I’ve just read an article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian (09/12/15) about Assemble winning the Turner Prize. Their winning is (I hope obviously?) a very real cause for celebration. But it is also a reflection of just how slow the official ‘art world’ has been to recognise the sea change taking place on its wilder shores.
As Higgins points out, to some people giving the prize to a collective of young architects is going to look like “a monumental category error, like giving the Man Booker to, say, an oral poet”. And it’s that ‘category error’ by the Art Establishment, surely, that is the most fundamental cause for celebration. Art as we have reinvented it, ‘art with a capital A’, will be with us for just as long as there are elites who can use it as a sign of their ‘wealth’ – whether in terms of economic or cultural capital – and social exclusivity (or ‘taste’ if you prefer the polite term). What has been happening for many years now, however, is a slow withering away at the edges of the categorical exclusivity, in relation to the arts as to all other disciplines, that separates our skills and knowledges into separate and exclusive silos. In academia this is glossed as the ‘inter-disciplinarity turn’ (an unfortunate term that tacitly continues to perpetuate the myth of the superiority of disciplinary knowledge).
In actuality, however, what is taking place, albeit often below the radar on which cultural pundits depend, is the acknowledgement that we live in a polyverse in which it makes no sense to ghettoise any set of skills or form of knowledge on the basis of traditional professional hierarchies. (This is, I think, the most important insight behind Felix Guattari’s notion of ‘ecosophy’, despite his tendency to lionise aesthetics and the ‘artist’ over against science).
When Maria Lisogorskaya and Louis Schulz, two of the ‘eighteen or so’ members of Assemble, tell Higgins that they are indifferent to whether they are categorised as artists or not, that their focus is on “doing good projects”, which in turn is sometimes “about doing really good plumbing”, they give us a very clear indication of where the resurgence of an aesthetics of the everyday may be taking us.
Some years back my old friend Simon Read – who teaches art students at Middlesex University, makes extraordinary and beautiful predictive coastal maps, other kinds of large drawings, sculptural environmental interventions in the salt marshes on and around the River Deben, and is also practically engaged in the debates around environmental governance of the region in which he lives – told me a story. He was at the opening of a major exhibition in London when a friend introduced him as an artist to a well-known art critic. The critic asked Simon what he did. When Simon told him the critic’s response was: “how worthy”, with which comment he turned and walked away.
I hope that Assemble’s success will mean that, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons, the cultural influence represented by that critic will now be a little less dismissive of those for whom the skills of an artist are wholly compatible with getting productively engaged with the messy and complex everyday realities of our crumbling psycho-social environment.