I would like to see the continuation of a blended approach to art funding in the coming months and years. In fact I don’t think there is that much wrong with the current structure. Creative Scotland do a good job, encouraging a diverse range of applications from organisations to individuals to communities. What I do think is needed now is effective lobbying group for the work of the cultural sector directed toward our senior politicians. As this would be an easy time to push through cuts in the culture budget I think that what is needed now are robust advocates who can educate our leaders and persuade them not only to not slash funding but increase it, with the aim of supporting projects that develop excellence and participation in the arts.
Beyond this the Arts can have a catalytic effect on the economy as well as helping us to reconnect and redefine our collective experience as a society, reflecting on what we have been through and what we want to become.
This is a difficult question to address for two reasons.
The long term effects of the pandemic on the culture sector are still very much in play. While the consequences of lockdown on galleries, theatres, film and TV production has been more or less even, the attempted adjustments to become both viable and communicate effectively again should be easier for the visual compared to the performing arts.
The other factor is personal isolation which has touched everyone in the cultural sector. The lockdown didn’t just mean the cancellation of events, but a physical and mental retreat into the domestic or private sphere leading to less interaction or dialogue which is the oxygen of the arts – the critical discourse must have suffered.
However as I have said before we will adapt, Art will be different and new ideas and platforms will emerge. Will society look to Artists to interpret this new zeitgeist and offer up visions of how we might now relate collectively ? Or will this opportunity be stifled as governments and local authorities deem Art funding an unnecessary luxury in hard times ?
In a democratic society all these voices will be heard and contested. The emerging picture will be patchy, the arts are not universally valued and I expect there will be closures and cutbacks. On the flip side the super rich have apparently not been too badly affected by the pandemic and some stocks are rising. Does this mean we can soon expect to see the auction houses and art fairs bounce back to their full pomp and splendour while grassroots, while socially engaged projects which rely on public money start to disappear.
This would be bad as this is where in recent years most the critical discourse and innovation in the arts has stemmed from. Art at its best can articulate and define a collective identity this will be an important role in the coming months and years – hopefully our politicians will support us to do this important work.
Since my mid twenties I have worked as a sculptor, my practice is to me indivisible from my identity. Being a sculptor does have practical and financial aspects that need attending to in order to remain viable but I do believe it is more than a job as it offers me the opportunity to discover, filter and reorder the world as I encounter it. I have no doubt that if I had not become an artist I would have made many more bad choices in my life and would have encountered a lot more misery. As a direct result of being an artist I have continued my education, broadened out my experience and found purpose. The values that I place on my Art or at least what I aspire to are addressed below.
Historically Artists were divided into two groups – those who chose beauty and those who chose virtue. To update this into modern parlance – pick either aesthetics or criticality. I really don’t see why you have have to hitch up to one or the other, they can be twin pursuits.
I do want my sculpture to have formal values, to express things like material, surface, edge, scale, volume and gravity. I want the work to be made competently, its presence should be engaging enough for the viewer to want to spend time with it. Crucially I hope this interaction facilitates intellectual engagement.
I want my sculptures to suggest to the viewer both what is now and what has always been, I want the work to be simple and complex, familiar and ambiguous, everyday and weird. The key value these elements produce is doubt and doubt I believe is a precondition for civilisation. Societies that permit doubt, are tolerant, questioning and adaptable. This is what I want to express in my work.
The Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky said that -“The role of the Artist is not to propose solutions but to set questions in their requisite depth”.
Before I try to answer that – perhaps a definition of art should be addressed. (In order to make any headway there will be generalisations).
If we are talking about Contemporary Art in galleries then we would talking about a fairly niche audience, most of whom are in large urban populations. If we expand it to people who come into contact with public art and are generally positive about that experience then the number grows significantly. If we are talking about the arts including theatre, music, film and TV then that touches almost everyone. If we expand this even further to include Architecture, Fashion and Design then we are all involved in making value judgements about Art.
I remember once I was talking with a guy from Orkney who said that he had no need art in his life. I asked him if he had any passions and he said he loved his Kawasaki motorbike. I then asked him if that love was based on it’s top speed, acceleration and fuel efficiency or did aesthetics have anything to do with it? He admitted he loved its forms and colour scheme – I said that the styling of his bike was probably created by someone who went to Art School.
