I was in Nelson taking a workshop for the fringe festival. Fringe festivals have shows with small casts and minimal sets, usually devised by young performers operating at the fringes of the mainstream, making a sort of living. It’s where I started. Back then we were under the influence of the counter culture, that transnational movement which was anti-war, anti-state, anti-puritan, with a belief in community and a desire to expand consciousness via drug taking or yogi teaching. It eventually succumbed to consumerism and the new right.
The young ones I worked with in Nelson seemed to have more a more basic belief in the aesthetic – truth is beauty and beauty truth. Creativity is therefore good, as is Nature. Society is uptight and Commerce problematic. It is a latter day romanticism; Keats and Wordsworth could be wandering around Golden Bay, falling into aesthetic contemplation.
However, the aesthetic is a troublesome concept. It is usually considered to focus on ideas of proportion, simplicity and harmony. But then the subjectivity of the viewer comes into it. A fighter plane has proportion and harmony – but is it an aesthetic object?
Then there are the Balinese who have no art, but do everything as best they can. The aesthetic and a way of life begin to join. The Victorian equivalent was the aesthetes, who could also be considered spoilt brats.
But what of the politics of this – art as investment and consumer item? How does the exact reproduction differ from the original? What of those artists who deliberately attack the concept of beauty?
It all gets so turgid that Raymond Williams very wisely recommended that we stop worrying about the aesthetic and just accept the human need to create things. Because it doesn’t provide food and shelter, art is useless, but nevertheless, we’ve always created.
Instead, we should look at its purpose, which for Williams, is about identity: art shows a kind of people in a kind of place. And sometimes, other kinds of people in other kinds of places, can, despite the differences, relate to it. Art is quite simply, a vehicle of recognition, fulfilling a deep human need. The task of the critic is to describe the processes, the formation of schools and art organisations, the funding mechanisms and so on.
And it is here, that ideology arrives and sets up camp: in a modern society, who gets the most recognition and who has, and who doesn’t have, access to the processes of recognition? For example, in New Zealand/Aotearoa, at the moment, the democratic, geographic, per head of population funding of art projects by the arts council, amounts to 3.5 million out of a total budget of 50 million. The bulk of funding goes to the main centres to subsidise a middle class, urban-based lifestyle. The Coast receives nothing of this 45 million.
If the whole were distributed per head of population, the Coast would have $270,000 for arts projects. In its current transition that would be huge: art galleries could combine to host shows from elsewhere, workshop programmes, residencies, kids projects, public art… It would be transformative. But no, something fanciful at the Venice Biennale is of greater importance. The Coast kind of people in the Coast kind of place is a resource for the urban visitor, momentarily tired of asphalt and lattes. Our own expression of people and place is irrelevant to the coloniser.