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Friday, August 1, 2014

The Role of Art?

Here at Commonty central we do like a bit of debate and discussion as well as being kept up to date with the comings and goings around D&G (and beyond)

This week's thoughts come from the lovely Michael Riddle - add you're thoughts to the comments below!

"Much as i appreciate the creativity of artist cooperatives and the cultural enrichment of lives and locations, art can't exist in a vacuum. And all the time art is promoted and grant funded within the auspices of establishment influence and moderation, inevitably it will serve as another distraction in similar vein to hollywood movies, pop music and 'click share' pictures of cute kittens, just another product to hype and add value. While distracted, in our name and by our working and paying taxes, we contribute to the conflicts our leaders engage in.

Arts role should be to shine a light on different perspectives that the established status quo dont want highlighted. To challenge power, to provoke, to go beyond a contractual obligation to provide a product and to speak of and bring about a 'better' world. 

Sorry for the vague rant, I'm not coalescing to some meaningful point or idea for a common good event...much as i'd like to. 

Much respect to you and all at the commonty and common good.

M Riddle"


  1. I'm glad I got to the end of the Commonty's wonderfully long email yesterday and found this post because it resonates a lot with what I've been thinking. About how we are so easily diverted from the fullest expression of ourselves by the manipulations and diversions created by those we have made rich, famous and powerful. How we hand over all semblance of grown-upness and responsibility when we hand over our taxes. Even how 'The Arts' has allowed itself to be seduced into the turf war of grant bidding that leads mainly to concept grabs and empire building and power plays that mimic perfectly the government and corporate institutions that fund it and positively encourage 'the arts' to distract itself in reporting and outcomes and targets.

    A role of the arts should be to find ways to resonate with the innermost part of the creative self that lies in each of us, to empower us to express that creativity in all aspects of our lives. The role of the Powers That Be might then be not to restrict the options available in service of the continuation of their power, but to create a safe and functional space where all options remain open.

    Where this leads me right now is to a basic wage - - to see what happens when people don't have to prostitute their creativity (or any other part of themselves) just to make ends meet. But then I like walking past people on the streets who are truly alive and have fire and joy in their eyes!

    Second attempt to post this... sorry if it ends up posting twice.

    Jane Gray

  2. I think that this topic is very interesting

    I think that this topic should be further discussed. Unfortunately it won't be, for some of the reasons outlined by Mr Riddle

    State funding for the arts is taken as a given

    I was once told by someone very high up in Creative Scotland, dismisively, almost as if the argument was irrelevant, when I asked if the arts should be publicly funded at all:

    "of course, it is a sign of a civilised society"

    well, as that riposte sunk in, after all I had merely put out a question, which at the time I thought the arts should be, I thought:

    'why the vehemence? It's not bloody science, it's not even philosopy. That's simply your opinion!'

    anyway his statement made me think

    in answer to the:

    "of course, it is a sign of a civilised society"

    attack, I might say, glibly, of course:

    'well, did Athens fund public art? Did Rome? Were they not civilised? Are they not the basis of all of our western art let alone cultural heritage?'

    what a strange response I found

    oh, btw I thought later, they also had slavery, women couldn't vote, neither could men if they weren't born in Athens, free, & owned land

    there are many reasons for this kind of thinking from Creative Scotland

    but I think that those of us who care about art should listen & not take for granted, well, anything

    art has always, as far as we can establish, been conducted under systems of patronage. Modern concepts of artists in garrets struggling, are simply erroneous, romanticised through modern media. If you can, name any artist who came to prominence in such a fashion (okay Modigliani, but that was his choice - a preference for narcotics & booze)! Van Gogh, think Theo. Emin, think Saatchi. xxx - think either inheritance or rich parents

    YBA - well read Julian Stallabrass' wonderful diatribe 'High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art'

    sharks & spinning - my arse

    it boils down to:


    I see the problem now in what Mr Riddle addresses as a new form of patronage though. State patronage. Yes, this is a problem. The public sector is inherently problematic. Ask Peter Howson this exact point as a war artist. Compromised

