For Nothing is a personal account of how recent changes in the funding
of Art Schools are invoking a culture of academic research that is in
turn having a forcible effect on individual artists' practices.
Originally Something For Nothing? was given as a paper at the Research
and the Artist: Considering the Role of the Art School conference at The
Laboratory - the separate research arm of the Ruskin School of Drawing
and Fine Art - on 28.5.99.
One purpose of this conference was to look at how what constitutes 'research'
within Art Schools might be fashioned to be seen to formally ratify practicing
Changes to the way government establishes and distributes funding for
higher educational institutions, through what are termed Research Assessment
Exercises, have resulted in conspicuous attempts by Art Schools to associate
themselves with particular practicing artists.
A central element of the Research Assessment Exercise is peer review.
An Assessment Panel, consisting of staff members from across the institutions,
rate the research excellence of each institution in turn through an appraisal
of the staffs' artistic activity using criteria set by government.
In general these criteria have been based upon a practising artist employed
by the institution having a visible presence within the international
commercial marketplace, the more prolific the better. In this version
of the generation game research points accredited to the institution via
its employees are then translated into stratified levels of funding. Those
with the most points get the most money - or rather, those who have
been best able to comply with the government's directives receive
their incentive payment. Here points really do mean prizes.
Something for nothing?
At 34, I am an artist who is technically part of the Young British Artist
generation but not of its phenomenon. As a result my perspectives are
bound up inside the history of this period whilst, like many of my contemporaries,
also feeling outside of it. I have managed to support myself and my practice
by part-time teaching on BTEC and then on degree courses. However, my
work as an artist which, because I teach, is currently classified by the
higher education system as my research, has had to situate itself and
survive in the current art world. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)
has now institutionalised this fact and I now have to be validated as
active in the professional art world in order to, as a part-time lecturer,
keep a toehold in the art school.
In many respects this is the way it should be; the academic world should
be neither inside or outside the art world but in an engaged, yet ambivalent
space. Why then does it feel that art schools (and their respective research
policy) are being held hostage by this funding shift and are warping internally
in order to accommodate their captivity rather than their creativity?
And why do many of my generation feel a sense of closure in all of this,
of a diminishing of possibilities which seems to us to characterise both
the art school and the Brit Art world?
Of course, the entrepreneurial Brit Art phenomena is as much manufactured
as it is real. However, myths feed off their cultural and political context,
either fattening themselves or being starved according to conditions.
It might seem perverse, then, that in the hostile environment of cuts,
cuts, and more cuts certain myths can thrive and that the Contemporary
Art world is actually perceived as a British success story.
But whose success story is it, and who defines success?
I want to give you two very current models of success within the contemporary
art scene. The first model could be termed a Careerist Model, and the
second could be termed a Purist Model. These two models are crude and
familiar but nevertheless I think they are worth repeating.
A Careerist Model of success: on leaving college the artist is
included in the graduate New Contemporaries exhibition and participates
in self-curated group shows; work is bought by Charles Saatchi and shown
in highly profiled exhibitions; the artist is featured in magazines such
as Frieze and Art Monthly and signs to a commercial gallery; work is exhibited
widely within the contemporary art world and purchased by private collectors
and the Arts Councils; the work also circulates internationally, aided
in part by the British Council. The result is that a national and international
reputation is generated, often occuring over a relatively short time of
a few years.
A Purist Model of success: on leaving college the artist is included
in group shows of varying significance, the work continues to develop
and change; whilst maintaining the momentum of the work the option to
make uneven or challenging pieces still exists; the artist manages to
be intellectually speculative in an environment of financial speculation.
The result is that a national and international reputation might be generated
over a variable and unpredictable period of time.
It is necessary to point out that these two rather crude models of success
within the contemporary art scene do not by definition exclude each other:
they could, in principle, apply to the same work and the same artist.
That they often do not, provokes several questions: which model, or models,
of success do the art schools and their research policies desire and/or
encourage? And to what extent do these two models of success militate
against each other or, to put it another way, how does the artist reconcile
internal and external pressures in order to pursue his/ her work?
