During the recent ‘Terminal Convention’ Symposium in Cork, our erstwhile Ruskinite-Reformer and keen Big J R blogger Alistair Hudson began his own presentation by showing David Shrigley’s animation ‘An Important Message About the Arts’. Intended as a useful propaganda tool for yet another UK institution threatened by massive government cuts – in this case the Arts Council UK – Shrigley’s animation used the characters of a farmer and his son to make a case for Art’s economic viability (as a key driver in both the Creative and Tourism/Leisure Industries) and, perhaps more predictably, for Art’s assumed cultural and civilising values. As Alistair pointed out though, the twin towers of economy and truth tend to overlook the question of art’s use-value.
In the light of this, Alistair went on to pose a series of key questions which tend to loosely underpin the Grizedale way - what kind of thing would artist’s do if they decided to make themselves useful? What can artists begin to do as citizens? What would art look like if it wasn’t reduced to monetary imperatives on one hand or the need to ‘inform’ the masses from the dizzying heights of culture on the other? What would happen if artists didn’t necessarily commit to producing luxury consumer goods for London centric art market? In other words, what happens if we began to re-look at the possible use-value of art?
As it turns out, these are also questions that big J R had begun to ask in the latter part of his career – the bit where he moved to asking questions about the morality of aesthetics (and also the bit where people began to think he was barking mad started to ignore him). It seems these questions also drove some of big J R’s thinking behind his support for Mechanics Institutes: as educational centers for the working class, as places where art, science, theatre and music would all combine to provide a rounded education.
These questions of art’s use value, and the role they can play in education, are perhaps more pertinent today than they were in Ruskin’s time. As Universities are now asking students to take up 9K loans per year to cover their Higher Education fees, and as the UK government is proposing ‘employability’ league tables for every HE course in the country (to help prospective students and their parents chose the courses of study most likely to get them a job), it’s maybe time to give this all a little more thought? Being involved in Higher Education myself (running the both the Fine Art and History of Art Degree Programmes at Liverpool School of Art and Design – part of Liverpool John Moores University which, incidentally, can trace its roots back to an Arts and Mechanics Institute that was set up in Liverpool in 1823) I’m really interested in continuing a critical Ruskinian re-invention by beginning to pose two key post-Ruskinian questions myself – Just what kind of job is to be done by artists in today’s increasingly instrumentalised and economically driven society? And, in the light of this, what kind of work does making art become?
So, over the next months I’m proposing to ask these questions, Flip camera in hand, of anybody who is willing to attempt an answer (admittedly this may not be many). I’ll also try to link this to some of the goings on down Coniston Institute way and, of course, attempt to seek some help and guidance from the legacy of Big J R as I go. I also have a feeling that cheese, vegetables and soup may figure prominently in this analysis.
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