There has been a lot of talk about the arts in the rural/regional of late. A recent Arts Council initiative called Art 07 brought together a body of arts people from the Northern region and included a debate on the rural/regional arts in relation to the urban/London scene. The debate was embarrassingly broadcast on Radio 3’s Nightwaves programme. The gist of it was that London is where it happens and everything outside of London is of little consequence and of low quality – of no particular interest to any but a local audience. This position was countered by local arts people suggesting that in fact there was a great deal of national and international level art going on in the rural it’s just that the urban audience doesn’t know about or have access to it. Just to quickly clear this one up, there is next to nothing of interest happening in the rural/regional and it is the fault of the artists and arts organizations. The insistence on apeing urban models, looking for endorsement, failing to creatively invent themselves,– that’s no way to make something useful, influential or significant.
But why is this? Historically much of British Art and many Art movements emanated from the rural, Nicholson and St Ives, Wordsworth and Romanticism, Pastoralists, Constable in Suffolk, Gill and Ditchling, Guild of Craftsmen in Gloucestershire, Architecture and music at Dartington Hall, not to mention the plethora of material coming out of the country house, Capability Brown, Adam, the Portraitists, etc as well as the one-offs like Moore, Spencer, Lowry, Schwitters. Maxwell-Davis even Damien Hirst now, the list is long, what’s come out of London - The Euston road School!
The rural has sporadically housed weird mavericks, working individually or in tight groups but in comparative isolation forging new vision, really taking risks (rather than saying they are risk taking), being ostracized. The current regional culture is so keen to be accepted they sell out before they have even started, begging for a special dispensation to be taken seriously.
The ambition of the debate was to ask if the UK was defined by rural or urban culture. Where do you start? the question seems irrelevant. Define UK, culture, urban, rural before the question can even arise and by the way the answer is - if you could ever define either as separate - derr, both. However there is a divide/fusion and it’s an interesting body of ideas/material that many people/artists explore. For the rural - as a subject - it is perhaps not an end in itself but rather a route to defining a more pertinent way to expand the rural value. The countryside is understood by the nation as a culturally backward zone - which is true. That is perhaps the rural’s natural/real position, rooted in day to day isolated activities, in tune with the basics of growth, life and death (or more realistically the season of the tourist, there’s nothing like a good fresh run tourist covered in lice (this is a reference spring salmon that when they first come up the river system are covered in sea lice – it used to be seen as a good thing, I think now it’s seen as a sign of the degenerating environment)).
The urban migrant probably has more impact on rural culture than anyone else, moving to the country in large numbers to enjoy that vision of opt out and simple life, to play real communities (largely with each other). Consequently the country is full of people who reinforce and perpetuate a very cliched vision of the rural, in fact insist it stays that way when it is they that could radically shift it. Times have changed the rural has changed but the cliché about it hasn’t in fact it has been massively reinforced to the point where it has become the only vision of the rural swamping the delicate reality of a complex and sophisticated environment. Importantly those people who guide and mediate culture in the rural perpetuate the cliche, investing in lame culture that plays along to a tourist centred agenda.
A recent Germaine Greer Christopher Frayling debate discussed funding levels in the regions, principally an argument about comparative funding levels – in fact the regional draws more than adequate funding, the problem arises in how these funds are actually spent. Currently in Cumbria £100 million is being allocated to develop a rural arts visitor centre, promoted as a rural Tate (despite the Tate’s denials). The project has employed London consultants to show the rural how it should be done – they are using an urban model, will it do anything interesting in relation to a rural culture? Unsurprisingly it would seem unlikely, there is no acknowledgement that the conditions are different. It would be hard - at a consultant’s glance - for anyone to see anything other than this model with virtually all the rural culture brokers (galleries, museums, artists, writers etc) desperately adopting urban models. For example a local Cumbrian gallery markets itself as being the same size Joplin’s White Cube - the old one!
The debate for Art 07 brought suggestions from the floor that the rural should be given a special dispensation, positive discrimination. The rural/regional needs to change its own clichéd view of itself, it needs to develop ways of contributing to national and international cultural evolution offering material that is relevant, being amongst the leaders rather than followers and to do this the arts community needs to rethink it’s mechanisms, urban models don’t and shouldn’t work in rural space – that is so obvious. The rural’s introspective and ludicrously self congratulatory attitude, the suggestion of discrimination are all unhelpful ‘head in the sand’ positions that suppress real engagement with the complex and relevant issues as ever present in both urban and rural communities. Cultural practioners need to get with the programme – an example of this ‘off the mark’ approach was demonstrated in the most exemplary way at the afore mentioned Art 07 event. Local artists staged an Arts Council funded ‘Art Strike’ – I am almost certain that neither the commissioner ACE North West or the organization being funded to deliver this ‘idea’ had any idea of the precedents – which are of course multiple and go back to the early part of the 20th century, a quick Google would have filled in the gaps. The other main event was a 21st century barn dance with paid dancers to guide people through a series of country dances, the event was titled Loc–Glo-Bal, the music provided by a ragtaggle bunch of world music musicians wearing black t shirts. The Arts Council put £200,000 into this ‘celebration’ of rural culture. There were no interesting ideas put forward, no critical analysis, nothing added to cultural development.
The rural is full of people escaping the perceived harshness of ‘real’ life which is fine but don’t then expect to be taken seriously and to be a part of national cultural discourse. I see this all around me amongst the local art community, angry artists making outdated work for their own pleasure hugely resenting the fact that they are not taken seriously by a critical audience (many of them make good livings which is more than your ‘cutting edge’ practitioner can claim).
The Bed and Breakfast scenario in the Lake District offers an interesting analogy/lesson. People move to the country to get away from other people and then open a B&B as the easiest way to generate an income. The basis of a good B&B is an open and friendly interest in people – do you see the problem?
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