MSB brainstorming

23 March 2007

Belcher, UK: Disappearing Labour: U.K. Arts Council Debate

the following will be submitted to 'The Arts Council' debate an online discussion of our august funding body in U.K. Apologies for length but these concerns are I think wider than just U.K.

Raleigh Plant Nottingham

Raleigh Plant Nottingham : Now redeveloped into University Buildings.

How ‘professional practice’ removed the working-class from the picture.

On of the most striking aspects of the development of the fine art world in the last 25 years since I was at art-college has been the rapid and total de-skilling of artistic ‘practice’. Indeed that word ‘practice’ sums up the qualitative change in the environment that artistic ‘practitioners’ and students operate in. I am focussing on that word because it seems to me to be symptomatic of the larger changes. Trends begin in language and ‘practice’ supplanting ‘art work’ or ‘oeuvre’ is one of the most significant.

As an art student we had ‘complementary studies’ which ranged across critical studies and other art forms but nowhere was I introduced to notions of ‘critical practice’, ‘networking’ or ‘research procedures’. Instead there was a healthy insistence on the ‘materiality’ of the process down to the actual grinding of pigment for paint (how quaint that seems in cyber paint age) and the physical act of creation as a significant and in some cases all-encompassing feature of creating ‘art-works’. That word ‘work’ there is important. Tutors not only theorised in the abstract but also commented on constructive principles, materials and assembly.

To read back through the statements of artists such as Henry Moore, Anthony Caro, David Hockney even was to be introduced not only to intellectual concepts of ‘making art’ (again note word ‘making’) but also to physical notions of ‘craftsmanship’. For artists from working-class backgrounds such as Moore and Hockney there was a seamless affirmation of the quality of making that their communities whether in Bradford Mills or Leeds Foundries would have understood. The general public may have baulked at the physical embodiment of those ideas but a welder or sign-painter would have understood the technical ability involved in its construction. Without ‘labouring’ the point there is a direct correlation with this activity and the philosophy of craftsmanship stretching back through Morris to the old guilds. Even as a lowly labourer (working on middle-class tutor’s house for cash be it painting and decorating or building work with my fellow working-class students) I and my ‘labouring’ friends were acutely aware of the instilled belief in ‘a job done properly or not at all’. Coming from a background of low incomes that mantra was a source of pride that maintained dignity and purpose when treated badly.

So what does this have to do with artistic ‘practice’? Well as the artistic climate began to morphose into dealing with the destruction of traditional class divisions with the breaking up of the Miner’s Strike and the new opportunities of money from selling the state assets back to its people the hard left suddenly found it could no longer ‘believe’ or support those hackneyed themes and looked to wider academic philosophies for support…Derrida, Foucault..whatever suited was used. Language invaded the academies and process became mental rather than physical. Life-rooms were ‘disappeared’ as were the craft technicians and their areas..wet photography, etching, printmaking in general and sculpture. Advances in digital equipment and the internet made costing art education cheaper and also opened up the floodgates of language which washed over the huddling masses in spectacular fashion. The result two decades later is that ‘practice’ has replaced ‘work’. Painters and their messy procedures have been sidelined in favour of more streamlined and cost-effective ‘streaming’ per unit (a unit=one student by the way). Result has been a complete implosion of not only those more gruelling and supposedly less intellectually taxing pursuits as painting, etching, bronze casting but also a radical denial that those forms were anything but an old-fashioned aspect of bourgeoisie and right-wing ‘control’.

Unfettered from their working-class shackles of mind these warriors of the new left/right could dance around the world as ambassadors of Thatcherite ‘entrepreunership’ or New Labour ‘Cool Brittania’ with not a moment of doubt or guilt that they had thrown any babies out with the bath water. This process was so swift and its impact so total that even before I left art college in 1981 the process had started. This process found its moment of triumph in ‘Sensation’ and its attendant ‘Brit-Art’ boom. Gone were the toiling working class and the effete bourgeoisie world of watercolours and oil-painting. Swept aside in the revolution of two strange-bedfellows – new money a la Saatchi ( gained from political propaganda lest it be forgot in the fog of time) and the hard-left apparachiks of ‘new’ Polytechnic/Unis and ‘new’ art. These were heady times and so what if half the philosophy and theorising did not stand up it had that elusive ‘Wow’ factor and it sold. Yes these partners in the dance had found each other and would never let go.

Twenty years later and like the ‘little’ man who sweeps up after the art-school ball the effects are everywhere. Art-schools and Polytechnics (Rebranded New Universities to give them ‘professional status’) are no longer under local authority control but are multi-million pound businesses siphoning off cash from those who can best pay i.e. the middle-class and the ubiquitous and much loved ‘overseas student’. That process of removing the original meaning and philosophy of the ‘Technical Schools’ and the Victorian notion of ‘training for ornament’ to decorate the ‘Empire’ are gone and with them Morris and Co’s belief in progress through labour.

