Last Friday I attended the second day of the ‘2-Day Conversation’ organised by the New Bridge Project in Newcastle for their 5th anniversary. (For those who do not know about this organisation it is an artist hub created by two graduate students in an empty office block in the centre of Newcastle consisting of artist studios, a bookshop, galleries etc.) My understanding is that this was organised as a forum to allow artists from the region, to discuss where art ‘is’ in the city and by that I mean what most people would pigeon hole the activity of ‘Fine Art’ in all its guises from film to painting, performance to sculpture and all that is glorious in between. The day was nicely organised, but ultimately was far more relevant to those involved in the project and other organisations housed in the office complex, such as Vane and BD studios to mention just a couple, as it would be those that would be directly affected when the inevitable redevelopment of the area takes place. As I commented during the afternoon discussion, billionaire self-made men and women may fain interest in the ‘arts’, but it would be naïve to assume that anything else but the pursuit of capital is at the heart of their goals.
My first question is however… how many artists actually knew it was happening, never mind the rest of the public who might just be interested in this sort of event? I found out about it through a fellow artist, even though I am in contact with the NBP, as I am holding a self- financed exhibition there in December. Maybe I should look harder for these type of events, but it seems in the nature of this type of beast to create a somewhat insular and one might say elitist group of facilitators and participants. This was confirmed by the members of the first ‘’conversation’ panel at the Baltic 39, which consisted of the ‘five white dukes’ (i.e. five white middle aged men similar to myself) drawn from the upper echelons of the Baltic Mill, Newcastle University, Northumbria University and Newcastle City Council. All good fellows with minds and mouths in the right places, but not very representative. However, that may well be said of the audience, but then, if invited one must attend. The afternoon session held at the New Bridge Project gave way to a more eclectic and interesting group of white female and male speakers with the a poignant opening eulogy by a local writer/philosopher; all of which lead to a more creative debate. (Side note.. loved the quote from James Joyce, but not everyone considers him the bees knees of literature and social comment)
But I digress from the main theme I wish to tackle in this blog and that is that there was an awful lot of hot air about, well, ‘critical mass’ (I shall come to that later), culture, finance, buildings, billionaire oligarchs, inner city planning, but very little if any discussion about creation, the act of making and how to make this easier dare I say more democratic, or would that destroy the necessity of the ‘struggling artist’ image?
Throughout the day the diatribe about ‘culture’ was quite baffling. The word was banded about like the carrot on the end of the stick to make the donkey walk forward in one direction (similar to the current all too popular boy band); a direction driven by funding steams allocated from the Arts Council and other funding bodies involved with the arts. The dialogues all pointed to the Graham Green ‘Our man in Havana’ approach, which if you know the story, concerns the creation of a wanted reality, for those who hold the purse strings, out of myth, with the underlying suggestion that within certain levels of the establishment the myth was all too readily known about. In return for jumping through the correct hoops and creating the wanted outcomes, (whether these are a myth or not), financial support would always allocated. In my opinion this creates (as I suggested to the Lady for the Arts Council) a wholly undemocratic system where most of the artists in this country see very little of the 870 million pound budget. (x 4 if one includes capital made for subsidiary sources, which is very important of course in our capitalist system) Further, I would suggest that the general public who fund all this ‘activity and bureaucracy’ from their taxes and the purchase of lottery tickets (in my opinion a backdoor tax invented out of greed) access even less of this narrated culture… A fellow artist next to me suggested that a better way to use the money would be to just give every artist (right across the arts) £5000 a year. And why not, contrary to what many would believe as an uncontrolled hand-out, this alternative solution may well create quality work and a more radical and interesting arts ‘culture’.
The irony of all this, for me anyway, is that this funding of mainstream ‘culture’ gives the breathing space for the rise of sub, or underground cultures, which on the whole are far more interesting, creative, youthful and subversive. As a teenager during the 1970’s I engaged with two of these sub-cultures; one I like to call ‘agro-culture’ and the other, as perceived then by the ‘establishment’ the ‘anti-culture punk’. (Now maligned, mainstreamed and mainly misunderstood)
It could be argued that the 70’s agro culture grew out of the skinhead movement of the late sixties fuelled on a diet of lovers rock , a love for Doctor Martin’s, stay-press trousers, braces and boredom on large council estates; oh and possibly football. I joined the periphery of this around 1974 as part of the Leam Lane Agro Boys, when the dress code had somewhat eased a bit and our ‘gang’ of boys and girls, who admittedly contained one of the hardest lads from Heworth Grange Comprehensive School, was more an assembly of oxford bags, star jumpers, brogues and pod shoes who were intent on under-age drinking and opportunistic mischief rather than hard core violence. (That’s not to say the odd affray with the Springwell Agro Boys and Windy Nook Agro Boys did not occur, but was always well controlled)
For me this sub-culture was the creative embryo of what graffiti artists now call ‘Tags’ with each group proudly spraying an acronym of their name, for us LLAB, around the perimeter of their territory and, on mischievous forays into rival gang territory, anywhere you could get away with it.
A different branch of this ‘agro-culture’ was also very prevalent in Newcastle City Centre pub culture at the time, where fighting and glassing were an all too frequent occurrence throughout the 70’s and early 80’s. The town was awash with ‘meat –waggons’ that would harvest that nights crop of violent activity, deposit it into Pilgrim Street Cop-Shop, only to be patched up and bailed out the next day. (Excuse the agriculture metaphors). This on the whole is now a faded black and white photograph, a heritage memory, the result, one could suggest, of the massive increase in the student population, the demise of football violence, but also the ever increasing multitude of large groups of visiting pissed ladies and gents dressed up to the nine pins and wanting to PARTY not fight. Apparently according to Guardian readers, Newcastle is now the leisure destination of PLC UK, if not the world. (I wasn’t aware Guardian readers visited Newcastle, but who would dare call a statistic a lie, eh?)
It could be argued that the neighbouring city of Sunderland may need to get into the PARTY before it bids for the City of Culture, as if reports can be believed, it still harbours (excuse the pun) a deep desire for this heritage ‘agro-culture’, I believe cleverly missed by the gracious Grayson Perry on her manicured cultural investigation tour of the UK. But hey, that might just tip the balance in its favour; one culture is as good as another you could argue, or is it? So good luck with the launch party on the 18th September, but I’d take your helmets just in case.
Finally, I could write an essay on the influence that the then, 1976 sub/anti – culture Punk movement had on the rest of my life, but I will refrain. However, in the context of this blog, the influence this unfunded ‘culture’ had on music, fashion, attitude, politics even art was in my opinion immense and still reverberates, especially in my life, nearly 40 years on. This movement was labelled subversive and a grave danger to ‘decent British values’…GREAT… where did it all go wrong? As the ‘decent British values’ are unfortunately still very much with us making the poor –poorer and the rich richer, in life and in Art.
PS. ‘Critical Mass’ – God dam buzzwords and phrases that become all the rage for a blink of an eye are a pain in the posterior as far as I’m concerned and do little to add to any intellectual or other conversations. I always related ‘critical mass’ to the realm of nuclear physics not art, so I was baffled to hear it repeated over and over again during the day. I later found out that it also means …’the minimum size of amount of resources required to start and maintain a venture’. Then it all made complete sense…