Late last year, I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition in Manchester curated by Jeremy Deller called All that is Solid Melts into Air. At the Manchester Museum of Art, it drew a line through popular art, the Industrial Revolution and the changing nature of work. Well laid out and self contained, its curation was a work of art in itself, drawing together seemingly obvious juxtapositions and narrative vignettes, jumping between the social and the political, individual and the societal. From setting 19th century punch clocks next to one of Amazon’s productivity monitors, worn by employees in its cavernous warehouses to ensure they hit hourly targets for packages stuffed and which electronically alert their bosses when they don’t, the overarching theme was the more that changes, the more that stays the same. It nudged and cajoles the viewer to reflect on their own work- the value that may or may not ascribe to it, it personal role and the collective identity that you may draw from it. For a city negotiating what will define it in a post-industrial era, it was highly appropriate and for a world trying to grasp the globally division of labour that now defines most business, incredibly timely. Like an engaging, accessible, experiential version of de Botton’s ‘Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’.
Actually, it was nothing like de Botton. This was art created and curated for the broadest possible audience. If you were willing to walk in off the street to get out of the rain (and the weather can get pretty shitty in Manchester) it was thought out so that the mental barrier to engagement was low and the potential depth and reward was high. Whether through the poetry of Blake or 19th century union songs or Glam-rock welsh miners, there were many ways in, and once you were in, it was accessible whilst never being reductive or patronising.
What this exhibition offered was an old fashioned alternative to the two main discourses within (‘mass’ if there is such a thing) visual art. Rather than choosing between ( or rather being assigned a side based on wealth) Art as Veblen Good- a status commodity where people buy names and prices – Rothko, Koons, Hirst to name some of the most obvious- or Art as Spectacle and Social Currency- the conversational commodification of culture- exhibitions that crop up in (brief) pub or dinner party chit-chat that usually start with ‘Did you see the…’ ( Klee, Man-Ray, Hirst, Gormley, A.N. other thing in the Turbine Hall ). I have an instinctive and perhaps irrationally strong, distain for the former, dominated by hedge funders and oligarchs, just as I could never vote Tory, but the latter is no bad thing. It engages people with Art in a way that is immediate, visceral, instinctive; it allows many who would otherwise be put off to feel that Art isn’t something that ‘happens to other people’.
At this point, it is worth taking a line or two to applaud Unilever for their sponsorship of the Turbine Hall commissions which they have just relinquished to Hyundai- reflecting the increasing global role of both Tate in general and that cavernous space at the heart of the old Bankside power station in particular. Free museums and the ‘Tate’ affect have helped enormously since the millennium in engaging the public with art.
However, what is often missing from these Social Spectacles (and out Veblen buyers simply exist in their own transnational realm) is what Deller sees as being central to the role of art- yes get people to spectate but then invite them to do something with that. Tate’s famous ‘The Weather Project’ got us all sunbathing on the polished concrete, but it didn’t make you think, you just ‘did, saw’ but precious little got beyond the end of the optical nerve. Maybe think is too formal a word and engage sounds even worse here than when I use it in meetings, but it is about encouraging (re)appraisal of some aspect of society and self.
At a time when commodification and the market is regulating ever more numerous aspects of life (it seems we do increasingly believe that everything has a price- for instance the $300 offered to crack-addicted women to have their reproductive systems put out of action) despite 2008s market failure ( which incidentally 2:1 Americans blame on the Federal government rather than those who played with the markets in the banks) art should not be about just price for the few and reductive popularism. It’s insulting to out better natures. As we further conflate consumption with participation and citizenship with ever more self-destructive results (“my son has no job, this government has let me down, its about time we did something about it” says looter outside Clapham Dixons, HD widescreen under arm, live on Sky News) it is about time that art stepped up to bring about some kind of public discourse of the kind of society we live in and want to be a part of. The old fashioned notion of art as having a purpose, of being part of a dialogue with society is all the more rare and all the more vital at this juncture.
You might be able to tell that I share Deller’s critical view of how the market has shaped society and work but I am not arguing that a hundred curators commission 100 Dellers to tell one side- I am happy to go and see the show that makes us lefty liberal softies understand that capitalism has been the greatest agent of positive, widespread change mankind has seen ( and there is a strong argument for that too- though of course better isn’t ‘good enough’ and we should continue to strive as citizens as well as consumers)- I am arguing that Art should stop being dominated by Bread & Circuses and understand that it is an instrument to provoke thought, to encourage questions, to be a weapon of mass discussion. Because we sure as hell need it right now.