Firstly, it has to be openly acknowledged that the art world and the art
schools are operating within a neo-liberal capitalist agenda which promotes
immediacy, bureaucracy, and populism. The pivots are money and sponsorship,
lavishly lubricated by the oils of marketing and PR. This fact should
not be tiptoed around any longer. I am not gazing back at some notion
of a '70s idyll of untainted public funding; but nor, I believe,
does there have to be such an absence of debate or such a passive acceptance
of the implications of this cultural context.
The result is that competition, rather than co-operation, threatens to
consume artists, colleges, galleries, and curators as everyone struggles
to survive in this neo-Darwinian careerist world. Competition and rivalries
have always existed but have rarely been enforced as cultural ideology
and public policy. Strangely, however, intellectual rivalry is not considered
as part of this competitive culture. Instead it is seen as negative and
as divisive sour grapes threatening the consensus culture.
The Universities have to be more vocal in this critical and intellectual
vacuum and their research policies should be aiming to support initiatives
which challenge this consensus. Instead the fear of dissent, taking risks
or asserting independence in case it jeopardises funding, or puts off
private commercial patronage, or fails to maximise the RAE funding outcomes,
or fails to attract sponsors, or fails to bring in larger audiences, and
so on, too often infects Fine Art both inside and outside the art school.
Art schools ought to be able to provide a power-base from which to remind
the art world of the difficult, the different, the unknown, and the historical.
Curators, public galleries, and funding bodies seem to have difficulty
in locating and considering artists that are obscure, time-consuming or
complex, or worse all three at once. It is as if there is an attitude
that there are too many artists and far too much art, and being more aware
will somehow make selecting work even more confusing and time-consuming.
So it seems much safer then, to rely on information from private galleries
or catalogues, contacts, collectors or any Goldsmith's show around,
to cut down the workload and make it 'manageable'.
This is perhaps a harsh caricature but one that nevertheless illustrates
the laziness that can become standard when programming is determined by
external factors rather than internal dialogue. This potential for laziness
is exacerbated by the 'Cult of Visibility', a cult which operates
with almost absolute power, in which visibility is synonymous with critical
and professional success. This is an intellectual abdication: status and
visibility should never be confused with a work's or artist's
critical or creative value. The deforming pressures that this 'Cult
of Visibility' induces have profound effects on artists and their
work but also on the curators, funders, universities and public galleries
desperate to maintain their own visibility and to align themselves with
success. In this myopic world it is only 'success' that breeds
The result is that everyone colludes in the relentless pursuit of the
same, of the middle ground, of the recognisable. Small ideas are given
enormous funding while many artists of different generations are invisibly
cut out of the cultural debate. Artists' work which is deemed commodifiable,
reliable (in terms of a linear notion of progression), or that fits a
familiar frame of reference becomes a guarantee in an uncertain world.
University research policies could provide credible alternatives, something
particularly useful to artists who wish to maintain an independent position
or a space in which to reappraise their practice. Ironically, given the
institutions' singular ambition, there is no consensus within the
Universities on what ought to be their intellectual philosophy i.e. research
policy. The new and old Universities at which I have regularly taught
have wildly different approaches: either top-slicing all the research
monies, or initiating ambitious exhibition programmes, or inviting single-sentence
applications for potentially huge funds. All of these approaches are open
to distortion from internal favouritism and discrimination. Research policies
have to be transparent and accountable in order to side step the complacency
and cronyism of the institution. Many Universities have a policy which
matches University funds to those projects that have already secured external
funding, a policy which prioritises projects with funds from other sources.
This fails to acknowledge the limitations and censorship inherent within
these external contexts. Research has to be considered in terms of intellectual
value rather than cash value or the academic space will simply perpetuate
the problems that it is supposed to address and, ultimately, will be defeated
Why is it that most Universities currently provide little or no alternative
to these problems?
It is because they too need highly visible artists with international
profiles for their RAE returns. Fellowship appointments which attempt
to buy artists such as Louise Bourgeois (that's the Louise Bourgeois
who is 88 and never leaves New York) are blatant transactions. Soon Universities
will want to appoint dead artists purely because their research and cash
value can be fully guaranteed.
