Art makes the world a better place – Report – The Art Party Conference 2013

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The palatial 'Grand Hall' of Scarborough Spa - hijacked by a riot of colourful banners, signs and bunting - seemed the perfect context for The Art Party Conference's “antidote to all other conferences”. Having only experienced the opening Beach Parade vicariously through the over-flowing twitter feed (whilst stuck somewhere in a sweaty hire car full of artists on the M1) I arrived just in time for Bob and Roberta Smith's Letter to Michael Gove. 

Patrick Brill (AKA Bob and Roberta Smith) begins reading from a huge, hand-painted sign under the spot-light of the Spa's Grand hall...

“Dear Michael Gove... Art, images, artefacts, songs, culture are the principal means by which Human beings define themselves...” 

From here onwards and from his resplendent podium 'the summit' Brill sets the tone and agenda for the days proceedings in which art itself will take centre stage (with a sideshow of Michael Gove-bashing*). His letter extols the value of art not only to individuals but to education, industry and greater society, emphasising the essential freedom and strength which creativity and creative learning affords people.

“...Art should be at the centre of a national curriculum based on creative thinking...” 

This letter, and the conference as a whole, comes as a timely response to changes in the government's plans for the national curriculum in which the new English baccalaureate (Ebacc) for 16 year olds (replacing the old G.C.S.E. model) will potentially remove arts from the syllabus entirely or, at best, marginalise them in favour of emphasising the “core subjects” of English, Maths and Science, a move which has already been cemented in the new national curriculum for Key Stages 1 to 3. 

“...Michael, I look at your tie and shirt combination, of images of you online... informs me that you are not a visually minded person...” 

Whilst Brill's jibe elicits a giggle from the crowd, this response perhaps underrates the seriousness of what his comment draws attention to i.e. that removing, or even sidelining, the arts from the curriculum discriminates against children who are visually or kinaesthetically minded. Education, if it is to be inclusive to all, must encompass a wide spectrum of approaches to learning from the visual to the auditory to the kinaesthetic. Worse still, the proposed changes to the curriculum not only denigrate the arts as inferior subjects but disenfranchises a whole generation of young people from creative approaches to learning about, and engaging with, the world and with one another. In his introduction to the discussion event 'Why is Art Important?' the actor and director Samuel West paraphrased from Neil Gaiman in foregrounding the importance art has in teaching us about empathy:

  “...the great thing about reading [and about art] is that it teaches you that everybody else out there is a 'me' as well...”

The morning before the conference was held the Guardian had reported on leaked documents planning a £350m cut to access grants which would affect more than 500,000 of the UK's poorest students. Appropriately, one of the following 'provocations' of The Art Party Conference came from Shelley Asquith, President of UAL's Students Union who highlighted that the planned cuts to grants would not only discourage students from studying the Arts and Humanities at University in favour of “economically lucrative” subjects but also continue to widen the gap in social inequality and professional attainment. In her rousing speech she called for art students to “challenge the system, make art to inspire, to change, to revolutionise...” and to “...fight back within our own institutions...”. Earlier that morning Lesley Butterworth, general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, had criticised the government's plans as being "the most toxic thing to happen to art and design in education in my professional lifetime"

What I came away from the morning's provocations sensing, complemented by Patrick Coyle's thoughtful and personal performance, was that cuts to the arts in education and an overemphasis on standardised, academic achievement would occlude the possibilities for experimentation, innovation and “rebellion”. Moreover, the proposed changes to the curriculum would not simply affect individual students experience of school and university but would have even greater implications for the future of innovation, culture and the economy. As Brill wrote in his letter to Michael Gove:

“Look around you... what do you see? Everything is made. Everything has been fashioned by human beings who have considered all aspects of what they have made. Image is everything: visual worth, commercial value, moral virtue, authority and integrity...”

The atmosphere of creative resolve and rebellion was everywhere at The Art Party Conference. Not only did it have the appearance of a colourful Anarchist's tea party gone mad but throughout the building performances, stalls, screenings and exhibitions were overflowing with ideas and possibilities from a vast array of arts professionals and organisations including A-N, Art Fund, Artquest, Artsadmin, Axisweb, Cape UK, Chrysalis, CVAN, DACS, NSEAD, Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, University of Hull in Scarborough,Yorkshire Coast College and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. 

