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Art for whose sake?

technical & practice

Since when should art be governed by its regenerative capacity? The battle of external meaning over form still rages

Another 'landmark' public art work went up in Belfast last month, the latest in a growing sculpture trail 'connecting people, places and art [and] celebrating the changing face of the city'. The new work (above), entitled The Calling, takes the form of two brightly coloured human figures standing on chairs, calling to each other through cupped hands. Standing 15m above the traffic at the gateway to the city's newly designated Cultural Quarter, it is said to represent 'positive communication between people and their environment'.

According to Laganside Corporation, the development agency that commissioned the work, this 'eyecatching' structure, designed to glow at night, will 'generate a sense of pride and place and encourage further revitalisation of this city-centre location'.

Whatever its value as a contributor to economic recovery and civic pride, more open to question is its quality as a 'unique, innovative and inspirational' work of art, given the proliferation of 'public art' as an identikit feature of almost every urban renewal programme across the British Isles. From Tyneside to Laganside, from Southwark to Salford Quays, form and quality may vary, but typically each bridge, statue and signature building derives from the same set of interchangeable meanings, informed by local political concerns and usually expressed through this new language of connection, reconnection, transformation and renewal.

For many critics, the bland, derivative quality of much of this contemporary public art is a product of the current mania to incorporate 'art' as a strategy for social inclusion and economic regeneration. It demonstrates the increasingly destructive imposition of political dogma onto contemporary arts practice.

Frameworks After decades of indifference, if not hostility, official endorsement of the arts as a significant economic contributor was formally launched with the creation of the Department for National Heritage in 1992, with representation at Cabinet level.

Five years on, in the wake of New Labour's election victory, Chris Smith, then secretary of state at the newly created Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), placed arts and culture at the centre of government policy, defining one of its key values as the 'ability to provide ways for the people to come together to express their belief in participation in society'.

Drawing a correlation between certain kinds of 'radical' art practice and the successful delivery of its manifesto commitments, New Labour opened up generous new sources of funding to a largely appreciative sector.

Not content with merely absorbing Labour's political concerns into programming and practice, the sector raised the stakes, publishing mountains of 'funder-friendly' reports, which bestowed almost every kind of regenerative and inspirational property on its work short of raising the dead! Art was not only socially cohesive and good for the economy, it was spiritually uplifting, promoted 'healthy living' and racial tolerance, and improved mental and physical well-being, self-esteem, self-reliance, life skills and employability.

Amid a frenzy of self-flattering rhetoric, Smith's promise that government would not 'stand idly by, ignoring the potential of cultural activity to uplift the people's hearts' was soon to be translated into a highly contractual and instrumental approach to arts funding. This was spelled out in the 1999 press release that accompanied a £290 million increase in funding for DCMS sectors.

'This is not something for nothing, ' it said. 'We want to see measurable outcomes for the investment that is being made. From now on, there will be real partnership, with obligations and responsibilities.'

Autonomy constrained

The tone seems unduly abrasive, given the sector's enthusiasm to comply, but the DCMS was simply asserting the traditional position of the patron who rarely, if ever, entertains ideas of something for nothing.

There is nothing essentially harmful in this approach. After all, Renaissance art flourished under the politically motivated patronage of powerful popes and princes. Closer to home, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), which was formed in 1940, also explicitly tied state patronage into the pursuit of 'national war policy' and the 'fight for civilisation and democracy'. At a time of national emergency, CEMA - a prototype of the postwar Arts Council of Great Britain - identified four key motivations for government patronage: the preservation of standards; opportunities for public enjoyment; encouragement of public 'play acting and music making'; and employment opportunities for artists.

Over 60 years, through a series of changing political landscapes, most arguments, whether vindicating or challenging state patronage of the arts, have revolved around interpretations of the merit and value of art practice, measured against CEMA's original objectives, which might be expressed in the shorthand of contemporary arts policy as:

excellence;

access;

participation; and

economic benefit.

From the earliest days of government intervention, official interest tended to focus on the measurable public benefits of art, over and above the principle of excellence. Traditionally, the distinction between artistic and official interest in the arts focused precisely on the different values each placed upon art's 'incidental benefits', as opposed to its practice.

Consequently, in the immediate postwar period, the relationship between artists and their official sponsors evolved into a kind of balancing act, with the Arts Council maintaining equilibrium through appeals to the civilising mission of 'great art'.

Placing government interests firmly at arm's length, the Arts Council's policy of preserving standards while spreading benefits rested on its role as the first arbiter of a narrowly defined band of cultural excellence, to be made available to the masses.