    I say this all as a Marxist. A Marxist in the 21st century

    difficult positioning

    I wonder if we do get independence then shall we have a muscular 60' tall painted Wee Eck, almost in a Boxeresque fashion, or shall I forever wonder how it could have turned out with the supreme 80 x 80cm Black Square in 1915 when Scotland really could have become a turning point?

    does that in fact ask us imperial versus metric - an aside

    back to where I think things might lie askance, & I know it is easy to critisice, still, in a few words, the State sector is moribund

    the State sector is, in my opinion, full to the brim of petite fonctionnaires. Lost folks with no practical experience

    forget the money coming in from the ERDF or whatever that fund has now morphed into. Art is now effectively grant aided in Scotland

    who gets these grants?

    effectively as far as I can establish, the same folks, in the same cliques, time after time

    is it not time that collectives became collective again & stopped chasing State monies & simply, as Mr Riddle affirms, created art

    live or die by it

    anyway, this is not grist to the mill of the grant aid

    so silence

    1. agree entirely with comment on who gets grants.same folks, same cliques, time after time

  3. Art has many roles, faces, modi operandi, but its most significant is surely that of challenging the status quo, exploring what is hidden, or unspoken, unacceptable, uncomfortable. Art turns over stones, dares to look, faces the oppressor, despises the comfortable, spearheads change. Art, in short, attempts to uncover and express the unconscious, whether this be of the individual or of society, the personal or the collective.

    But when the paymaster IS the status quo, how can art possibly function?

    F*ck the paymaster – the artist must needs go it alone


  4. I define myself as an artist and I make work through a relational practice (also variously known as context-related….socially engaged….or….environmental art). By definition this means I am the polar opposite of ‘independent’ in the way I make art. What I do is place myself within a public context (be that a social or physical one….99.9% of the time it is both) – I then consciously immerse myself in that situation and create work through negotiation and mutual consent with those involved in the place I am working and in a wider relationship with society at large.

    Always the work is in a constructively critical relationship to the place – but it is always made in collaboration with other people who have a stake in the place…never ‘purely’ from myself and then imposed with the ‘authority of the artist’.

    Maybe this discussion needs more rigour in what is meant by the term ‘artist’ – because I certainly do not recognise my practice in what is being discussed so far.

    Perhaps it would be useful if the previous contributors were able to define what they mean by the word artist in contemporary society?

    1. fair comment

      the artist can be many things

      the artist can be the autonomously defined, beginning with the assertions of Poe or Gautier (early modernism), l'art pour l'art, but intrinsically coming from the Greek autotelism, through a bastardised narcissistic version of this ie I'm an artist, I made it, therefore it is art

      the artist can be Mies van der Rohe

      the artist can be Barnett Newman

      the artist can be Jack Vettriano

      the artist can be the l'etranger



      I therefore think that it is distraction to try to define the artist, because the artist is pretty indefinable

      I think that the artist is all of the above plus an infinate variation of the above

      as you will know, in the first part of the 20th century Duchamp broke many concepts. One of his great legacies was to redefine how to look at art:

      'Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object'
      from The Blind Man (

      Barnett Newman placed the observer's gaze front & centre

      I think it is more important what the artist accomplishes, no matter the definition of the artist

      I don't see much rethinking in publicly funded art, which is a shame, but inevitable

    2. Robert Hughes on Hirst

    3. 'why am I here?'
      'what am I doing here?'

      if one can answer this in one's art, then the question of the definition of the artist, I feel, is immaterial, because the art then produced is great art

  5. This discussion piqued my interest when it was appeared to be about the role of the artist and the principles of patronage. I hope it doesn't turn out to just be another rant about who does and who doesn't get support form arts funders. Yawn indeed!

