Friday, 9 March 2012

Debate on Socially Engaged Art

This was a bit of fun (although nerve wracking at first).

Yesterday I was involved in a debate on the motion that “This House Feels that the Most Valuable Art is Socially Engaged” in Trinity College. It was organized by Hannah Oellinger, Kamil Markiewicz and Thomas Hayes of NCAD, and hosted by The HistThe other speakers were Declan Long, Kevin Atherton (NCAD), Conor O’Malley (Culture Ireland) and Ursula Ni Choill, William Dunne, Cat Una O’Shea and Liam O Neill (TCD).

I’ve put the text of my 7 minute presentation below. There might be a video of the event floating around too as there were cameras. It was part of the students' involvement with CREATE so there might be a follow on.

Anway, well done to all involved for a stimulating and enjoyable debate.

Opposing the Motion: The House Feels that the Most Valuable Art is Socially Engaged

When it comes to tackling concrete social issues art is of no use at all.

Actually, it is worse than useless.

It’s worse than useless because people still cling on to this hopeless idea that the job of art is politics. It’s not.

If my toilet is blocked, I’ll call a plumber.

If I’m sick, I’ll go to a doctor.

If there’s a crime being committed, I’ll call the police.

But when, when, would I ever look to an artist to solve a problem?


If I want a better society should I make go to artists, singers, songwriters, jugglers, potters clowns and – god forbid – poets for the answers?

No, of course not.

If I want a better society I myself have a responsibility to act in a certain way towards those around me. And if I want society to change I should make specific, concrete demands on those politicians, bureaucrats, legislators and educators who can make these changes.

When it comes to real things that real people can do to make the real world a better place art is not going to help us.

Art is useless; but of course, that is its great strength, and that is what makes it so valuable.

The artist has one responsibility when making art – and I should stress this is when they are making art; it does not resolve them of social responsibility in general – and that is to make things that can be aesthetically judged. All the artistic act need concern itself with is making good art.

We don’t ask chefs to make socially aware soufflés – the contestants of masterchef are not penalized if they don’t make a veloute sauce that is a biting satire of late capitalism.

We don’t expect footballers to say in their post-match interviews that the winning goal they scored in the 72 minute was a protest against the military regime in Burma. 

Food dishes, plays in sport, musical motifs, dance positions, pictures and all other forms of art are beautiful because they are autonomnous – they are separated out from the everyday run of events. Artforms are beautiful precisely because they exist in a context in which responsibility is suspended.

Take a moment to think about what you think are some truly great works of art.

Here are some of mine:

The Van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece
Bach’s Goldberg Variations
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon
Welles’ Citizen Kane
Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman

What you’ll find is that what makes them great is NOT their empirical truth, their didacticism, or their moral properness; in short their responsibility to society.

Instead what makes great works of art great is their greatness, and it’s the same for what makes works of art, good, mediocre or bad. It’s as simple as that.

The most valuable art (and obviously I don’t mean that which is most expensive) is art which is NOT socially engaged. It is, instead, art that challenges its audience to transcend its particular social situation. The best art is not bound by social responsibility but, instead, revels in a glorious irresponsibility.

“Good taste is the enemy of creativity”, Picasso said, and isn’t there something so very tasteful about thinking that you’re doing the right thing?

At its best the call for artistic responsibility is a self-righteous distraction. A harmless enough irrelevance that could be easily brushed off the stage or out of the studio before the real work begins.

More seriously -  the call for social responsibility can used as a lazy get out clause for bad artists more interested in making friends, clearing their conscience or securing funding for social inclusion. “It’s not bad – its non-elitist. It’s inclusive” they’ll say.

We only need look at the flabby, bloated, pompous farce that was Dublin Contemporary to see how several million Euro can be so badly mismanaged in the name of using – and I quote:
art’s underused potential for commenting symbolically on the world’s societal, cultural and economic triumphs and ills.”

What rubbish.

Art is brilliant, we just should be careful what we expect from it.

Art is brilliant and it does come with responsibilities: the responsibly to be freely produced; and our own responsibility to take it seriously.

Of course art can make the world a better place. I can’t and don't want to imagine a world without it.

And so can good food, and music and gymnastics and sex. Especially if you can do them all at once.

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