Is Finding Art Useful a Problem?

Is Finding Art Useful a Problem?
Published: Mar 14, 2013
LONDON: As art-science collaborative practice moves into the mainstream, Dr Dan Glaser discusses the potential problems with assembled artists and scientists at GV Art. Tom Jeffreys reports.

Is finding art useful a problem? That is the topic up for discussion at GV Art this evening, as Dr Daniel Glaser seeks to provoke extremes of reaction from the assembled artists, scientists, curators and writers seated on both sides of a long table in the basement of the Marylebone-based gallery.

With the art world apparently bifurcating between superstar art-brands, globe-trotting gallerists and UHNWIs on the one hand, and box-ticking, community-interaction projects on the other, it’s a timely question. When the Arts Council began its campaign to prevent the coalition government cutting its funding, one of the driving arguments was that art was a revenue generator, an efficient catalyst for growth in an otherwise struggling economy. It failed. Yet the ‘Bilbao effect’ has still been credited with reviving the fortunes of sundry flagging towns, and its logic can be seen in the proliferation of statement galleries as catch-all solutions for towns as diverse as Margate, Colchester, Gateshead…

Into this gap between oligarchal trophyism and government retreat have stepped a number of alternative funding mechanisms – an essential development to maintain the (only relatively recently) professionalised ‘culture industries’. Print sales websites, online galleries, brand collaborations, artist-represented fairs, crowdfunding, private foundations, scientific institutions: all have a growing place in the market of culture.

But this is not simply a question of funding. Artists, as human beings, do not exist in a vacuum and their work may always be seen as a response to the issues of the day. With capitalism apparently in crisis and climate change arguably the greatest threat to the future of humanity, it is hardly surprising that artists, writers and musicians have something to say on such matters.

It is an unavoidable truth that art can always be used in some way.

Examples of interest include the Gulbenkian Foundation, which is currently looking to “encourage new models for arts performance which will deliver demonstrable social and cultural impact through community participation”. On a smaller scale, there’s not-for-profit organisation Stitch, who “use art to inspire and engage people with environmental issues”, or the Dark Mountain Project, whose art and literature attempts to demonstrate that “humans are not the point and purpose of the planet”.

More recently, OneWorld published a book of short stories entitled Beacons (ed. Gregory Norminton) in order to raise money for Stop Climate Chaos. Meanwhile, Cape Farewell have been bringing artists and scientists together since 2002 in order to bring about long-term changes in cultural attitudes. Is, say, Ian McEwan’s Solar somehow undermined in its status as art by its climate change agenda? How about the Shane Meadows-directed Somers Town (entirely funded by Eurostar)?

As Head of Engaging Science at Wellcome Trust and soon to be Director of Science Engagement at the King's Cultural Institute, Glaser is perhaps uniquely placed to comment on these developments, and he does so with intelligence and clarity. With an endowment of around £14.5 billion, the Wellcome Trust has been one of the major players in the apparently increasing collaboration between the arts and the sciences. As laid out by its founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, upon his death in 1936, the Trust is “dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health”. This involves, among other things, the funding of a wide range of scientific research and practice, but the Trust also commits £3 million per year to the arts, under the umbrella, tellingly perhaps, of Public Engagement.

As Glaser points out, “artists have the habit or ability to reconceptualise knowledge in their own terms”. This is important, he continues, because “such loosening or rediscription allows people to look at the science no longer as ‘on high’ or as a ‘gospel truth’ piece of science; it allows people to participate, at least in the interpretation of knowledge, if not its construction.” He argues that this is not “intrinsically” a problem; rather, “the problem with finding art useful is if you believe that is all there is to it, thereby undermining the professional status of artists, curators etc who understand the intrinsic value of art.” Glaser also observes that making use of art in this way is “at its heart philistine”: if art is being used for therapeutic purposes (or communicative, or anything else for that matter) the ‘quality’ of the art becomes irrelevant. He closes with a neat paradox: “if you respect the intrinsic value of art, it will be more useful to you.”

It’s rare to hear scientists saying that art has changed the way they work.

In one sense, it’s hard to disagree with this. Certainly, such art-science cross-overs are becoming increasingly mainstream, thanks in large part to the Wellcome Trust, whose public-facing home, the Wellcome Collection, hosts regular and almost universally acclaimed exhibitions that also seek to see science as a part of culture, rather than apart from it. The first time I visited was for an exhibition entitled Life Before Death back in 2008, which remains still one of the most searingly, beautifully, heart-breakingly brilliant exhibitions I’ve ever seen. In a sign of the times, Central Saint Martins launched an MA in Art and Science back in 2011 – the course director, Nathan Cohen, is sitting opposite me this evening.

It is also hard to argue with Glaser because it is an unavoidable truth that art can always be used in some way – even if it is simply used as an example of what art is, or might be, or once was. In fact, it would be impossible to envisage a type of art that could resist this kind of use co-option. This kind of co-option (corruption?) is not simply an issue for the arts; scientific work is also always open to a (willing or unwilling) utilisation that may or may not run counter to the belief system that informed it. The post-talk discussion sees a host of contrasting opinions on this very subject: Colin Blakemore, for example, points out that science is just as vulnerable to exploitation by, say, the military or global pharmaceutical companies. One might cite the work of Alfred Nobel here. But then such co-option is not always a bad thing: today’s graphic designers can make use of Russian Constructivist aesthetics without having to defend the mass murder of the Soviet Union. Co-option or use, we might therefore say with Glaser, is not intrinsically A Bad Thing.

