Category Archives: Arts

UK and the EU: Brexit as failed ideology

Dr Tim Oliver posted on the LSE Blog a thoughtful item on the various ways to understand the negotiation structure of Brexit [link to item]

He puts forward four key ones, and what I want to do is briefly comment on each.

Neoclassical Realism: This is about power relationships. The UK’s position within the EU has been weaked  as a naysayer of much of the European agenda. Externally, it is a full member of the UN security council and a member of NATO but both of these are immaterial to the Brexit outcome. As a card to play, they carry very little weight in negotiations as for the UK to abrogate its security responsibilities or use them as a bargain chip would actually signal weakness. In response, NATO would see the UK as an unreliable partner who would trade collective security for self-interest. As a global power in its own right, I suspect the evolution will be continuing geopolitical decline and loss of global influence. While we may see new alliances, for a realist, the international anarchy of inter-state relationships will become a factor in dealing with the EU and the UK will be the weaker for opting out of power relationships, for a delusional view of national power.

Constructivism: This is about norms and rules. The Brexit leave logic is that the UK can forge new relationships more productively outside the EU than within. Trade is a proxy for the power of nations to abide by norms or construct rules. As a nation among many, trade migrates to the larger blocs and the single actors take what they can get. The UK will become a rule-taker outside the EU. The test will be the deal with the EU. If the UK can’t agree a good deal with the EU, that would signal the UK can’t be negotiated with unless they get their way. This is of course silly logic at one level since the UK is leaving a trading bloc where it was a rule maker. Only fools and deluded politicians believe rule taking is preferable.

Bureaucratic politics: This is about the behaviours of bureaucratic systems. The UK has viewed the Brussels bureaucracy in some respects as a distraction from domestic affairs. The EU relationship was managed through the “Foreign and Commonwealth Office”, a strong clue on how the EU was viewed (viz. foreign). In terms of civil servants building careers, postings in Brussels were not seen as career enhancing (unlike working for the Home Office for instance); this led to very good individuals pursing careers at the Commission to the detriment of their domestic career progression. Indeed, expertise in European matters was frequently dismissed. This sorry state of affairs of course played out through the removal or departure of key individuals with expertise in European affairs. That they might have gone ‘native’ is a concern all governments have and is one reason diplomats are routinely rotated. But the EU requires deep expertise both because it is a unique body of law but also because the UK was a key actor in that system. I suspect that the current negotiations are being handled badly partly because the UK team lacks the ‘native’ understanding; this may explain why the government is afraid of civil servants with strong EU views; like Orwell’s 1984, this doesn’t fit with the mind set in government. The consequence is more about failure for the UK from incompetence than from bad bargaining.

Cognitivism: This is about ideas and mindsets. The UK has seen the EU as simply a trade arrangement, consistent with years of free trading. The EU sees itself as an idea, in the same was the US sees itself as an ideology. There is nothing wrong with that. The weakness is the UK sees itself defined through trade and not as a national idea called the UK; indeed it not sufficient to argue the UK’s ideology rests on notions of sovereignty and taking back control as this flies in the face of the fact that all nations are constrained by treaties of one sort or another should they choose — what Brexit does signal is the UK can abrogate a treaty obligation and may be prima facie unreliable. The Brexit debate has shown how poorly prepared the UK politicians on the government side are, and who actively avoid discussing the social dimension of the EU — indeed look very uncomfortable discussion the rights of 3 million EU citizens within the UK. Social Europe is made up of academic networks amongst research institutions, or families brought together across borders, of young people experiencing another culture through Erasmus exchanges, even of duty free wine and beer, freedom to travel, enjoying the security the European Health Insurance Card brings and so on. As an ideology, the UK dismisses this as a ‘project’ and emphasises that all things about money matter more than people. Barnier and colleagues emphasise the primacy of people. This is consistent with the ideological basis for the EU’s bargaining position. The result is incomprehension by the UK of the EU position, while the EU knows the UK position well as it has played out over 40 years of opposition to social Europe.

