences she felt she shared with many artists. As a student in Glasgow and then in Belfast in the 1980’s there was a lot to “kick against” and the development of her position as an artist took place in opposition to both the policies of the Thatcher government and to the extravagances of Neo-Expressionist painting.

Her period as a Transmission Committee member was also of great significance...not least the way the committee had to deal with the bureaucratic demands of the Scottish Arts Council. She described the meetings with the SAC as “ a confrontation ...they had no understanding of what artists needed “. She explained that the ambitions of Transmission - including a fierce commitment to Glasgow and a determination to bring artists to the city proved successful …. and that by working together and supporting each other artists could indeed, really change things.

Speaking of her own work, she described her collaboration with the Anatomy department at Glasgow University in the realisation of the exhibition From Life at Tramway in 1994, before talking of her relationship with the Lisson Gallery in London and her nomination for the Turner Prize - “ perhaps a contradiction in terms of my earlier beliefs - of going out there, doing it in the streets”. She concluded by acknowledging that as one gets older, there are different challenges, new questions to be asked and that it becomes less easy to find a forum for her work.

The discussion session was mainly concerned with the possibilities of making art in one’s home town (Glasgow) picking up on Christine’s comments about Transmission and how it was important to stay where we were and make that into a place where others had to visit, etc.

Neil Mulholland delivered a talk which illuminated the paradoxes inherent in contemporary Scottish culture and politics, drawing on Michael Gardiner’s arguments in, From Trocchi to Trainspotting: Scottish Cultural Theory since
1960. Referring to the anxiety which has arisen in the wake of devolution Mulholland compared Scotland with Venice...fiercely independent...punching above its weight, but slowly sinking. He reminded us that there was a British culture and a Scottish culture, that there was currently no English parliament, and that the “big society” was only applicable to England. The Tate Gallery’s brand, for example, is an expression of British statecraft which barely registers in Scotland. Acknowledging the influence of Hedley Bull’s, The Anarchical Society, Mullholland noted that within the world order there are multiple loyalties and when applied to Scotland this reveals what he describes as ‘ disputed national imaginaries’.

Mulholland went on to discuss ideas of cultural ecology - how long will our share of the world’s wealth be maintained ? - citing Eric Raymond’s, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, before returning to the local, where artists’ voices and activities can be and should be of real importance. The example of the New 57 Gallery’s constitution, which was in turn adopted by Transmission and the Collective Gallery amongst others, exemplifies a set of values developed locally, but capable of allowing national and international dialogues and exchanges and offers a ready-made course of action for artists.

Sam Ainsley drew together a number of writers and commentators on visual art and culture whose positions she supported and felt had been, in many cases, overlooked. These ranged from Gramsci to Tom Lawson, Ross Sinclair, Russell Ferguson and Sarah Lowndes, whose book “Social Sculpture” (charting the developments in the visual arts in Glasgow over the last thirty years) has recently been re-published by Luath Press.

Her position on “art degrees becoming the preserve of the wealthy” has been stated many times - working class (or to use the current lingo “ students from disadvantaged backgrounds”) would find it extremely hard to enter any Art School now. There are so few bursaries to support these potential students - this is a major problem that Scotland must resolve.

The Scottish Government and Creative Scotland need to listen to artists rather than bureaucrats; it was deeply worrying to hear their representatives talk of the “health benefits of the arts”, that “ we need to set targets, social and economic, not just cultural”, and promote “ Scottish culture as part of an import/export model, as a ‘ calling card’ to other countries “.

Who has put Scotland on the map internationally over the past twenty years ? Scotland’s artists, writers, dancers, theatre people, that’s who: most of our politicians are unaware of this and have little sense of the impact that the visual arts especially, have made abroad. We can provide the evidence...and would dearly love to enter into dialogue with any interested politicians.

Sandy Moffat pointed out that within the mainstream of cultural/political discourse, art and artists are rarely mentioned. Who is speaking for the visual arts and what are they talking about ? Unlike our writers who seem
able to directly address the Scottish people, the interface of contemporary art with the public realm has been taken over by celebrity artists whose apologists (including institutions such as the National Galleries and Art Schools) speak in jargon and are part of an elite art world that seems to answer only to itself - an art world that is perfectly happy to stand apart from society. This has led to confusion about what art and artists actually stand for.

Commenting on the lack of meaningful criticism, Moffat cited the example of George Davie, who in his great book, The Democratic Intellect, showed why critical thought, linked to the history of ideas is essential to the development of art and culture. Davie also knew that culture is not some separate thing ‘out there’ disjointed from the experience of ordinary people.

All of this poses a big challenge to artists. Do we want to take part in the political and cultural discourse; do we want to democratise intellectual ideas; or do we want to remain in an art world that speaks largely to itself ?

The final discussion session was somewhat confusing (as is often the case) with various interventions from audience members more concerned with their private obsessions than with the content/ideas which the Symposium’s main speakers had sought to illuminate.

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