While it may be reasonable to expect the arts sector to put its own interests at centre stage, this position was traditionally supported by a prevailing view of art, which emphasised its unique quality to elevate the recipient from the immediacy of everyday concerns.

In 1953, American critic Clement Greenberg wrote approvingly of avant-garde painting as being 'about itself ', 'inward-looking' and interested, above all, 'in solutions to problems of form, surface and perspective'. Defining artistic autonomy in such uncompromising terms requires the imposition of aesthetic criteria over and above principles of social or political relevance - an idea that many today reject as elitist.

Dissenting voices

For some, however, the idea that there were various spheres of art provided a 'defensible enclave' for dissent in an era of Cold War conformity. In any event, whether 'disinterested' or seeking to challenge the political orthodoxies of their time, artists were able to resist official instrumentalism with appeals to widely held views of their practice - based on its intrinsic, rather than its external value.

Ironically, some of the most damaging attacks on artistic autonomy came from ideological movements within art practice, as opposed to external government coercion. Since the 1960s, radical artists frequently linked support for oppositional politics to demands for oppositional practices in the arts. Searching for wider 'relevance' and 'meaning' for their work, artists contested the boundaries of institutional arts practice by subverting traditional evaluative criteria, taking art out of galleries and into the streets.

With levels of public funding shrinking throughout the 1970s and 1980s, these radical ideas were increasingly expressed through challenges to existing Arts Council funding arrangements. By the mid1970s, in a growing relativist political climate, the council began seriously to question its own authority in determining artistic value. In a 1974 report, senior members of council challenged the 'supposed egalitarian principles' of its policy as 'condescending' and 'paternalistic'. According to Professor Baldry 'excellence was a patrician word that translated a subjective judgement into a universal criterion', while 'access' was no more than 'leading the horses to the water we had chosen'.

Coming full circle, questions of 'relevance', 'inclusion' and 'elitism', which informed Post-Modernist challenges to arts practice in the radical 1960s and 1970s, have been incorporated into the mainstream discourse of New Labour policymakers. Similarly, the Arts Council has redefined 'excellence' in relativist terms as 'the highest possible achievement, not a value system placed on one group by another'.

New orthodoxys

This synthesis of 'radical' ideology into the fabric of official art and cultural policy is hardening into a new orthodoxy, whereby those who dissent find themselves censured for providing intellectual cover for the defensiveness of dominant social groups, defined in terms of race, gender and class.

This new orthodoxy is central to the problems facing contemporary public arts practice, with its endless proliferation of dull, derivative work.

It is fair to argue that political patronage, which is by its very nature instrumental and prescriptive, cannot be singled out for blame.After all, what is the zealotry of New Labour's cultural commissars or even the discomfiture of a National Lottery funding application compared with the formal powers of censorship and control exercised in wartime Britain, let alone 16th-century Florence?

But the difference is this: in privileging external meaning(s) over aesthetics and form, artists have assimilated the instrumentalist mindset of their political paymasters. In the mutual embrace of relevance, accessibility and inclusion, the creative tension that traditionally characterised relationships between patron and artist has settled into tired consensus.

Today, every petty controversy around funding allocation becomes focused on questions of 'relevance': what artists do and how they impact, as opposed to what they make. In this way, the irony of the situation is that, amid all the money and hype for its practical benefits, the practice of art may well be dying from neglect.

Pauline Hadaway is director of the Belfast Exposed Gallery of Contemporary Photography.

Visit www.belfastexposed. com Regeneration role

The Laganside Company was founded in March 1987, with a remit to 'contribute to the revitalisation of Belfast and Northern Ireland through regeneration'. In the context of a city exhausted by two decades of conflict, and with a government eager to build the conditions for peace, Laganside set to work on a new £60 million road and rail link and a tidal river barrier.

In 1990, it drew up a draft arts strategy focused on the need and availability of amenities and facilities on Laganside.Regeneration through the promotion of arts and culture finally featured in official policy in 1992, and in 1998 the Laganside Corporation's remit was extended to include the development of a Cultural Quarter in the neglected north side of the city, a proposal informed by ideas of 'urban regeneration through the arts'.

The art strategy recommended the installation of public art locally, as well as proactive support for 'cultural and sporting events, activities and environmental improvements, which contribute to the regeneration of Laganside and which would be attractive to community participation'.

The Public Art Trail, comprising more than 30 pieces of public art placed along streets, walkways and cycle routes along the riverside, is contained in a pocket guidebook, providing 'background information on the inspiration for the artworks', and from which we have taken the caption quotes.

For more information visit the Laganside website at www. laganside. com

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