After the provocations I elected to spend the rest of the afternoon in The Ocean Room/Foyer for the programme of debates and discussions which also seemed to be where the majority of the attendees had congregated. Perhaps I had been too infected by the morning's spirit of rebellion but, following on from the provocative series of speeches, these discussions (though interspersed with the occasional gem) were decidedly lacklustre and I felt heartily disappointed as the spirit of change and action seemed to dissipate with the more traditional conference format in which ideas were discussed at length but ways forward were not. 

As usual with this panel discussion format, the platform for audience feedback and questions raised a number of critical issues which were woefully under addressed due to time constraints and the lack of space for follow-up (there being no wifi or phone signal occluding even the possibility of continuing the debate via Twitter). Nonetheless, there were a number of inspired talks and commentaries from the panelists and audience alike. In the discussion event 'What first turned you onto art?' Pavel Büchler provided a refreshing alternative to the increasing emphasis being placed on the “economic value” of the arts as a case for arts education:

 “ everything is valued according to USE... students are often forgetting that their job is to do USELESS things... we need something useless to stop us from going mad...”

In discussing the difficult relationship between arts and public funding Cornelia Parker, insisting that “artists have got to be free,” made an admission which would have had many attendees jumping up and down in their seats and applauding had it been part of the mornings provocations: 

 “... I've never applied for ACE grants because there seems to be too many boxes to tick... it's the most political thing you can do to be free... and that's what art is about.”

Following on from this, and in an echo back to Bob and Roberta Smith's earlier provocation “Art is Rebellion” (also immortalized in one of his hand-painted signs), Jeremy Deller made the welcome pronouncement that:

 “...artists push what's acceptable with behaviour and ideas... art is about pushing boundaries all the time...”

In the second of the day's discussion events, 'How should art be taught in schools?' Richard Wentworth gave an aptly incendiary, inspired and meandering introduction to the conversation, warning that the over emphasis on professionalisation and vocation in art education was leading to “a culture which is pragmatic” and devoid of curiosity. His deeply felt sadness at the “retro-fitted portfolios” and “stock-style... invented notebooks” was a reproach to the standardisation of art education and the conformative, grade-centric pressures which students face. 

The final discussion event 'Why is Art Important?' seemed to bring the afternoon's proceedings full circle and back to the point of Brill's opening speech/letter to Michael Gove. Whilst it did smite a little of preaching to the converted - and perhaps would have been more productive had it been directed at/attended by the policy makers and legislators rather than a room full of arts professionals and students - it was nonetheless an affirmative and well articulated account of the necessity of art and creativity to be at the centre of our lives as individuals and society and its crucial role in both education and culture as a whole. The highlight for me of this last discussion was Samuel West's emotive though thoroughly well-referenced talk which seemed to bring together many threads from the day’s events and discussions, from the centrality of art in all aspects of industry, invention and expression: 

“... imagine a world without art; no music, no design, no architecture, no fashion, plays, poetry, words... what would it look like? Pretty boring... pretty strange…”  

to art's decisiveness in enriching life, instilling empathy and reminding us “.. that we are human and therefore extraordinary...”

The day ended for me (perhaps prematurely, missing the evening of live music and talks) with Bob and Roberta Smith's meeting with Michael Grove, a polemical and incendiary Michael Gove impersonator. Part performance, part provocation, Michael Grove's speech was both an entertaining spectacle and calculated provocation, spurring the infuriated boos and hisses of the attendant crowd of artists and educators. Though I felt slightly uncomfortable being drawn into a Gove-lynch-mob the impression the speech left (which platformed actual government policy, if dolled up with hyperbole) was indelible and, for myself at least, cemented a resolve to keep flying the banner of the art party and all it represents, even after the conference was over and chants forgotten; to keep campaigning for art, the essential means for transforming all ideas into forms and for changing the world for the better. 

*(quite literally in the 'Gove-Shy' – a coconut shy in which attendees were invited to throw missiles at busts of Education Minister Michael Gove)