From a decision making perspective, I concur with Oliver that each in some way is being played out. The salience of the various issues is rising for those who voted in the referendum and showing the problems that were indeed well-known beforehand, by experts of course. But rising public salience will constrain politicians’ actions as technical issues evolve into political ones. For instance, cross-border access to healthcare (1708/71) is full of technical details, but the public salience will be loss of healthcare when they travel. The departure of EMA from the UK looks like a technical issue of moving offices, but its salience lies in drug companies deprioritising the country for launching new medicines, with possible diminution of research infrastructure. Inside each technical issue that can be hammered out by civil servants, lurks a political issue that can only be resolved through public discussion.

What Cognology would say.

Intelligent application of game theory in complex areas such as Brexit would have revealed that perhaps there are/were more options than assumed. The driving anti-intellectual logic of “red lines”, which signalled boundaries within negotiation, is always a bad thing. In the case of Brexit, it probably guarantees a bad outcome at least for the UK. I think smarter negotiating would have done a better job early on modelling or gaming the likely scenarios. What we are left with is political egos, hardly something noted for intelligence.

The digital future of 21st century arts organisations

A debate started on the Arts Journal on Leadership/Followership raises a number of challenges for arts groups.

In my view, the simple lead/follow dichotomy is not helpful as arts organisations are both repositories of a society’s culture (on behalf of people) and a way to placing before the public new ideas in way that engages and informs (on behalf of new ideas).

Bruno Frey has commented that people may not need to see the original piece of art itself but perhaps a print would do.

You are there!

Taking that notion further, why are exhibitions not online?  An opening could be a simple ‘app’ instead, and the show curated with additional content and searchable features, individual pieces could be zoomed and viewed in the round.

It would not cease to exist when the exhibition closed — a problem for exhibitions in the real world, and poorly captured in the exhibition catalogue. Few people can actually make it to many openings, and moving art around can damage the art itself. The modern world is increasingly location-independent with the use of smartphones and tablet computers making where we are less important when accessing information, people or events; this is likely to evolve further. Thinking past the current fad for social networking (and something will follow Facebook!) leads to a world where intelligent software ‘agents’ can help individuals find and view the art they are interested in, alert them to new shows.

Perhaps some people may be in a position to attend in person, but generally this is not true.

Digital technology allows time-shifting, so I can view the exhibition when I want and probably reduces my carbon footprint at the same time. The openings can be teleconferenced, so people can attend in real-time or listen to later. If I instead choose to attend, then the app becomes my personal guide, which I can annotate and keep.

Ah, but imagine a gallery of giant video screens, the real art protected. It does challenge us to reflect, as Frey does, on what it really is we want to see when we view art: is the experience of the art object itself (if so, why bother buy the catalogue or art books), an experience few really can have, or is it the art (in which case the sale of posters is explained).

It seems to me that arts organisation leadership might benefit from a dose of ‘disruptive’ thinking to embrace modern possibilities. We now have, for instance, galleries with searchable online catalogues, and we find some degree of interactive art itself, but this is a feature of the art not of the art experience. I wonder if today, the “2 second advantage” (to take from a book of that name) for arts organisations offers a clue on how to move beyond the collection idea to something rather different.

The notion of capturing artistic interests in ‘real time’ would enable a ‘video-enabled’ gallery to be able to anticipate art interests (though mindful that much needs to be made of the random ‘shock of the new’ that accompanies the joy of discovering a new artist), and assemble art for the individual in a way that helps them experience the art more personally. I miss not being able to visit some galleries which house art I like because I simply can’t afford the airfare to visit them — the ability to be telepresent in these galleries would be wonderful and at $£€4.99 worth a lot more than the book.

As I’ve said elsewhere, there’s an app for that.

Just a thought…….

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Censorship and Arts: a commentary

"Study drawing shows the allegorical figu...

