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What is Art For? Part Three

In the last two films in the What is Art for series of blogs (see the WeAreOCA blog post here for previous posts) MIMA director Alistair Hudson addresses the importance of validation for artists and touches on the possibilities of new digital platforms for artists.

What is art for? Part five – validation from Axisweb on Vimeo.
He’s right to claim that in an important part of the art world validation comes from sales and critical acclaim. He’s also right that this approach favours an informed group of connoisseurs and experts, be they critics, gallerists, or buyers. This appears to exclude the general public and makes art inaccessible or, in his terms, ‘unusable’. However, I don’t think that this is all of the art world and reveals much about his thinking.
He proposes that rethinking art practice along the lines presented in the earlier films to serve its users more directly, which means validation from a more local and visible constituency. He lists several projects that are ‘not representations’ of things, but the ‘thing itself’. While this model would provide validation of a different sort (though no less easy to attain, I suspect), the audience (or perhaps ‘usership’) for this sort of work might ‘get’ the work more easily than an dense installation by Thomas Hirschhorn or a Cy Twombley painting, but they may not think of it as art, simply as help.
Part of the argument here is that pre-Modern (say, before 1850) art was not a vehicle for personal expression, but related to something more tangible. It was, as Hudson points out, in the service of the church and/or state. It had a job to do. Hudson’s new conception of art is ambitious in that it seeks to engage with the world as it is and not with the psyche / feelings of the artist, but in the service of what? In an earlier film he argues against the artist sitting outside the world and criticising it in favour of something more useful or engaged.
This practical approach – of art in the service of society’s needs – is the location of my problem with Hudson’s argument. It seems to co-opt the artist into a narrative (or ideology) that holds a degree of power. This might be the museum, which could be benign or even positive for all concerned, but the model extends, by his own admission, to more pernicious elements like the church or state. There’s a word for that kind of art: Propaganda.
Much can be gained through engaging with difficult or demanding art. It may not result in a deep understanding of a particular art work or with artists, but it could simply be an opening up to the possibility offered by something. I remember hearing Captain Beefheart’s notoriously difficult LP Trout Mask Replica and feeling disoriented and bewildered by it. It’s a dense, oblique record that sounds like little else. By sticking with it, buy reading about it and listening to it, it revealed itself to me over time. One day it clicked. That can happen with art. The difficulty provides a site for viewers to negotiate and think with the work, and it’s in this difficulty that a viewer (or listener) can grow.
That’s a slight diversion, but I think that it provides a useful analogy. Art works on individuals, not crowds. Yes some of it is difficult or awkward, but it shouldn’t be changed for all that. The model offered by Hudson places the institution (or state, or church) in the position of narrator: it’s their story that the artist is employed to tell.
At the end of this fifth film his argument unravels. He claims that ‘thousands’ of art students leave art school and end up doing ‘small projects’ or ‘run coffee bars’ and that this isn’t ‘validation’. Well, leaving aside the fact that it might be validation enough for them, he mentioned in an earlier film that the ‘noodle bar’ in a gallery could be an art project. I don’t really see how an artist run noodle bar in a gallery is any different from a coffee bar run by an ex-art student, aside from the latter being independent of the institution and perhaps managing to exist for longer.
In the final film – which seems like a footnote to me – Hudson talks about the possibilities of new digital platforms to provide new arenas for art.

What is art for? Part six – digital from Axisweb on Vimeo.
This is old news and I’m not sure what he’s saying. People are indeed creative in the way they make films and take photographs and present them online and, crucially ‘outside’ the traditional art world. Hudson is thinking about how to bring these different strands of creativity (gaming, animation, augmented reality, etc.) into the institution as way of broadening its base. This seems like more co-opting to me and while I would argue (with Hudson) for a plural and broad approach to what might constitute ‘art’ it is possible that these strands already exist in their homes and that the institution is irrelevant to them.

Posted by author: Bryan
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