More specifically relevant is the question of art’s exploitation by science as a means of public engagement. Helen Pynor argues against the conception of art as somehow weak and exploited: she frequently uses scientists, she says. She uses their discoveries to inform her ideas, their expertise to help realise them. Robert Devcic, meanwhile, the director of GV Art, baulks at any notion of art as somehow something to be “used”. “It’s rare,” he continues, “to hear scientists saying that art has changed the way they work.” From my experience speaking to many artists and scientists involved in so-called collaborative practice, I have to agree with him.

But there is a difference between individual experiences, and institutional significance.  So the question for me becomes about whether Art, as an institution that is larger than any one artist, is somehow compromised by its occasional position as “mediator” between Science, as monolithic body of knowledge, and the public, as passive, un-thinking consumers of that knowledge. A clue to this question can be found in Glaser’s own words. Let’s take three of the above-quoted phrases in turn:

1. “The interpretation of knowledge, if not its construction

This is absolutely crucial, because it points to the secret disdain with which Science holds the arts. Science reveals itself at this point as monolithic institution: singular, capitalised, dogmatic – the ultimate arbiter of knowledge as ‘gospel truth’. What, in passing, are we to make of Glaser’s scare quotes here? Meanwhile, the arts remain plural, diverse, fragmented, and in a state of constant contradiction with one another.

The arts, in this conception, are about interpretation as a heterogeneous series of subjective responses (be they individual or dialogical). This is all well and good, but it is Science that is concerned with the important business of knowledge, and its construction. Science is about the real, tangible act of building knowledge (and by implication power, money etc) whilst art is a kind of luxury embellishment concerning itself merely with meaning or, worse, communication.

There is recognition among scientists that this is an issue in the way that Science presents itself to the world. “Scientific truth only exists when you’re talking from within outwards to a public,” says Blakemore, only half-jokingly, whilst Glaser notes how scientific process (the role of serendipity) never makes it into the academic journals. One might mention at this stage the point that Rupert Sheldrake makes in The Science Delusion about the artificial (and relatively recent) rejection of the first person pronoun in science education and publications. Likewise, the admission within the sciences that “objective truth” is a more problematic concept than publicly admitted is surely evident in the necessity of including funding sources alongside publication of results.

2. “Undermining the professional status of artists”

The arts as ‘merely’ subjective are nonetheless validated by their status as industry. A network of professional institutions – art schools, commercial galleries, museums, (non-) critical publications etc – combine to establish the arts as a professional industry like any other, and therefore one that can be valued like any other – according to efficiency, cost-effectiveness, growth, ‘excellence’ (urgh) etc. One might argue that this professionalisation of the arts is what has allowed artists to “stand on their own two feet” but perhaps it has also contributed to the difficulties that we are now discussing. If artistic value is part of an economy like any other, then it is subject to the same fluctuations of supply and demand.

3. “Understand the intrinsic value of art”

This strikes at the heart of the problem. Because, as I’ve suggested, value – even artistic value – is not intrinsic; it operates, by definition, within an economy, and is therefore subject to change over time and place. Value is constructed externally by those in a position to do so – in the case of art, this is the professional classes noted above (curators, collectors, critics etc) – it is not intrinsic to the work itself. This has been explored and established throughout the (again, relatively recent) history of conceptual art – the historical period in which art really became Art.

The point cannot have been made more forcibly than in the recent exhibition at the Hayward, Invisible, in which Tom Friedman exhibited a blank piece of paper entitled 1,000 Hours of Staring and ‘produced’ over the course of five years in the 1990s. The professional apparatus of critics, galleries and museums has combined to agree that what Friedman has ‘produced’ is art and has value as such, outside of ‘mere’ use-value. Nobody could argue that such ‘artistic’ (and therefore economic) value is intrinsic; but nor does that undermine its status as art, and art with value.

To claim that art has some kind of “intrinsic value” is therefore to misunderstand art’s peculiarly precarious power. Because, what art now performs – or ought to perform – is a kind of overrunning of whatever ‘use’ it is put to. Jacques Derrida has described literature as "the institution which allows one to say everything, in every way", following which we might say that art is the institution which allows one to do everything.

Art is not simply involved in the interpretation of knowledge; it explores what knowledge might actually be.

Derrida ties this authorised freedom with the modern conception of democracy. And certainly, the contemporary post-conceptual definition of art as a space in which anything can happen is a comparatively recent one. (This is what renders discussion of the British Museum’s Ice Age Art, for example, rather irrelevant in this context.) Within the freedom instituted by art/literature is a certain ambivalent relationship to that freedom: “the freedom to say everything is a very powerful political weapon, but one which might immediately let itself be neutralised as a fiction.” There is therefore, Derrida suggests, a responsibility, a moral duty towards maintaining irresponsibility: “refusing to reply for one’s thought,” he argues, “or writing to constituted powers, is perhaps the highest form of responsibility. To whom, to what?”

It is this ethical responsibility to maintain the openness of irresponsibility that is most threatened by the idea of art as useful – a threat that is inevitably, and interestingly, ever-present. This is what marks the work of GV Art, among others, as so important – in maintaining vigilance here, in energetically reacting against the reduction of art to some kind of tool to be used, in ensuring that ‘quality’ (whatever that might mean) is the primary priority at all times.

What marks the truly brilliant work of art in this context is the ability to simultaneously fit within and overrun, to support and undermine. One might cite any number of examples from across history, but more recently Tom Chivers’ dextrous use of irony as part of the Cape Farewell-sponsored ADRIFT project springs to mind. Or David Marron’s exploration of symbolism – both personal and that of medical history – or Stephen Gill or Tessa Farmer or William Utermohlen or Marcus Coates or Helen Pynor. In this way, art is not simply involved in the interpretation of knowledge; it is intimately involved in the very question of what knowledge might actually be, what it can do.  
Should artists work with scientists to illustrate and disseminate science? Have your say here.


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