In defence of the public’s judgement

A public debate on the point of the arts showed a worrying disdain for art's potential audience.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

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It’s been an interesting time for the arts of late. A few weeks ago, Tate Britain opened its renovated galleries to reveal paintings hung in chronological order without information plates. Before that, the revamped Rijksmuseum re-opened and, like Tate Britain, it also had a new take on the hanging criteria for its art. Whatever the merits or otherwise of these particular attempts to re-present art to us, they do at least seem to be driven by an admirable impulse – to allow more space for people to develop their own interpretations of art works. This is certainly a welcome development for anyone interested in art.

Unfortunately, at a recent event called ‘What’s the point of art schools?’, a far less welcome trend was apparent.

Organised by the University of Arts (UAL), a major art-education institution incorporating the Central Saint Martins and Camberwell schools of art, I hoped to find a lively discussion about the point of art and art schools The programme notes certainly hinted as much: ‘The intent is not to arrive at a single answer, but to develop responses that celebrate and articulate the key role that art and design education plays in the cultural, social and economic life of the world.’

Many of the speakers talked of art education being necessary to preserve free, critical thinking and a diversity of ideas. The comedian Johnny Vegas even spoke movingly of how his experiences at art school helped him to expand both his opportunities and intellectual horizons. Yet neither expanded horizons nor the development of critical thinking are the unique product of art education – this is simply what happens when students’ attention and efforts are directed towards their chosen subject and they socialise with a wider range of people than at school.

Another prevalent idea at the event was art’s role as a means of self-empowerment and improvement. From the point of view of individual art students, or professional art therapists, this idea makes sense. But if this concept of art is the only one on offer, another arguably more important aspect of art is obscured: that is, the way in which art, in the public sphere, can provide human experience with objective, aesthetic form.

Little wonder, then, that ‘public culture’ was a recurrent phrase throughout the conference. The artist ‘Bob and Roberta Smith’ even referred to philosopher Hannah Arendt’s idea that art depends upon the public. However, it is important to understand the nature of this relationship. Today the phrase ‘art as a public good’ is usually understood in two ways: first, that art in some way makes you a better person; and second, that art is socially useful.

Neither positions really address the important point Arendt and others, such as Wilhelm Furtwangler, one-time lead conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, make about art’s relationship to the public: namely, that the public does not have to be a collection of individuals educated in the arts to be appreciative or ‘engaged’. Both stress that artists, cultural commentators and custodians have to make judgements about what is good, bad or indifferent. Interested parties could then affirm, modify or reject that judgement. And, in the process of such engagement, public opinion is consolidated into a more stable and certain judgement. In this way, the public is constituted around certain works of art which it deems valuable. The judgements involved in this process are accumulated over time through criticism, scholarly work and public discourse – hence we say that certain works have ‘stood the test of time’.

Furtwangler remarked that public opinion is more volatile and less secure, but that public judgement was the only true test of great music. He went further when he wrote that although time was needed for judgements to be developed, 40 years of the public turning its back on Schoenberg’s atonal music was enough to come to the judgement that it was not the public’s artistic faculties that were at fault. It was the failure of musicians who were increasingly turning their backs on the tonal forms of classical music.

It is interesting to see how the avowedly elitist Furtwangler actually had a far more positive conception of the public than someone like Jeremy Till, the pro-vice chancellor of Central Saint Martins, one of England’s most prestigious art schools. At the event, he was content to complain about ‘the man in the pub who complains about his taxes going on art he doesn’t understand, and who probably votes for UKIP’. Such was Till’s view of the public.

Till also poured scorn on the idea of art as the pursuit of beauty. His view might have been tenable if there was any evidence of contemporary art that, defying the formal conventions of beauty, still managed to match the sophisticated, complex renditions of human experience conveyed by art in the past. But this is clearly not the case. Hence there continues to be a lot of public interest in the big exhibitions of great art, but far less interest in contemporary offerings.

Till also called for artists and art to become more political. Certainly, in the past artists have at times had close relations to political groups, but they invariably remained artists with strong ideas of what art was, could and should be as art. Moreover, politics itself was a more vital and democratic affair. Given that politics is neither of those things today, Till’s call for art to be more political seems to be little more than an underhand way of saying politicians should continue subsidising institutions like the UAL. In fact, the moribund nature of contemporary politics prompted on audience member to ask whether artists should try to be involved in politics at all. ‘Why not try to do something new on our own?’, she asked of artists. I think this makes sense. So I’d start by suggesting aspiring artists visit the Tate Britain, the Rijksmuseum and as many other galleries as possible.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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