  6. I was well aware of being provocative in my comment by only expressing the voice of the neurotic (in the best sense of the word) loner. Of course artists have always had an important social role as explorers, interpreters and commentators for that which society at large has difficulty articulating, and perhaps never more so than in our current times. Your description of your own way of working, aiming for selfless immersion, is splendid, clear and inspiring to us all. Using public money for this is highly appropriate.
    BUT, you speak as one at the top of your game, with the confidence to succeed. Somewhere further down the ladder are a thousand and one people struggling with their own identity and their role in society. Many of these have chosen the path of ‘artist’ to unravel and surmount this challenge. This is a wonderful way, free, and with liberation as its goal. However, in the progression recognised by Jung etc, most people’s road will start with the personal unconscious, and only later come to that of the collective , where the public artist operates (?). But the early stages can be filled with self doubt, with ‘Society’ occupying the role of critical super-ego. The game is then to go past this obstacle, using art as the vehicle
    Hence my comments
    But many ways of seeing trees and skinning cats ... that’s only one
    Incidentally, may I pre-empt the criticism that those who are still thrashing around with personal issues don’t deserve the title ‘artist’. I totally disagree. We all recognise our own issues in another’s, and working on the self is another way of contributing to the whole. And anyway, personal issues generally occupy a lifetime!


  7. I'm glad to have prompted some thought. I hope no one took offence to it. Its certainly not a new debate. I do wonder if my critique of grant funded art is itself biased because I dont get any. I wonder if the fact that much great art historically having been funded by benefactors, sponsorship and grant funding rather undermines my assertion that art so funded is just a contractual product....

    But I still feel that the moral imperative becomes impaired, an unconscious blinkering and unwillingness to challenge the status quo by conforming to the funder's agenda. The real art, the art thats done by people because they wanted to create and explore ideas and not distract themselves from seeing mans inhumanity to man in perpetual economic slavery to [small green pieces of paper] and desire to let art lead to a better world in any way it possibly could.

    Yes, idealistic twaddle. Truth is I long to 'sell out' to the fast buck so that I could not have to live on benefits:)

    Michael Riddle

    1. I wouldn't worry either about offending anyone, I think people are robust

      I see nothing wrong with bias, come on, who wants to live in a bland world?

      thank you for beginning this thread, it is getting interesting, I wish I had the ability to express myself as others here have done

      Rob Weir

  8. Thank heavens we are back from the brink of ‘who gets/doesn’t get funding’!

    I was surprised to see the rather quaint bourgeois notion of the anti-establishment artist appearing in the contributions of several of the contributions above and the original post by Michael Riddle. I thought the end of the last century had taught us that the avant-garde has been fully assimilated into logic (and economy) of the establishment ie that ‘difference’ of the avant-garde serves to a) confirm the legitimacy of that which it seeks to criticize and b) is fetishized by the artworld as fashion.

    This idea that it is the main purpose of an artist to ‘challenge the status-quo’ is a very valuable debating point. It would be interesting to test the idea that a tableware potter or a portrait painter is challenging the status-quo. In fact, more contemporary theory might actually propose that the quiet rebellion of handcrafts is actually more subversive and powerful in effecting societal change than the ‘anti-establishment artist’ – who could be said to be simply following a predictable and (potentially) lucrative career path in the artworld establishment.

    The big question, waiting in the wings, though is what types of practice/project should be supported by public patronage for the benefit of society. Here, one of the earlier correspondent’s questions about different forms of practice becomes vital I think. But equally important are questions about accessibility and transparency of policy and decision-making. In thinking about this it has been instructive and compelling to watch the development of the arts-led strategy approach in Dumfries and Galloway and the approach taken by Creative Scotland in laying out a series of Value Statements about what CS regards as important about the Arts – and now attempting to apply these in funding decisions. Both are bold and brave directions conscious of the arts ‘challenging the status-quo’…..or could we re-phrase this as ‘being a challenging voice in society’.
    Personally I believe that the most important directive for public arts patronage at the moment should one of integrating the arts into different parts of society embedding the ‘challenging voice and creative process’ in everything we do from education to the environment to economics. So that the Arts leads the way in the breaking down of Enlightenment ‘disciplines’ and pioneers a ‘Second Enlightenment’ of re-connecting and generalism….but I do spend most of my time talking to sheep.

