Technicolour nightmare: John Wilkinson
How do we measure the value of things that, at first glance, seem resistant to quantification? In the economisation of all life, capitalism seeks to make measurable what was formerly without limit, and to put a value on things that once seemed free. ‘Wealth’ thus becomes the profit made from enclosure, exploitation and capture, whether it be of land, labour or any other human capacity.
But this definition of wealth is profoundly limited, as it does not truly value the content and the quality of ‘wealth’ itself. As William Morris put it in 1885:
‘The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent; the storing up of knowledge of all kinds, and the power of disseminating it; means of free communication between man and man; works of art, the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful – all things which serve the pleasure of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted. This is wealth.’
We would be naive to imagine that art, human creation and knowledge production have some kind of inherent resistance to their commodification. As we have increasingly seen, universities are now regarded as profit-making machines rather than seats of learning for its own sake; and ‘free communication’ is directly monetised online, while the art world is an enormous financial market and source of investment, rather than a site of beauty and humanity. Those starting at the bottom in the art world are particularly exploited in the form of student fees, internships and poorly‑paid or unpaid commissions.
What possible role, then, can art play in regard to this impoverished definition of wealth?
Art can serve as a critical force; it can be a site of utopian post-capitalist experimentation, even if it cannot completely escape the narrow game of exchange. Art, knowledge and communication must be defended as ideals, as true wealth, even at moments when this is very hard to do. The ideas represented by these very human modes of activity always point to something beyond the cold, hard limitations of the profit margin, something extraterritorial to what prevails.
The capitalist knows profit can be extracted from this richer human wealth, but he cannot always capture its promise, at least not forever. It is incumbent on those able to recognise what Morris means to fight indefatigably for the name of this true wealth – shared resources, shared knowledge, shared art.
As curators for The World Transformed festival, our challenge was to give artists and art collectives the opportunity and space to create socially engaged work without compromise to concept, aesthetics or individualism. Many artists came forward to commit themselves to changing the current political narrative through their work. There was a space at the festival for them and others to collaborate consciously – agitating and re-imagining the future of art and politics – and explore the extraterritoriality of true human wealth.
Artist Dryden Goodwin (who has exhibited at the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, and Venice Biennale among others) presented his piece ‘Breathe’ (above) – a moving image of his son, which attempts to give a perspective on the challenges we face, not only as artists but also as custodians of the environment.
As Goodwin writes: ‘There are multiple challenges in this increasingly changing world. There seems to be a gathering sense of disruption and destabilisation. The expression and reflection of writers, artists, filmmakers and speakers contribute to a sense of urgency and a need to focus our attention and collectively react . . . The arts can present a resilient, flexible, free-thinking, unfettered arena where creativity enables and self-expression is given its platform.
‘In times of crisis, austerity, isolationism, conflict, atrocity and blinkered attitudes, the arts can push against the tide and help to redirect it. The essential role in society of the arts is frequently undervalued and placed in jeopardy through dwindling support, strident cuts and dubious political priorities. In the current climate the arts are consistently portrayed as an aside or a luxury; most alarmingly, the proven transformative effect of keeping the arts at the heart of education is under-appreciated and even legislated against.’
A recent survey by the Artists’ Union England showed that while 75 per cent of its members have exhibited work, only 33 per cent have been publicly funded when doing so. Artists are predominantly exhibiting their work privately and unpaid, with many responding that they work more than 40 hours a week, half of which is spent doing administrative work. The union says that a third of its members live on less than £10,000 a year. They depend on part-time jobs, family support or benefits to see them through.
In the wake of successive government cuts to arts funding, along with cuts to benefits, and a sharp rise in housing and studio costs, the financial viability of the arts has been undermined. As one union member put it:
‘I think we will have to drop out of the system. The new universal credit states that it is the employee (self) who is responsible for making sure that they earn the same as a 37-hour-a-week minimum wage employee. I can’t guarantee that from week to week. Sometimes I earn well. Most of the rest of the time I barely earn enough to live. I’m worried that if I can’t make the money set out by the government they will force me into the back-to-work schemes or, more accurately, force me into servitude.’
In these political-economic conditions an old question imposes itself. Where, as artists, do we go from here – what is to be done? Is it the artist’s responsibility to intervene in politics? Or is artistic practice diluted when mediated by a prerequisite of political engagement?
Another contributing artist to The World Transformed, John Wilkinson (‘Fighting for Crumbs’ at the Red Shed, Wakefield), says that the ‘we could and would change the world’ conviction of the 1960s provided the optimistic political environment that also established the Red Shed as a venue.
Now the mood may be different, but a common essence remains: ‘We wanted to place an event that looked at the depressed and broken spirit that hangs over the 21st century. But if the work is of a dark nature, it shows that the will to create is testament to the refusal to “give up”. It isn’t pessimistic, even as what often informs it is severe dejection.’
Last summer, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn outlined his vision for a new policy for the arts. Corbyn recognises that, ‘Under the guise of a politically motivated austerity programme, this government has savaged arts funding, with projects increasingly required to justify their artistic and social contributions in the narrow, ruthlessly instrumentalist approach of the Thatcher government.’
Despite the successful collective power demonstrated by ‘Fighting for Crumbs’, and many British artists who continue tirelessly to produce work and contribute to social change with the immediacy of a visual narrative, let us not forget that these artists are still in fact mostly non-paid and this demands change.