Visual Culture is everywhere and is interconnected. Even with we restrict ourselves to the first definition, Contemporary Art in galleries, then a strong case can be made for it’s catalytic effect on the wider visual culture. It opens up new territory, positions and definitions that are adapted into other disciplines, a bit like Haute Couture’s designs ending up influencing the high street clothing. Contemporary Art’s lack of functionality makes it both useless and vital. It’s freedom from use means that everything matters and everything is critically analysed.
Arguably it is this ongoing discourse that is Art’s real value to society. Contemporary Art over other cultural outputs gives us direct and unmediated contact to Artists voices. Mass media requires backers, corporate platforms and the collaboration of large groups of creatives that often result in dilution or less risky outcomes. If we are interested in other peoples voices then contemporary art offers us something authentic as most people making it begin the process without expecting financial reward in return.
Over the last few days, like everyone else in the UK, I felt a shift in the narrative in our collective Covid 19 experience. The staged, strange and stuttering reanimation of our economy had begun to see holidays booked, unruly hair tamed and pints pulled once again. It was in this atmosphere of cautious optimism that I organised the transportation and return of a resin sculpture from a foundry in the Calder Valley, Yorkshire who had kindly stored it for me for five years. It arrived back this Thursday afternoon to my studio in Granton, a sculpture of a life size Indian Elephant. At the same time I was looking forward to visiting the same valley the following Friday but a different foundry to check over the cast of a new sculpture for a private client. I had a hotel booked and trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park lined up as well, my first departure out of the city of Edinburgh in over four months. In the intervening hours the UK Government announced new restrictions in the North of England including the Calder Valley. The general national mood seemed changed, expectations were significantly lowered as I went through the process of calling to cancel hotel bookings and meetings, it took me right back to mid March.
I have always been a consumer of news, in these Covid times I have probably upped it. I know its probably unhealthy but I am compelled tune into this historical narrative. At the same time of this recently announced regional UK lockdown the global media rotate dire predictions of global economic damage and generational blowback, the scale of it is hard to take in.
The Foundry in Halifax went ahead with breaking out the casting and sent me some footage of the event, the client remains committed, we are planning the installation this month. People want to be part of something, we must do what we can.
Acceleration is a defining characteristic of modernity, evidenced in rapidly changing economies, technologies, ethics and culture, collectively these phenomena create conditions that are both dynamic and dangerous. They can provide exhilarating experiences but they can also render us obsolete.
Covid 19 has super charged this reality and adaptability has now become an ever more vital asset to us all. Arguably Artists are more used to shifting economies than other professions as their self-employed status makes them rely on networks and alliances that are often short-lived, either blooming or dying back. My first reaction to the pandemic was to welcome the retreat from being an Artist and concentrate on my relationships and my home. With all my current projects suspended I took the opportunity to disengage from the studio and spend more time at home. I also hoped that a break from Art Practice would also allow me to zoom out from the work a day pressures of being an artist and ask myself about what kind of future life I wanted to live and what kind of art that I wanted to make. In time I hoped that I would return to the studio with a renewed sense of commitment to being an artist and perhaps a new direction of travel. As I now start to reengage with my practice I have decided to take more risks, evidence more process and allow materials more of a voice in my artwork.
The impact of the pandemic on the Art world is hard to gauge right now as the wider economy is just now attempting to reboot. The predictions are dire as events such as degree shows, festivals , art fairs, residencies and biennales that are such a key part of contemporary art today will either not go ahead or be significantly changed.
However with our aforementioned collective adaptabilty I believe that new dissemination methods will emerge out of this situation along with significant new art. I am not planning to directly address the pandemic in my work, but I do believe it will affect the tone of everything. Perhaps we should again consider the maxim of Patrick Geddes, “Think Global, Act Local”. It was relevant yesterday, it seems vital today.