Do we applaud the reading or censor the nudity? A censor’s job is never done!

In Art of England magazine (Issue 78, February 2011), I wrote an opinion piece exploring arts censorship in the context of WikiLeaks.

The WikiLeaks saga is important for a number of reasons I have explored on my policy blog (The Cognologist) in particular what I call ‘digital exceptionalism’. This simply means that for arts, an art show in a bricks and mortar gallery is not the same thing as the same exhibit on the Internet — images in a gallery can be pulled from the wall, while once on the Internet, they are there ‘forever’. Authorities and lawmakers are grappling with this distinction, which in my view is fundamentally specious, but which is driving a considerable amount of excessively intrusive conduct by governments and enforcement authorities. Of course, there are sensible reasons for this: mainly the ease of access to the material, frequently by vulnerable and impressionable or young people. But such illiberal conduct in the past has been justified on similar grounds.

The real reason for concern lies in an observation by Nicholas Negroponte in his book Being Digital: the Internet facilitates the one to many relationship between an individual and the rest of the world. Individuals have much greater social reach and with appropriate search engines, just about anything can be found within a reasonable period of time. Contrast this with the pre-Internet world, of bookstores which stocked only so many books and you had to specially order some, or libraries with paper-based card catalogues — if you didn’t understand the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal filing system, you might not find what you were looking for.

So in this brave new world (Huxley said it first) the censors have found new energy. The real problem is that in the Internet WikiLeaks type world, it is becoming harder and harder both to hide and to keep secrets. It is almost like living in the film The Invention of Lying, or Liar Liar. It used to be much easier to be duplicitous — the chances of being found out have escalated considerably.

In the article I note that the arts have always attracted the attention of officials particularly during times of crisis (now, perhaps?). Artists in the UK during the 1914-18 war were viewed with considerable suspicion — marine painters were virtually banned as the paintings of ships might aid the enemy, as might a landscape painting reveal the relationship between buildings and the lay of the land. We are perhaps a bit beyond this today, but the censorship of artists remains a real concern in some countries where freedom of expression is curtailed.

While I have always held the view that some artists seem at a loss for something to say, and produce appropriately poor work, other artists express deep political and social commentary, threatening to regimes depending on terror and repression. And some art is just socially challenging and fall foul to political correctness, a socially enforced form of self-censorship.

We are not yet free — even Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn, the most banned book in the US, has had a rewrite to remove his use of certain terminology which today is seen as unacceptable. The Soviet Union used to rewrite history like this and were justly criticised. While the faces have changed, the objectives remain the same.

Hinge-point: the social media and technology revolution in the art world

“Hinge-point: the social media and technology revolution in the art world”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 65, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

Recently, I went to an exhibit of a friend, who with colleagues, produced a piece called “Cases” using iPod videos as an installation probing the nature of health and the senses – son et lumière for the iPod generation. Their work resonated with thoughts I’d been having of the impact of new technology on art. Art and technology have always been linked, but it seemed to me as I looked at the iPod videos and listened to the eight different ‘cases’, that something potentially more disruptive might be on the horizon.

What interests me is that new and emerging technologies enable art to be made by a wider range of people, through a social-democratising, accessible and open process. “Who is the artist?” becomes a very interesting question.

Some food for thought…

Commuters crowd many corridors across the city during the morning rush-hour, all is hustle and bustle. Their sighs, words, movements, are captured by sensors, and translated into real-time images which animate the otherwise naked walls. The work is called “I’m thinking of you right now”.

My hand flicks, a gesture in space, and a coloured beam races across a wall embedded with nano-particle sized LEDs. I toss the Wii-Art wand into the air and another light curve spreads across the ceiling. The room will remember what I have done, but I can always change it later.

The 3D printer buzzes on the table beside me, chunks and bumps while a 3D sculpture takes shape made of polymers, resins and colouring. I have created a probably impossible object from samples of space that I bundled together with my smartphone camera and downloaded to my computer.

