Niru Ratnam invites you to join in and take off your trousers in the name of art at the taxpayer’s expense — while you still can
In the week before the G20 summit in early 2009, I found myself sitting at a large, round, glass-topped table in the new extension to the Whitechapel Gallery. A large tapestry copy of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ hung on one of the walls nearby. Around the table were 30-odd people made up of students, random art folk, regulars of the Anarchist Bookshop located in the alley next to the gallery and, somewhat incongruously, the managing director of the Whitechapel Gallery looking dapper, if increasingly confused, in the chair.
We had all been invited along to respond to ‘the current political and economic climate’. We all did so with, I would like to think, as much enthusiasm and gusto as 30 strangers can muster early in the morning knowing that the discussion wasn’t just a discussion, it was art. For the gathering was part of Goshka Macuga’s art work ‘The Nature of the Beast’, a work that the Turner Prize-shortlisted artist designed to be a quasi-venue for public gatherings and debates.
Macuga is one of a number of artists who produces participatory art works. Since then, had I so wished, I might have swung through the gymnast rings of William Forsythe’s installation ‘The Fact of Matter’ at the Hayward Gallery; paddled in Ernesto Neto’s small pool at the same location (the Hayward loves this sort of stuff); trodden over Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds in Tate’s Turbine Hall (before health-and-safety issues put a stop to that); taken off my clothes and had my body painted for a Spencer Tunick installation at the Big Chill Festival, or put myself forward for selection to stand on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth for an hour courtesy of Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’.
I did none of these, my limits for participation having been reached arguing with a feisty Climate Change activist around Macuga’s table. But participatory art is no longer simply the pursuit of radical and largely ignored artists, as it was in the 1970s; in the first decade of the 21st century it has become arguably one of the main genres of art in Britain to be commissioned using public funds.
The backdrop to this transformation was an odd alliance between French art theory and the previous government’s instrumentalist arts policy. The art theory is called ‘Relational Aesthetics’ and first came to prominence in a book of the same name published in 1998 by the French curator Nicholas Bourriard. In it Bourriard discussed a set of recent art works that had invited audiences to interact with each other as their starting point.
To be fair, Bourriard did successfully spot a trend; a number of contemporary artists were taking the experiments started by Joseph Beuys and 1970s lesser-known collectives like Artists for Democracy, and running with the consequences (or, rather, persuading their audiences to run with the consequences, often naked).
However, the participatory democracy of such works was overplayed by Bourriard, and a number of subsequent commentators pointed this out, arguing that eating a Thai curry cooked for you by an artist (Rirkrit Tiravanija) might well be participatory, and indeed tasty, but does little to add to our understanding of democracy.
New Labour’s enthusiasm for pouring funding into the arts as long as they were socially useful was the second part of this equation. The influence of the Social Exclusion Unit and the thinking of the culture secretary Chris Smith resulted in a shift in the rationale for funding the arts. Instead of funding a set of institutions and artists who, experts agreed, were producing works of high quality, a range of art activities were given money that, it was argued, would help social inclusion, alleviate crime, raise educational standards and build community cohesion. Whether any art activity can clearly be shown to enhance community cohesion is debatable — and policy wonks such as Munira Mirza were quick to question such easy assumptions. But for directors of institutions and arts organisations trying to raise funding, these debates were irrelevant. Adding Bourriard to New Labour meant one thing: participatory art.
At one end of the spectrum was work that was more ‘art’ than participatory, by figures such as Jeremy Deller and Carsten Holler, who were well known to the international art world. And then there was the other stuff, the jolly, large-scale, vacuous projects that were more ‘participatory’ than art. A key example of the latter was ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’, an outdoor spectacle largely funded by the Arts Council and the London Development Agency — at just over a million pounds. A mawkish French production, the elephant had the same effect on the large crowds as Diana’s funeral — lots of sobbing and hugging which somehow seemed to prove some sort of point about a new form of social inclusion, even if no one could convincingly articulate what this was.
Now there’s no doubt that some of this work has been critically well received; Deller, in particular, wears his Relational Aesthetics lightly and wittily, and manages to persuade the most unlikely people to participate (for example, his parade of scout bands, Goths, smokers and other random groups for ‘Procession’ at the Manchester International Festival). But it’s also arguable that this moment has produced a small industry of artists, commissioners and production agencies who between them are churning out little more than a pile of third-rate community art that follows in the path of the elephant.
Most culpable is the grand project started under the last government that will reveal its creative content to a suitably gratified nation over the next two years — the Cultural Olympiad and, in particular, its multimillion-pound project ‘Artists Taking The Lead’. Last year, Arts Council England commissioned 12 pieces of work to the tune of half a million pounds each as a key part of the Cultural Olympiad. Unsurprisingly, more than 2,000 artists applied for these golden tickets — but the more difficult, conceptual ideas (for example, Martin Creed’s proposal) were rejected in favour of community projects that yell social inclusion. In Scotland recent immigrants will play football; in Wales a wingless bird will fly about encouraging people to take part in community activities; in the South-East local people will be asked to ‘donate a wooden object of personal significance’; and London’s good folk can submit a sketch that will end up on the top of bus shelters.
Let’s not be over-hasty; some of these projects may have a fragment of artistic merit in them. But let’s also be honest: that’s not very likely. And what is more disturbing is that the major commissioning for a nationwide festival of art is so skewed towards one genre, and the simplistic end of that genre, to boot. The Cultural Olympiad is presumably about showcasing what is contemporary and new; but it is likely that it will end up showcasing a genre of large-scale community spectacles whose day is arguably past.
Along with many of the other things tossed out the window, the coalition’s arts policy has swiftly dismissed the idea that art has any measurable social value and is busy withdrawing funding from almost everything aside from the large institutions of artistic excellence. Relational Aesthetics, meanwhile, has passed into the realms of art history, linked to a particular form of contemporary art made at the turn of the century. The hollowed-out legacy of this theory and Labour’s funding priorities have one last hurrah, though: 12 expensive crazily upbeat projects that are going to urge us all joyfully and artistically to participate. My advice: join in! It won’t have any lasting cultural
impact but it might well be your last chance to take off your trousers and listen to advice from a wingless bird at the taxpayer’s expense.