The nature of contemporary life in the UK is taking on an increasingly bureaucratic form, re-shaping culture in its image. This short polemic concerns art, bureaucracy and the diminishing presence of process within art practice.
Artists and their work
The communication and promotion of artistic practice are becoming analogous to the recreational use of social media, as artistic production is increasingly geared towards image-obsessed ‘cultural consumers’. Models, sketches and mock-ups - purpose-designed to convey ideas to curatorial bodies, councils or community groups - appear to be condemned to the administrative realm of negotiating exhibition opportunities. Exhibitions themselves undermine the visibility of drafts and studio experiments through their exclusive focus on showcasing end results. Art as something that is practiced is fading fast from the public eye.
Self-management, too, plays a key role in this erasure of process, as artists must adapt their methodologies specifically to the project at hand. Following on from what can best be described as a collapse of faith in the gallery system, and growing disillusionment with art market consumerism, many emerging artists choose self-employment. Independence is facilitated by the internet’s potential to expand spectatorship, and artists with a DIY attitude also take advantage of disused spaces and regeneration schemes.
However, to make a living from this involves reliance on public sector funding which sketches out the artist’s role similarly to that of the social worker. What is referred to ambiguously as ‘creativity’ is assigned the task of papering over cracks in the social structure or the broken society. This abstract notion of an audience with needs that are both diverse and local requires that art pay lip service to politically-charged concepts of participation and collaboration.
Altogether, the administrative dystopia that characterises contemporary art practice can be interpreted as a mutation of the militant individualism of the 1980s and the cloying nanny-state utilitarianism of the 1990s. Being an artist now involves a lot of paperwork.
Public engagement does not feature on the curriculum for students of art, although perhaps it should. Addressing this issue is critical to the artist’s ability to manage their own career. The term itself already places mysterious demands on artists applying to fund their work. The common assumption is that government spending on activities such as arts or sports should bring palpable benefit to the public (a view private sponsors also tend to espouse), a comparison between these sectors is revealing. Whereas in sport it is expected that money should be available for training and development, similar approaches in the arts are rare.
Experimentation in art tends to be either crudely tied to technological fetishism or generally cast as obscure and unfit for public consumption, as evidenced by the commissions promoted to artists. Overall, it is possible to gain significant insight into current trends and attitudes in art by looking at the financial support available to artists. To a degree, an artwork can be defined by the funding conditions of its conception.
Today, unfunded projects account for a significant portion of open calls to artists. This belies the growing disillusionment artists have with publicly financed work, which - due to a perceived demand for culture in bite-sized chunks and the unwillingness to contend with detail - rejects an understanding of the artwork as the end product of a creative journey. Instead, artists turn in their droves to unfunded, artist-led projects. These are primarily geared towards fostering networks, where like-minded creative practitioners can exchange ideas and experiment, albeit in far less publicly prominent environments.
Making it happen
Networking emerges as a survival-tool amidst group-think ideologies and collaborative sloganeering; ‘if you don’t join us, you risk pinning hope on the whims of competition panels and open call curators!’ Networks such as artist-run galleries and studio groups have demonstrated considerable success in bypassing the gallery system’s selective approach to representation and exhibiting. Influential art world playmakers respond to this by feeding artists endless online community networking initiatives, for example in the form of art prizes and listings sites with network facilities.
The preoccupation with networking remains indelibly linked to the New Labour fiction of meritocratic society, within which the CV is king. Where you studied, exhibited or worked and who you might know is critical for potential collaborators, who seek to benefit by association. The competition for exhibitions becomes all the more fierce as artists - responsible for self-development while education and training costs soar - scramble to enhance their résumés.
Pressure to maintain a well-groomed profile means that any experimentation must produce instant results in exhibition form, whilst a collective outlook equates desires for autonomy of practice with oppressive, outmoded ideologies or narcissism and arrogance.
Unpaid roles, such as internships, form an integral part of the artist’s commitment to their specific craft, making paid positions in the arts all the more prized and oversubscribed. Advertisements for bar staff and cleaners at arts venues increasingly feature on arts vacancy listings, lending support to an overall impression that the cultural sector leads the way in the standardisation of labour.
The omnipresent threat of cuts motivates the current push to demonstrate value for money in the arts, and organisers attempt to stretch budgets further by involving more participants, more artists and larger audiences. This leaves emerging artists under duress to sell themselves cheaply simply to maintain a good ‘track-record’ and remain employable. Yet value is difficult to define within contemporary art because what is challenging isn’t necessarily popular, while popular interpretations of value stem from visibility and accessibility, with what is referred to as the wow factor added on.
Where the aggressively bureaucratic framework of funding in the arts can be identified, the creative sector is exposed as results-driven rather than practice-led. Within this ideologically constructed arts sphere, artists must devise ever more elaborate ways to demonstrate the appeal of their work.
The administrative process requires that artists evaluate their work prior to development, in order to get it off the ground in the first instance. New discoveries, which are an essential part of the making process, are sidelined, hampering artists’ ability to react to change. Reconsidering autonomy is to reconsider the artist’s labour. This is especially poignant when art regularly appears in alternative or public spaces rather than a gallery environment, within which the notion of the worker-artisan has become antiquated.
In a bureaucratic public domain, artists’ reputations and the success of artworks are determined by complex social, educational and practical factors and from the point of view of sponsors, councils, community groups, curatorial bodies and organizers. Conversely, the freedom to create and to be creative is embodied by artistic process, where the intentions of the artist come to the fore, unbound by outside political, ideological or social constraints.
Increasing transparency of artists’ decision-making processes would encourage experimentation, providing wider audiences with insight into contemporary art practice. Exposing the forced negotiations involved in current art practice contributes to our understanding of artists’ struggle to adapt to a perceived social role, one which is continually redefined by the arbitrary criteria set by the funding bodies that instigate the creation of new work. Most worryingly, as bureaucracy hampers artists’ independence, a lack of opportunities for experimentation might compromise the art of a generation.
Art & Bureaucracy published in Dystopia, CAAPO, Cardiff (2013)