In the past, to be employed as a young artist by art schools provided
a feasible income and some security and independence from the commercial
art market. This is actually the simplest, and the most effective way
for universities to support artists' research: give them proper teaching
opportunities, improved pay levels, decent terms and conditions, and research
provision written into the contract. Instead part-time teaching for all
generations is now characterised by serial redundancies, no time or resources
to develop rewarding teaching, pressure to deliver an international research
profile coupled with levels of responsibility more suited to full-time
positions, all in the context of some of the worst employment practices
in the UK; and this is available only to the lucky few. No wonder, then,
that there is an increasing divide, even hostility, between those artists
of my generation who try to teach in order to survive and the artists
of my generation whose international status ensures they can't or
won't teach. This has clear implications for art schools, and is
mutually victimising for all artists in that it reinforces the false polarities
between the Careerist and Purist models that I initially outlined. Even
more significant, it seems to me, is that the whole scenario is regarded
Except that I do not agree that it is inevitable. It is only in the absence
of resistance that inevitability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When
under siege or held in captivity, it is necessary for the captives to
understand the psychology of their captors. However, this understanding
must never define you or prevent the internal independence required for
genuine survival. The same logic applies to the art schools: they need
to build an innovative, autonomous space to act as a critical balance
to the consensus culture which drowns them. Art schools should be ambitious
and approach external agencies with ideas and projects, but these collaborative
projects need to be undertaken without sacrificing critical debate or
rigour. In short art schools need to have ambitions beyond the art school.
I believe we require a radical pragmatism - a combative energy which
engages with the current world, rather than capitulating or becoming ghettoised.
'Radical pragmatism' sounds suspiciously Blairite, but should
not be rejected for that reason alone. My generation was raised under
the value system of the '60s and '70s but we became adult in
a world which was, and is, dismantling this value system beneath our feet.
Straddling this process, with one foot always on each side of the rift,
has become increasingly difficult as the crack has widened into a chasm.
The past political positions of Left and Right have been overwritten.
Given this situation we do need new (but definitely not third) ways to
reinvigorate art schools.
From an artist's point of view (which, given their remit of support,
should by implication also be the funders' point of view) funding
for work/ research should allow artists to advance their ideas, aspirations
and creativity. This means allowing artists to create their own impossibilities
and thereby create possibilities. This takes time and involves making
and taking the time throughout every aspect of the funding process in
order to get things right: time to include practitioners in the policies
and procedures of funders, time to select the selectors, time for the
selectors to consider the artists (all the artists) and time for the artists
to generate the work. Funding should enable an artist to position their
work for themselves, rather than being positioned by the funding criteria
or the agenda of the funder. Replication, duplication and regurgitation
are all outcomes of funding policies which are market-led. There are many
more artists out there some of whom inhabit a world of rejections and
frustrations, not because their work is invalid, but simply because their
status is regarded as too low.
There are, of course, some precedents and exceptions to this analysis.
Perhaps I should be considered as one: in the last year my personal situation
has been transformed by a £30,000 award from The Paul Hamlyn Foundation,
a job at the Slade School of Art (on a proper salary and with very good
research provision), and a Rome Scholarship. So, does my current position
totally undermine my prior arguments? After all, the financial anxieties
have gone and many of the associated emotional anxieties have gone too.
Why then does my intellectual anxiety still remain?
What is of concern to me are the collective conditions; the contexts in
which I have to make work and have it exhibited, collaborate with colleagues,
and teach. Tony Blair is very fond of saying that his government is determined
to end the 'something-for-nothing culture'. Ironically, at some
point all artists have to make something for nothing, while the art schools
and the artists that teach in them all too often have to make something
out of next-to-nothing. Making art can involve imagining something from
nothing but it rarely takes nothing (in resource terms) to produce that
something. Perhaps funding-bodies ought to reconsider the relationship
of their 'something' to the artists' 'nothing',
and imagine that they might need us as much as we might need them.