Slouching in my comfy chair, I put on the headset to have my thoughts read. I call up the latest issue of Art of England on my Plastic Logic e-reader. The computer records what I am thinking and produces a picture which I can play with later, or print out on canvas. Apparently, some people still use paint – how yesterday!

The artificial intelligence, called Alicia, shares my likes and dislikes. Alicia is my writing buddy and editor as I work on my next novel; she has a real instinct for narrative. My friend’s AI, he calls his Boris, is a painter and together they are an artist collaborative. Alicia apparently wrote Boris a poem. Should I be jealous?

One hundred people link their smartphones and flash-art a sunset, capturing what they see and collectively producing a single painting from 100 different perspectives at the same time. The image appears on YouTube and is viewed by 100 million people. 100,000 people buy the image for a pound.

I am less concerned with how artists today are using technology. Artists always adopt and test out new technologies, e.g. watercolour, acrylic paint, plastics, video, computer animation, digital printers, PhotoShop or GIMP, and so on.

What is significant is that new and emerging technologies lower the costs and time of art-making, and reducing these hurdles increases accessibility for people who in the past found the existing technologies (of paint, canvas, stone, clay) formidable. I think we’re at a hinge-point in art and art-making because of this and which could radically alter what we think of as the ‘art world’.

In the end, anyone can be an artist. Technologies will facilitate creativity to enable more people to have artistic expression. The Web and social media make collective art-making possible as we move beyond individual authorship. There will be implications for art schools – whom and what they teach; commissioning bodies — whom they support; galleries – what they are like; and artists – what they are for.

And the meaning of art will change. Art is often thought of as special, in public places, commissioned, housed in galleries where you can’t touch, exclusive, remote. Art can be obscure, requiring specialist interpretation; it is often inaccessible and mute to the majority of people. Through technologies, art will become embedded in the fabric of our lives; it will be ambient and ubiquitous. It will be social and shared as much as individual. By democratising art and art-making, new technologies and social media will make it more important and relevant.

Please touch the painting.

Frankenfolks can be artists too!

“Frankenfolks” can be artists too!”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 86, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Are older people curiosities, especially the long-lived? Do we see them as ‘marvellous’ simply for their fact of survival. Perhaps instead, we trap others in the medico-social web of nursing homes, expensive end-of-life care, and dependency on others. Perhaps old people become ‘Frankenfolks’, as Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote recently in her book on ageism.

Working as I do in the health arena, but a painter as such, her comments drew my attention. Figuring out what her comments mean entails coming to grips with something else she wrote: “Sometimes pop culture looks like nothing more than a giant machine for excreting ageism.”

Certainly less than a century ago, the average life expectancy was 40 years, death of children was expected; today neither is true, with life expectancy of a healthy person being at least to the mid 90s. Furthermore, most of us will not pass our final days in nursing or care homes. And despite doom-laden predictions of rising cancers and metabolic disorders, most people should expect healthy ageing and natural death. So much for the good news.

The departure of Cy Twombly is a timely opportunity to reflect on all his work, and how it evolved, and challenged us as he himself moved through the phases of his life. All long-lived artists evolve, some like Picasso were condemned in old age for what was seen as inferior work by people with short memories.

We all have life trajectories, and some are acutely aware of the process of personal evolution and seek to reinvent themselves over and over again. Others, whose lives may be more tied to the corporate business cycle may just stop when they hit a ‘retirement age’. Regardless of personal life experiences, ignoring the evolving talent potential of ‘older folk’ echoes ageism.

I’ve noted in other writing the dismal performance of the UK’s art schools. It is also worth noting that while an arts education is a wonderful thing in and of itself, few arts graduates actually make a career out of their studies. And this at the expense of art schools themselves becoming engines of creative expression for the whole of society regardless of age. Like pop culture, art schools also seem to be engines of ageism.