Here ‘practice’ has come into its own. It is a fact that the recent changes in grants will remove the few working-class students foolhardy and resistant to parental pressure able to make into the newly ‘professional’ class of the ‘contemporary artist’. A few will always slip through because of inate ability as Grayson Perry recently noted. For the majority though a ‘second-stream and second-rate’ mountain to climb through school, further education and maybe an HND if they are lucky awaits. The good aspects of ‘craftsmanship’ (abilty, hand and eye co-ordination and pride) have been jettisoned along wth the bad (subservience, minion status, ‘little-man syndrome’) and we are left with a system that as ruthlessly middle-class in its deportment, salary expectations and class awareness as any yet seen. Blairism is not the triumph of the ‘old working class’ it is the triumph of the new ‘middle-class and it’s most recent converts…those lucky enough to slip their working class shackles and join the ‘parade’.
How does this affect the Arts Council? In the past the Arts Council from its post-war origins onward has been largely a middle-class/upper-class dominated project despite its Welfare State status. As pointed out to me recently by someone in the Arts Council the post-war remit was heavily towards supporting the noble performing arts…Opera, Dance, Theatre. These were in need of rebuilding and supporting post-war at a time of rationing and scant resources and the Arts Council did its job well within that remit. Indeed some positive extras even appeared such as Larkin’s idea for a Poetry Library. Despite boom and bust several times over these arts are sacrosanct and let us not forget that they will retain their core funding unless some real revolution happens soon. The reality is the support of individual artists and community arts projects etc has been largely funded out of the lottery funds which are now on the wane. Forget Olympic slight of hand the real downward trend in that area of ‘smoke and mirrors taxation’ will continue as the public grow tired of losing their few quid every week.

My argument is that the Arts Council recently has become a partner in the ‘professional-isation’ of the arts. Individual grants have mostly gone to those most able to tick the boxes which is not the same as the most deserving or the most able. A middle-class practioner of whatever background with a good grasp of language and networking is able to jump hoops required and draw down funding.

The Arts Council actually funds A-N the artist’s newsletter which has come to define one area of ‘practice’ as defined by the new universities. Artistic finishing schools like the Slade, Chelsea and Royal College continue to process artists through to the major galleries as they have done since time immemorial. When I received an offer of a place at the Royal College in 1981 I was a working-class exception not the rule and was swiftly replaced by ‘overseas student’ when I could not afford the fees. From comments by a current RC student on a Grayson Perry article nothing much has changed there. Outside that alumni network the practicing artist from the New University flowerbed has pretty much taken over the ‘alternative’ network of regional arts centres, art galleries and a-n itself.

Nothing wrong with that in principle but because this new class also sees itself as ‘professionalised’ and newly minted ‘middle-class’ it keeps a distance from anything that reminds it of its non-professional background….paint, stone, non-literate visual communication…..the values of its parents if working class and the manners and dirty hands of ‘that lot from the estate’ if it middle class. Result the Arts Council unwittingly because it speaks only in the ‘new language’ is part of a process that divorces the working class student from its background and makes it feel ashamed. I may be regarded as being sensationalist here but Jeremy Seabrook identified a similar process in regard to community thirty years back as the ‘magic-carpet’ ride in regard to working class students going to university and never returning to their ‘sink estates’.
Artists like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin are like Ali Baba riding that carpet for all it is worth but they have never touched down in their original communities since unless as ‘researchers’ or for the occasional family get together. They have done the trick their families expected of them of converting all that ‘arty stuff’ into cash and that brings a grudging admiration from their peers but do they give anything back?
Where the Arts Council has failed in my opinion and where it could make a great leap forward is in increasing the ‘scope’ of its funding to include more of what regarded as ‘amateur’ by the new professionals which as I stated can and does include a great deal of painters and crafts people ‘removed’ from the bigger picture who do not apply for Arts Council funding (including serious for want of better term artists disenfranchised by the new elitism) because the gatekeepers - are generally the young professional middle-class – the ‘mujistas’.

If they could reintroduce the ‘floating’ and disenfranchised practitioners back into their communities or the communities they now live in we’d have a start. Paul Oliver argued for a nodal system of arts centres based on BBC buildings around the country and it still an area for possible development.

The key concept here is the A.C.E. remit of supporting the ‘cutting-edge’ - -who’s edge and who’s cutting? . Paring down the amazing variety of art and culture created in this country by narrow ‘professionalist’ concepts of right and wrong means many left out by default. Narrow face-saving attempts to promote inclusion by parachuting white middle-class artists into ‘problem areas’ to facilitate do more harm than good if not speaking with local knowledge and understanding.

Another £30 K sculpture of a giant egg on the roundabout on the edge of town reinforces that lack of communication. The ‘disappeared’ labourers……the ones on night shift cleaning, herded into lump labour vans at dawn, garage forecourts etc etc have a right to seeing the arts too but are their notions of what art is …craftsmanship and effort maybe? ….to be ignored too because not cutting edge?

Can that always be dismissed as dumbing down?

Clean bright empty offices and clean bright empty shows and no workers…….unless serving…

The future is bright..the future is black. The future is a blank canvas?

Will the new elite be our doctors ..their practice our medicine?
Shaun Belcher
23 March 2007


Grayson Perry: You can lead a chav to culture but can you make him think?

Grayson Perry: Stop art schools from turning into posh white ghettos.

Accessed 22.3.2007


Mark Staff Brandl said...

Interesting, Shaun. It reminds me of a statement made by a thinker whose name escapes me at the moment. She or he lamented that globalization has become the dominance of an American, bovine, suburban standard on the world. It appears it is bovine, semi-posh (suburban) but not just American.

Trailer Star said...

Thanks Mark

I appear to have appeared on Arts Council England's radar for the first time :-) They conducting a debate but a debate within borders it seems. I just read a fascinating piece by Susan Sontag on the novel which applies to art too i feel. She talks of a 'privileged' monority who fuelling the 'borderless and postmodern' standardization of culture when in fact the novel and other arts are in fact local not global and that their destruction removes the ethical and serious content in order to replace it with a 'hypertextual'(novel) or 'Televisual'( art/film) 'soup' which satisfies the many for a while but breeds indifference to the plight of real people in a real world.....a kind of cultural 'fix' that is constantly refreshed to allay any feelings of consumptive or imperialistic guilt? Sound familiar??

link here to full article,,2035899,00.html