    As always, the enormous inherent challenge is the how to support the ‘outsider’ voice – but not to destroy it by bringing inside. I believe that trust is the fundamental value that is required here – a trust in ourselves and those around us – particularly those charged with making decision for the collective good. The arts can be part of re-building that trust.

    There are big changes afoot in the world with hierarchies of information literally crumbling before our eyes as citizen journalism tears down the walls that have protected the mechanisms of power. We are going to need you artists very much in the next wee while, to help build trust and point the way in new methods of doing things and organizing ourselves. Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if our arts bodies nationally and regionally recognized this and put schemes in place to support the arts to play its part for a changing society.

    Oh yes….and Vote Yes – me and the sheep think that will be one of the most positive initial changes in the world order currently being torn down by citizen power.

    1. I think that your point about the 'crafts' being a subversive voice is a very cogent one, & you put across some very interesting views, but what an incredibly pompous way to express oneself

      & as for your back from the brink comment, which I disagree with btw, then why bring in the independence vote at the end

      'Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so'
      Douglas Adams

  9. Thankyou for you kind comments about the content of my contribution to this interesting discussion.
    I am not sure of what the main point of your comment really is though - calling me pompous seems like a case of playing the 'woman not the ball' (which is ironic given the words of Douglas Adams you quote!)

    I am very sorry if my way of expressing myself came over badly - I am not directly involved in the arts and it can be an intimidating arena to enter. Arts folk can seem scarily articulate to the outsider! I am sometimes conscious that I maybe overcompensate when I contribute to the Commonty and very aware of the limits of my self-education in arts speak..

    I'd be very interested to hear your fuller thoughts about the ideas I was putting forward - please persevere through my clumsy language!

  10. Great to hear so many voices coming through on this topic, big thanks to Mike Riddle for opening this particular can of worms.

    Can we please remind everyone that we aim to keep The Commonty as a level platform through which everyone is invited to contribute and that therefore we should all be considerate of others when replying to each others comments. This is by no means an attempt to stop debate and discussion, but more to be mindful. Thanks to all for contributing so far, anonymous' and others!

  11. I was interested in what Matt said about socially engaged, context-related art being the opposite, I think he meant, of the artist working completely from his own agenda? Does that mean the art itself can evolve completely independently of the artist's beliefs or viewpoint? Or does he choose only to get engaged in places where he knows his own ideas will be validated? If for instance he does a bit of public art in some village that has been completely repopulated by retired brigadier generals from Surrey will the art reflect the reality of that and those present, or will it instead represent the imagined voices of the population long gone in the grey ships? A constituency he'll have to imagine, and about which he probably has established views.

    1. Hi Hugh - we never did get our pint together to discuss this a while back! What I am talking about is not an 'either or' - but a synthesis of the artist's own sensibilities combined with those of the the context in which the artist is working. One of the most interesting (and I think important) parts of the process is the negotiation with local people which results (not always mind!) in the artist being granted permission to practice as an artist on and in their patch. The role of the artist has no basis in most practical senses we are 'use-less'......the gaining of consent for 'usefullness of the use-less' is oftentimes one of the most valuable parts of public practice, as it opens up many unexpected new avenues and opportunities for the people involved.
      What might (inelegantly) be called social effect is what fascinates me, but is also what oftentimes becomes so difficult to talk about in terms of 'art' intersecting as it does with education, health, science and economics. But, then as I think Upland Shepherd said earlier - we do seem to headed down a path of blurring specialisms - so maybe it will all be art in the end?!

  12. getting better now

    Hugh McMillan's second sentence is worthy of Wittgenstein's aesthetics - the view that the boot was on the canvas before it was even painted, even, maybe before the artist envisioned it


    but I do think that Matt's point is fair, even though 'The Role of Art' was the initial topic

    I think that I tried to answer that, succinctly. I'll suggest again:

    'why am I here?'
    'what am I doing here?'

    if one can answer this in one's art, then the question of the definition of the artist, I feel, is immaterial, because the art then produced is great art

    I think that this goes some way toward both

    1. Your definition works for me Rob......but just by way of keeping things going: wouldn't Science claim to be answering the same questions? So what is the difference between Science and Art?