Dr Johanna Vakkari, the Finnish Institute’s Head of Arts & Culture, blogs about the institute’s new project: Visibility and Impact of Contemporary Art in Contemporary Society
“Try to imagine society without the humanising influence of the arts, and you will have to strip out most of what is pleasurable in life, as well as much that is educationally critical and socially essential.”
Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England (The Value of Arts 2014)
Art in the city
Besides museums and galleries, an effective way to bring art closer to the public is to show it in a public space – in places frequented by people. These projects are however not always greeted in kind. I recently listened to BBC radio 3 repeat of the series Free Thinking chaired by Matthew Sweet from 2013. The experts were talking with the public about the theme: Are Audiences Killing Culture? The question was that if art is brought to ordinary places near the public, does this mean that it loses some of its values and begins to operate from the bases of more populist or entertaining ideas.
There are, though, numerous examples around the world showing that this is not the case when considering the quality and innovativeness of works of contemporary art in public places. An interesting case is the Fourth Plinth -programme, which invites well renowned artists to plan new works to Trafalgar Square. The programme has been going on since 1999, having generated big public debates on contemporary art and its audiences because of the controversial and polemic character of many of the works exposed thus far. At the moment on the fourth plinth there is Hahn/Cock by German sculptor Katharina Fritsch from 2013 and the next two commissions for 2015 and 2016 will be by Hans Haacke and David Shrigley. (See: http://www.london.gov.uk/priorities/arts-culture/fourth-plinth).
Another brilliant example is the Art on the Underground –programme, which already for several years has provided in the Tube environment of London a world-class programme of contemporary art. Among this year’s events are e. g. the Re-Dress by Jaqueline Ponclet at the entrance of Edgware Road tube station, which opened in July, Trevor Paglen’s panoramic photograph, An English Landscape, installed at Gloucester Road tube station in June and the new tube map with a cover by Rachel Whiteread. In 2013 Mark Walliger started a project during which he will make individual artworks showing a labyrinth in each tube station of London (270 in all). This programme also includes many other events and activities, such as the schools poster competition realised in 2013. (See: art.tfl.gov.uk).
Jacqueline Poncelet’s work Re-Dress is a companion piece to the artwork Wrapper, also by Poncelet, for a new building alongside Edgware Road Tube station.
In a questionnaire made in August 2014 on Finnish people’s attitudes to public art, 70 % of the 1004 interviewees say that they would like to have works of art in their ordinary surroundings as in their home quarter, in their working places and in schools. They think that, apart from the aesthetic effects art would increase safety and comfort and also the real estate and residential area value. (Kyselytutkimus 2014). The questionnaire was ordered by the per cent for art -programme, which refers to a principle that a certain per cent (0.5 – 2 %) of the costs of a new building or residential area should be invested to works of art commissioned in the building area and in buildings. This international idea was conceived in the 1920’s and, despite being only a recommendation in Finland, several towns and municipalities have followed it. (Taidetta arkeen 2013).
The Finnish people’s attitudes resemble the results published in the report People and places: Public attitudes to beauty (IPSOS MORI 2011). Almost half of the respondents experience beauty through art and one of the focus areas in the research was to find out what beauty means for places and communities, e.g. in the built environments. Beauty is naturally a complicated concept because it means different things to each individual, and the beauty in art people are referring to in this research, does not necessary mean the beauty in contemporary art.
Art as a tool
When speaking of art as a tool for something else, there are two concepts that first come to one’s mind: welfare and creative industries.
Artists have always interacted with industry, the most famous example in modern times being Arts & Crafts – movement and the Bauhaus. The creative industries or culture industries are, however, post-industrial and late concepts launched when decision-makers started to search alternatives for the breaking heavy industry.
As Ingrid Elam, Swedish literary critic and Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, mentions (2012), Tony Blair introduced the slogan ´Cool Britannia´ in 1997 meaning new creative industries that were to replace old industrial society with its factories and big business and at the same time in German they used the slogan: ”from industrial culture to culture industry”. Hundreds of small companies have been established in the place of big industrial corporations.
Although some artists have been able to create factories in a Warhollian way or to generate employment opportunities for other people, when talking about the concepts of cultural and creative industries we often don’t mean works of art in se but such activities like e. g. design, IT, computer games and advertising. In this field the contemporary art, design and fashion are nowadays more and more intermingled.
