25 Jun 2011

Review of AHM Symposium 2 @ National Galleries by Arcadia Now

Better late than never, here's my review of AHM's second symposium in a series of three on the state of art and culture in Scotland today. It took place at National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, on 2 April 2011.

Any discussion staged now on the state of art and culture today is set against a backdrop of anxiety. And don’t we all know it. If it isn’t funding cuts, it’s the death of criticism, or the rocky relations of art and education. But even as we pencil another furrowed brow in the diary, it still seems important to have these discussions. Undoubtedly, artists need to voice their concerns. And it’s good to talk.

Through their Research Residency at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, AHM - Sam Ainsley, David Harding and Sandy Moffat -are staging a series of three symposia. Their aim is “to raise the profile of Scottish artists in the public domain whereby they can make a more significant contribution to the public life of Scotland, and to directly influence politicians and institutions of the vital importance of the arts to our society.”

After the first symposium addressed the situation on home turf, the second featured presentations by Scottish artists working internationally. Introducing the event as Chairperson, Sandy Moffat asked: “What is truly distinctive about Scottish art? Where is Scotland in the world order? Can this small state exist at the level of big ones?”

Departing from the broader question of art’s status in society, most of the speakers addressed this theme of Scottishness. Dean of CalArts Thomas Lawson spoke of artists as “essentially rootless” by profession: they relocate in search of a network that will sustain them and support their practice. As such, he sees their Scottishness as unimportant.

Artist Jim Mooney painted a vivid picture of his formative experiences at Edinburgh College of Art and then the Royal College of Arts. He had felt personally liberated by the College’s embrace of the avant-garde, and expounded the merits of an art school education. For Mooney, mergers between universities and art schools – such as the imminent one between ECA and Edinburgh University – are seriously detrimental to art education.

Following this talk, comments from the floor were concerned with the art world’s increasing academicisation. Sandy Moffat urged: “Let’s have more questions about art.” But when such questions were asked, they seemed to be met with little response. Sogol Mabadi suggested that artists should allow outsiders more opportunity to see artwork during the making process. By making art less exclusive, we might help to protect its future. Speaking from the panel, Peter Hill said briefly that this might be one way – but he didn’t advocate only one form of action. Of the others he would adopt, he made no mention.

Unfortunately, this rather strange exchange was typical of the symposium. Presentations were mostly interesting, and the discussion was engaging. But it was almost as though AHM had preconceived ideas about what they wanted from their audience, and we weren’t fulfilling them. In spite of their aims and paper handouts, their agenda for the symposium remained obscured.

Concluding the day, Moffat praised the value of having these discussions before adding sagely: ‘but we still have a long way to go’. While we would all acknowledge that art today faces problems, it’s an oversight to assume that we agree on what those problems are or what the desired situation would be. If artists wish us all to act in pursuit of a common goal, we must first be clear on what the problem is. As yet, there has been no census.

Jac Mantle


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