There may be a reason for this. For some, art history is broadly linear; this is a typical western approach, that present perceptions replace past perceptions, a sort of movement from/to. Other cultures see all history as living in the present, so art movements of the past also speak to the present: Sumi-e for example. Can abstract expressionism, described as dated by some, be relevant – no sooner had abstract expressionism burst upon the scene, pop artists were claiming it was obsolete. Really?

The point here is a simple one and betrays the superficial approach to creativity that abounds in the art world and that fosters ageism, namely, that new art replaces old art, and when an art ‘style’ has been replaced, it has no more to say to us. In that respect, we are always looking for the ‘shock of the new’, like Matisse’s gouaches découpés, themselves his response to ageing.

Is everything before transformed, as newness forces us to reassess everything that went before, and must we then consign it to the bins of the history of art?

What can Malevich, or the Futurists, say of relevance to ourselves in our 21st century angst when no sooner are we tweeted than we’ve moved on to the ‘next big thing’. And the next big thing is showing his or her work at some dodgy art school of middling quality at taxpayer’s expense, hoping to shock you with some edgy work of marginal interest (this sentence could go on and on….)

And so we never notice that we are drawn to the specious moment, in our search for that euphoria of artistic discovery, a type of addictive behaviour overwhelms, which always needs a fix. In this way the conditions for ageism in art are created. QED.

The mind in another cave

Another early scratching of an early human endeavouring to capture the external world has been found in Wales (2011). What was this person thinking, and why did he or she even do this?

English: English version of Brain in a vat. Fa...

hmmm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is particularly interesting, and assuming this is about 14,000 years ago, is that with visual forms, there is a need to abstract from the external reality an interpretation of that reality in the mind. Having done that, this person then had to decide what they wanted to represent and how. In addition, they had to choose something to do it with, which suggests perhaps that this wasn’t or might not have been the first time, either.

As an abstractionist, I encourage people to explore the mind’s natural way of seeing the world, rather than the highly socially constructed one we normally see. The brain naturally likes to construct patterns, and one assumes that a 14,000 year old brain did, too.

This is exciting not just for the discovery itself, but further affirmation that even in our earliest days as more than mere beasts but as maturing sentient beings, we sought to interpret the external world.

The other question, of course, is what did others at the time think they saw when they looked at this, and did it have a purpose? After all, if it was a form of communication, this artist needed to have some theory of mind — in particular, that those viewing it were like themselves mentally.

The Artist as Entrepreneur

Spot the entrepreneur

Spot the entrepreneur

Art of England (issue 68, 2010) has published a short piece of mine. It is about the ‘grants welfare state’ and proposes that artists should be funded more as investments, over a few years, leading to artistic and financial success, rather than supported through project grants.

I see this as a recurring theme of relevance to artists as the future for many will require them to become far more entrepreneurial and commercial. Financial difficulties within public sector funders will only be heightened with rising public debt. There is, too, the continuing debate whether art has intrinsic value and should be funded for its own worth — but of course the problem as always is deciding the features of intrinsic worth.

It also points to the need for more commercial content in the post-secondary arts curriculum. Should art schools and business schools develop some common courses for students to hone their abilities?

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Medicine for Body and Soul

Histopathogic image of senile plaques seen in ...

Senile Plaques: what goes on here can change your life

Art of England (issue 66, 2010) has published a short piece of mine. It is some commentary on a conference in London on arts and health.

This is an interesting area. Research is beginning to show that arts can have therapeutic value, can trigger memories in people with Alzheimer’s, or be of rehabilitative value in treating stroke victims.

Near where I live is the Sydney de Haan Centre, which is focused mainly on music and health, but art and health groups are active around the world.

What to know more?

This journal, Arts and Health, is a good beginning as is the Journal of Applied Arts and Health.

There are many arts and health groups around the world, and well as many arts and health research groups. I can provide a list if you’re interested.