Yudhishthir Raj Isar, independent cultural analyst and professor of Cultural Policy Studies at The American University of Paris, has asked (2012) how an artist might benefit from having his or her work framed in ’creative industries’ terms? There are, of course, famous designers, whose enterprises’ products we always link to their names and persons (perhaps also erroneously), but in most cases it is the brand which counts and the names of artists/designers are not generally known to the public. This is probably especially the case with immaterial work and innovations – artists are invited to work in companies also because of their abilities to think outside the box and to find solution where we usually would not even search for it. According to Elam (2012) the place and role of the artists in cultural industries is fairly unknown and there is a lack of research about this sector of the arts. Also the meaning of terms like innovative or creative has become insignificant as they are being used in any context. The shifting of vocabulary, earlier used in the context of art, to common practices might reduce the understanding of the special character of the arts. Raj Isar opposes the idea that economy would be the only field in which artists can deliver value for money: “Aren’t there other issues that are just as central to the condition and contribution of the artists? Their place and role in a healthy democratic polity, for example.” (Raj Isar 2012). The question is, does artists’ engagement with cultural or creative industries improve the visibility and impact of contemporary art and artists in society?
It must be remembered, though, that in a broad sense the concepts culture industry or creative industry are used to indicate the whole field of culture. We may speak of the music industry or book publishing as a cultural industry and in the field of visual arts galleries and art fairs and museums can be defined as sections of cultural or creative industry.
Another growing field is the use of art in welfare services. Here we are talking about community work, art projects aimed for children, elderly people, unemployed, prisoners, patients in hospitals and so on. The idea is that with art it is possible to open and even resolve different problems in society. The English Art Council’s report refers to the studies, which shows that art and cultural activities can have positive symptoms of conditions, physical stability, or self-esteem, and the ability of people to manage them. (The Value of Arts and Culture, 2014). There are several studies going on in various counties on the effects of engaging art activities to people whereas the impact of arts in public spaces on individuals, community and wellbeing has been investigated only a little.
While talking with Finnish artists, both middle aged and those having just finished their studies, I had a strong impression that many of them are socially and ethically highly conscious. They produce art or join art projects, which apart of artistic aims also have political or social goals. Also art universities, museums and other cultural organisations are funding communal projects – projects that bring art to the groups of people that are not among ordinary museum and gallery visitors. Community art projects have become one of the strong trends in contemporary art. There are opinions according to which art should not become a social work. I believe that the concern is not altogether justified because social work and community art are two different things. Community projects can also be an effective method where art can influence people’s everyday life.
The recent study by the Arts Council England, The Value of Arts and Culture to people and Society (2014), brings new information of the importance of arts and culture in the UK. It is dealing with the whole field of arts and culture industries.
The key themes studied are Economy, Health and Wellbeing, Society and Education. To get as plausible information as possible, the study group sourced over 500 research reports at the beginning and then analysed 90 of them more closely. It is not easy to find good evidence of all the impacts of art and culture and in the report the researchers have clearly brought up the gasps and difficulties they experienced. There are also the questions of equality and diversity to consider because the people most actively involved with the arts and culture are from the most privileged parts of society. According to the report, the activity depends on the level of education, socio-economic background and on the place of residence.
In 2011 the turnover of arts and culture industries in the UK was £ 12,4 billion with 110,600 full-time employees, which means 0,45 per cent of total employment. According to the report: “Overall in terms of culture, the UK is perceived to be the fourth best nation out of 50. This is a result of Britain being seen as the fourth best nation in terms of having an exciting contemporary culture (eg music, films, art and literature).” Apart from national economy, arts and culture also have a positive effect on tourism and local economies. It is noted, however, that despite the strong contribution of arts and culture to national and local economies, the incomes of individual artists can be fairly low.
It seems that to promote the central position of arts and culture, especially during these economically uncertain times, we need more indicators and new ways to measure its impact to contemporary society. The brand new publication of the British Council, Culture Matters, Why culture should be at the heart of future public policy, discusses these matters, cultural diversity and the importance of the cities as cultural core areas. It also proposes the reassessment of the role of cultural ministries.
According to the Art on the underground organization, one of their missions is to engage audiences, encourage their participation in and increase their knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of contemporary art. These are the same tasks that most museums and galleries are working with – and in this blog we would like to open the discussion of how to achieve these goals: what, where, why, how?
Elam, Ingrid 2012. An industry like no other. In Konstnären och kulturnäringarna / Artists and the Art Industries. Ed. By Ingrid Elam, Photographs by Lars Tunbjörk. Stockholm: Konstnärsnämnden, 20-25.
Heinsius, Joost & Lehikoinen, Kai (Ed.) 2013. Training Artists for Innovation. Competencies for New Contexts. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu – Kokos Publications.
Raj Isar, Yudhishthir 2012. Artists and the Creative Industries: Problems with the Paradigm. In Konstnären och kulturnäringarna / Artists and the Art Industries. Ed. By Ingrid Elam, Photographs by Lars Tunbjörk. Stockholm: Konstnärsnämnden, 28-39.
Taidetta arkeen. Ehdotus valtion keinoiksi edistää prosenttiperiaatetta osana julkista rakentamista. Opetus- ja kulttuuriministeriön julkaisuja 2013:5. Helsinki: Operusministeriö. www.minedu.fi/OPM/Julkaisut
The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society. An evidence review. Manchester: Arts Council in England. 2014. www.artscouncil.org.uk