Casting aside gloomy critiques of economic systems and the instrumentalization of culture for the moment, there are a few more obvious, more positive, abstract elements of the forum format still left to outline. Regardless of whatever opinion we might have about the specific ideas expressed during the event, or its perceived success (it’s not really my place to pass judgement), there is I think something valuable in the simple act of convening a public gathering specifically to discuss matters of public concern, such as the allocation of cultural resources. This is especially true, given the social and economic context that we are living in, which generally does not easily support such events. Our public spaces and venues, galleries, libraries, pubs, community theatres, community centres have been routinely privatized, dismantled, closed, or requisitioned in order to turn a profit or refurbished for purely utilitarian purposes. Public funding for the arts has been consistently slashed by the Government’s austerity programme, budgets at times reduced to 0% in places like Newcastle.
It’s a truism repeatedly spelt out across the land that the logic of privatisation, of self interest, has transformed our towns and city centre’s into glistening complexes of consumption, with shopping centres forming the nucleus of what we now paradoxically, perhaps even unconsciously recognise and utilize as the only remaining “public sphere.” One need only try to find somewhere sheltered to sit and eat a packed lunch in Glasgow city centre without having to enter a private business and buy something from them, in order to recognise the subtle inconveniences of this spatial transformation. Finding a quiet place to study is almost impossible without crossing the entire city to the Mitchell Library. This is due to the quality of smaller, local libraries which has plummeted and are truly lacking in resources and decent books, if they exist at all that is. Hosting an event like a reading group in a pub or other venue with friends is often a surprisingly expensive and difficult undertaking, best reserved for special occasions…
In this publicly restrictive privatised context then, rare spaces such as artist-led, publicly funded, community supported galleries can become islands of relative freedom. As I’ve already remarked, they can also more easily politicize local events affecting them or their community than the larger institutional behemoths can. But what do I mean by politicize here? Is it possible to say that the Free Market forum politicized it’s own problematic circumstances? The way that I had always conceived of the project in my own mind, perhaps overly romantically, related directly to my attempts at reading Hannah Arendt’s theory of Action. To be clear, I am not claiming that Free Market was an adequate manifestation of her theory! And yet thinking about her notion of action and “space of appearance” did resonate and quietly maintain my interest during the forum’s organisation.
For Arendt, whose political philosophy; republicanism and civic humanism was deeply inspired by the classical political thought and practices of Ancient Greece and Rome, action is distinguished from both labour and work as fundamental parts of the “active life” (vita activa), which is opposed to the “contemplative life” (vita contemplativa). These are the two halves comprising what she referred to as the human condition. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it:
“Arendt’s theory of action and her revival of the ancient notion of praxis represent one of the most original contributions to twentieth century political thought. By distinguishing action (praxis) from fabrication (poiesis), by linking it to freedom and plurality, and by showing its connection to speech and remembrance, Arendt is able to articulate a conception of politics in which questions of meaning and identity can be addressed in a fresh and original manner. Moreover, by viewing action as a mode of human togetherness, Arendt is able to develop a conception of participatory democracy which stands in direct contrast to the bureaucratized and elitist forms of politics so characteristic of the modern epoch.”
She uses the Ancient Greek polis as a metaphor for a public political space where people can organize, act and speak together and deliberate on issues of mutual concern. The polis therefore stands for the ‘space of appearance’, where individuals gather and through action (unlike the activities of labour and work) distinguish themselves from inanimate things or animals. Even though Arendt’s philosophical perspectives on action float conceptually and physically untethered from the humble realities of the small gathering we called the Free Market forum, there are still these very basic parallels to be drawn. It’s also important to recognise that her theory of action formed the philosophical cornerstone of another significant political theoretical development, which came to fruition in her book On Revolution, which offered a widely unacknowledged but potent critique of representative democracy in the form of her “Republic of Councils.” But taken simply in its philosophical abstractness, we can still see some similarities between Market Gallery’s forum, which drew together speakers and listeners who were asked to debate and contribute to a web of relationships, much in same way as Arendt’s ‘space of appearance.’ Finally, as Stanford Encyclopaedia summarises:
“It is always a potential space that finds its actualization in the actions and speeches of individuals who have come together to undertake some common project. It may arise suddenly, as in the case of revolutions, or it may develop slowly out of the efforts to change some specific piece of legislation or policy. Historically, it has been recreated whenever public spaces of action and deliberation have been set up, from town hall meetings to workers’ councils, from demonstrations and sit-ins to struggles for justice and equal rights.”
Admittedly the Free Market forum was more akin to a town hall gathering…but hopefully slightly more exciting…
Entry on Hannah Arendt, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/#ActPowSpaApp
Tom Holland (ex-committee member)