“What did Voltaire mean with his gardening advice? That we must keep a good distance between ourselves and the world, because taking too close an interest in politics or public opinion is a fast route to aggravation and danger. We should know well enough at this point that humans are troublesome and will never achieve – at a state level – anything like the degree of logic and goodness we would wish for. We should never tie our personal moods to the condition of a whole nation or people in general; or we would need to weep continuously. We need to live in our own small plots, not the heads of strangers. At the same time, because our minds are haunted and prey to anxiety and despair, we need to keep ourselves busy. We need a project. It shouldn’t be too large or dependent on many. The project should send us to sleep every night weary but satisfied. It could be bringing up a child, writing a book, looking after a house, running a small shop or managing a little business. Or, of course, tending to a few acres. Note Voltaire’s geographical modesty. We should give up on trying to cultivate the whole of humanity, we should give up on things at a national or international scale. Take just a few acres and make those your focus. Take a small orchard and grow lemons and apricots. Take some beds and grow asparagus and carrots. Stop worrying yourself with humanity if you ever want peace of mind again. Who cares what’s happening in Constantinople or what’s up with the grand Mufti. Live quietly like the old turk, enjoying the sunshine in the orange bower next to your house. This is Voltaire’s stirring, ever relevant form of horticultural quietism. We have been warned – and guided.
Gardening is no trivial pastime, it’s a central way of shielding ourselves from the influence of the chaotic, dangerous world beyond while focusing our energies on something that can reflect the goodness and grace we long for. “
The School of Life
Footnote. I don’t think that I can add to this wonderful piece of writing other than to say that lockdown gave me anxiety and the opportunity to diminish it – by putting my shovel in the dirt. Being in the garden opened me up again to the joys of working outdoors, built resilience and wonder in creation. (see image section)
In my experience sculptors tend to be on the brink of catastrophe even in the good times. Maybe it’s the overheads, the foundry fees, the storage and the fact that commissions while often significant in terms of budget tend to be spaced out on the calendar. Add to that my practice as a sculptor is labour intensive, old school – making it not the ideal capitalist enterprise.
I’m fortunate to have part time employment at an Art School, steady money in uncertain times. However the other half of my earning potential – being an Artist has been gripped by the same economic inertia that has spread across the planet. Projects and commissions have been delayed, thankfully nothing cancelled yet.
Sculptures are quietly gathering dust in a once busy foundry full of noise, heat and shouting.
This loss of personal income is adding to the generalised social anxiety that pervades my thoughts as I flip between new possibilities and old dread, between radical change and hunkering down – l’m open to all offers right now.
All my current Public Art Commissions that will hopefully be reanimated soon are either half way through or nearing the end of their life as paying endeavours. Sculptures for East Lothian Community Hospital now await patination and installation, a small Public artwork for Lerwick, Shetland is being cast in bronze this week and a iron sculpture for a private client should be standing up in the Highlands by the end of August.
The Future is unwritten.
Roughly four and a half months into the Covid 19 era, as experienced in Northern Europe and although I am fortunate not to have caught the virus, it does seem to have messed with my head. The pandemic has forced us all off our own little mouse trails, work – home – pub – social media – repeat.
My understanding of the structure of time, my identity, my relationships, my history and my future have all been intensely questioned. I can’t be alone in experiencing a deep and extended period of reflection during this time. What do I want? what’s important? what’s not important? If this is the case, then if we have collectively asked all the big questions of ourselves, then does this mean we are all now on the way to living better lives in tune with our true desires and better natures?
Or is all this navel gazing a luxury of the lockdown that will evaporate on contact with the reality of un paid bills and the growing dole queues of the coming winter.
We have different futures to contemplate
Welcome to the Super Safe Society – social interaction is on line, germaphobia, food from the ghost kitchen, foreign travel for the few, exchange your health data on your first date, isolation, system crash, permanent crisis mode, retreat into the private sphere.
Welcome to the Resilient Society – adaptation, we culture, glocalisation, regional products, supplies are shared or exchanged, urban farming, flexibility in the workplace and circular economies. People no longer trust state actors and form Neo Tribes.
Option 2 would be a positive by itself and a corrective to the ongoing environmental crisis or maybe a vaccine will show up by Christmas to return us all to our self regarding and self destructive ways.
One thing is certain these are historical times, with extraordinary dangers and extraordinary opportunities.