…and a week later, my Touchy Feely wrap-up.

So… where were we?

I was off to the Debate/Panel Discussion which turned out to be neither but instead a very general discussion, ably chaired/managed by Sarah Rodigari* on the topic Art should be instrumentalised to make a better world.

But just before I go into that I should briefly mention the CWA CBD who spoke the following night about their branch and projects. It was unfortunate that so many of the participants had been called back to busy lives by the time Paula Silva, Bec Stevens and Judith Abell spoke on behalf of their project on the Friday  Saturday night which is jolly interesting in terms of socially engaged practice both for its adopted model of and legitimate entry into the CWA network (the acronym stands for Country Womens Association, just in case you didn’t know) but just as much because of the vague confusion it caused me.

Unfortunately I had to leave this session before it ended, but I did get to hear a bit of talk about Bec Stevens CWA project STOP. REST. PLAY. , which was rewarding because this was precisely where my confusion lay.  Bec, who became a mum for the first time well within a month of when I did too, conceived it as a resting space for parents and young children. A place in the city where kids could safely play, tea could be made, nappies changed, sandwiches eaten and fruit divided: a place such as did not currently exist in Hobart. As a new(ish) mum also, I found this space to be an oasis in the city during it’s 3 weeks of operation and I quickly volunteered to be available for some shifts to help keep it running. Why not? I welcomed it, it helped out the CWA project and it was the easiest place to be with my son, Arthur, in tow. Plus Arthur loved to be there.

My confusion lay in the fact that although I loved it, welcomed it and have volunteered myself should another, more permanent, setup be orchestrated, I found myself unable to assess it as an artwork. I assumed I was so grateful for it’s existence in my role as a mum, that I was simply unable to look at it with a critical ‘art’ eye. And in the end I did love it. Why did it matter if I identified it as a good facility or good art? But it troubled me because I really wanted to be able to respond to it as a fellow artist.

When Bec spoke at the final night of TF, she talked about the small CWA shop, a few blocks up from the city centre, and how it was the only place she saw elderly women in the city. About children who are also visually absent from it’s streets.  Without anywhere to ‘be’ within the city centre, factions of our community like children and the elderly have lost ownership of the city. In fact the city is gravely in danger of becoming a site where only commerce has a home as opposed to a place where people ‘live’.  Bec sourced a site for the project with a broad shopfront with the express purpose of allowing children, families, breastfeeding mothers to be VISIBLE, and in doing so provided a valuable picture for our city of just how else things might be. This visualisation of a suggestion, an aspiration… well, of course that’s art.  And I’m suprised at myself that all it took was for me to be inside that frame to have difficulty seeing that.

But back to Thursday night…

It was a pretty rousing conversation and the entire room spoke with passion across the evening.  I do wish I had taken better notes (er… or any) or at least written this summation fresh off the back of it because mostly all I can remember well enough to report accurately are my own thoughts.  I’d hate to misrepresent anyone so this is all I shall tend to here.

I do hope the audio record of this event goes up on the Touchy Feely Tumblr some time soon because, in very brief summation, it was a ripping chat.

I listened and listened and when I couldn’t hold my thoughts any more they tumbled out of me like a big, wordy fountain.  Much of it was thoughts I had already constructed that day and written into my previous blog post but at the core of it was this:

That for me, the word should was highly problematic, for it suggests that artists have some social responsibility beyond attempting, with all authenticity, to produce relevant, wonderful, fine and GOOD art. In my opinion this is the only should an artist should concern themselves with.   This does not negate the work of the artist that does, as a part of their works construct or function, enact some direct societal change, but to agree with this statement somewhat discredits the work of artists that investigate an infinite variety of other subjects, themes and concerns.  It would suggest for instance, that an artist whose works are highly visual, aesthetic investigations does not have the same value as an artist whose work creates a more tangible societal ‘improvement’ (and I think we have all agreed through this project how malleable and subjective terms like ‘improvement’ are anyway).

Ultimately I would argue (and I did) that if you believe in the value of culture; it’s ability to both enrich and elevate society, then you must also believe that to ‘make a better world’, all one need do is to continue to practice as an artist and attempt through that practice to produce relevant, wonderful, fine and GOOD art.

This is no small thing.  For as one participant in this discussion so rightly pointed out, Australia is a country that doesn’t really value it’s artists. I noted last post (and suggested this as a reason for the current prevalence of relational and socially engaged practice), that artists are viewed very suspiciously outside our own field.  To continue to practice and identify as an artist is actually somewhat of a transgression against the wider Australian community. I know that I have been guilty of embarrassment in social situations when answering the question ‘What do you do?’, I have apologetically mumbled ‘Oh… I’m an artist…’ and extricated myself with some speed to avoid accusation and confrontation.

But I don’t do this any more, because despite making work that might appear to be entirely self-absorbed, I do believe that this is my role, my job and the best contribution I can make and I do my very best to produce relevant, wonderful, fine and GOOD art at all times. Of course I don’t hit that target each time. I just keep aiming and hope the bullseyes come more frequently.  And how very Australian of me to construct a sports analogy to defend the value of my societal role as an artist.

So yes, while I have managed (as I so often do) to turn this into a rant about myself, in truth this is my statement of confidence investment in the profession of visual artist. Cheerleading, if you will. Some of you make amazing art projects that, in a very direct fashion, work to improve lives, but relational and socially engaged works are a narrow mode of practice in the larger scheme of culture and there are an infinite number of ways to make art. So if you are an artist who wants to be the good in the world, just go make things and have ideas. Try very hard to make good art. I genuinely believe that this will also make a better world through providing ideas, aesthetics and aspiration.

Yes. I am that idealistic and sentimental.

And so what of sentimentality? The single niche I found for myself within this whole symposium. Is socially engaged art too sentimental? Is my art too sentimental? Well… we never got to that. And sadly I didn’t get a single response to my yardstick work.  So I have to then surmise that yes, it is too sentimental for discussion. I’m still unsure of details such as whether that means that people just don’t feel comfortable talking about it with me because the sentimentality makes them uncomfortable or because the sentimentality makes bad art which makes them uncomfortable, but the experiment so far speaks for itself. Or does it?

I would still, really, like to know.

* Yes, I’ll throw Sarah’s name in again.  She’s interesting, engaged and stayed to contribute right across the duration of the event. Plus she wore a lovely blouse. Okay –  full disclosure: I do seem to have become a fan.

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