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Physics Envy: or why art theory isn’t

The September issue of Frieze art magazine is all about ‘theory’ or what appears to pass for theory in the art world.  The whole issue reads like some undergraduate magazine or

Confucius 02

He understood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

papers prepared by graduate students with too much time on their hands; political polemic blends with obscure language, which even core Frankfurt-school-istas would find hard to follow.  All this is to be regretted, as underlying this enterprise is an important problem, namely what are the theoretical, as opposed to philosophical, underpinnings of art itself.  Unfortunately, what might have been an informative examination of the problems of theory and art is really just another barrage of intemperate criticism.  But is anyone listening or is this just so much solipsism?  What’s an intellectual to do?

Physics envy is the desire to have the theoretical rigour that characterises physics.  Many will reject this in the art world, but why else would they confuse theory with philosophy if they didn’t see theory as bestowing rigour, logic, structure, and deep meaning?  The whole issue of Frieze waffled back and forth between the two terms, citing as theorists people who wouldn’t recognise the word, and citing theorists whose theories lack any basis for verification or falsification.  The leap from philosophy to theory is a big one, taken by science years ago when it ceased to be called ‘natural philosophy’.  Politics got rebranded ‘political science’,  and economics has always had ‘physics envy’.  What now for art?

The other distressing theme running through the issue is the Western-centric mind-set; they are still fighting the tiresome battle between Continental philosophy and Anglo (sic) analytical philosophy.  In this myopic battle they miss wider philosophical progress. Readers may enjoy the challenges ranging from Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature to VS Ramachandran & William Hirstein, The Science of Art: a neurological theory of aesthetic experience, Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(6-7, 1999):15-51.

What we have is something vaguely called “critical theory” even more vaguely a “theory of artists’ minds”; I guess the word ‘critical’ suggests serious self-reflection when it really is quite empty. The ‘theory’ it ain’t.

But perhaps cultural studies sounds more scientific, (physics envy?) and less, well, less philosophical, and its practitioners more legitimate (in the sense Habermas would use it).

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What is ‘altermodernism’?

Tagging: Maldives Style
Image by nattu via Flickr

The inmates have escaped again and flooded the world with another wind egg.  Called ‘altermodernism’, a term as ugly as its definition, we are now to be persuaded that a new improved artistic sentimentality has burst upon the scene.  Some people really do have far too much free time.

Coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, who is occupying space at the Tate in London, we should not be surprised, given his past association with Flash Art.  Perhaps the term will take a clue from the magazine and be merely a flash in the pan; but oh dear, perhaps that itself will be evidence of altermodernism?  Such self-referential nonsense is hardly helpful and perhaps premature.  But Bourriaud seems to be in the business of naming, having brought us relationism, too, but someone’s got to do it. (Relational art is perhaps just the art ones finds juxtaposed in, wait for it, art galleries, where people and artists relate, but perhaps not….).

My view is that the term describes the breathless arguments put forward by those advocating globalisation, better defined through economics than culture.  Despite this, we will continue to live in small worlds, and with the recession we are now enjoying thanks in part to globalisation, enjoy a new localism, live more compactly, more locally.  In that respect, his argument for creolisation is misguided; the counterargument from NB would be that I am simply trapped in my own binary world, but I’ve worked in too many cultures to fall for that.

But we must recognise that some global context is emerging as people connect to each other through the simplifying technologies of YouTube, and Facebook; these may lead more to superficiality, than depth and in the end be less emotionally satisfying.

Perhaps the faddism that seems to characterise Bourriaud’s thinking reflects a surface grasp of the world, seen from a helicopter, rather than lived in its earthy reality? Certainly the works assembled to illustrate altermodernism were superficial and vacuous, art for the Twitter generation?

NB has said: “It is an idea that was actually the core of Relational Aesthetics already, the Marxist idea that there is no stable “essence” of humankind, which is nothing but the transitory result of what human beings do at a certain moment of history. I think this might be the cornerstone of all my writings, in a way.”

That does seem to be his point.

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