Helen Pheby discusses the role of artists and cultural institutions in helping to change the world.
On 20 February 2018, the UN World Day of Social Justice, around 50 people from different walks of life gathered together at Yorkshire Sculpture Park for an open discussion as to whether artists, cultural organisations and individuals could, and indeed should, try to change the world. The resolution was a resounding yes.
As convenor of the session and representative of YSP I had been apprehensive about the perceived remit of cultural organisations in the world, but the response was encouragement that we do have the power to try to make a difference, and perhaps even a responsibility to do just that.
There are a few ways that we can do this. One is through the artistic programme. Alfred Gell in his seminal text ‘Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory’, written whilst he knew he was terminally ill in 1997, stated “I view art as a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it.”
HP Amar Kanwar, Six Mourners and The One Alone, 2013. Courtesy Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo © Jonty Wilde
So, we can represent work that raises timely debates, or draws attention to issues that we would not otherwise encounter. ‘The Sovereign Forest’ by Amar Kanwar curated by Clare Lilley at YSP in 2012, for example, revealed the impoverished rights of villagers in Odisha, India, who are being forced from their homes and land by multi-national business interests.
Within and beyond our organisations we can also support the strand of contemporary practice variously described as socially engaged or relational aesthetics. Associated with artists such as Jeremy Deller and Rikrit Tiravanija, it is defined by Nicholas Bourriaud as ‘creating utopian moments in the world.’ Whilst laudable it is not without its critics, such as Claire Bishop who has rigorously argued the interventions do not generate a meaningful legacy or effectiveness at policy level.
The expansion in scope and status of learning in cultural organisations over the last 20 years has evolved the sector’s contribution not only to those who participate in their formal learning programmes but also wider communities. For example, to coincide with ‘The Coffin Jump’ by Katrina Palmer at YSP, a forthcoming joint commission with 14-18 NOW, Rachel Massey in the learning team has created a unique programme of outreach with women and children in vulnerable circumstances.
Beyond these defined activities it is also important to consider the wider impact of the presence of cultural organisations in communities and societies. One of the documented barriers to people visiting galleries and museums in Wakefield is “an inability to imagine beyond everyday experience”.
My interest in cultural participation and impact was inspired by two events – the first being advised, with all good intentions, to lower my career expectations in the arts given my background in Wakefield. The other was witnessing a group of teenage boys being turned away at the door of a gallery. This coalesced into a determination to ensure cultural organisations were physically and conceptually spaces for everyone.
It is important to keep in mind that cultural organisations are the result of relatively recent and culturally specific ideas about art, and museums and galleries as its custodians. The British Museum and the Louvre, for example, were established as part of Empire-building politics and the promotion of western civilization as being preeminent in the world. Art, as we understand it, is the manifestation of human creativity particular to our time and place and for several centuries in Europe has been defined as that which is high culture, as opposed to popular or low. It has also been tangled with the acquisition of cultural capital, as described by Pierre Bourdieu, in relation to economic capital, status and the aspirations of the middle classes.
So, we need to be conscious of our baggage and the centuries of elitism that we need to overcome before everyone feels welcome to cross our threshold. We need to be open to, and supportive of, an expanded view of what human creativity might be beyond the western definition of the last few hundred years. We need to be hospitable spaces where creative thinking might be nurtured and so contribute to every aspect of being human.
Crucially, we can be spaces where people who would not usually meet do. Recently, for example, YSP initiated a free art school in Iraq by connecting two partner organisations with symbiotic aspirations. There is also scope, though, if we are hospitable to all in creating situations of disagreement and debate, to step out of echo chambers and test our truths.
This isn’t a radically new or original idea as it echoes Alfred Barr’s founding principle of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929 as being “a laboratory in whose experiments the public is invited to participate”. The notion of an organisation as laboratory is one that gained traction in the 1990s and has been criticised on the grounds that open-ended process doesn’t resolve into ‘art’. But the open work and the finished work need not be mutually exclusive and there is room for coexistence.
Indeed YSP, since it was founded by our Executive Director Peter Murray in 1977, has always been a space for creative process, experiment, risk taking and play. Our founding mission is to be an international centre for the creation, display and appreciation of art. Our roots are in Bretton Hall College and the philosophy of Herbert Read as particularly expressed in ‘Education Through Art’ in 1943, which promotes the idea that every person’s full potential is enabled through a creative approach to learning. And I would say that our understanding of creative potential is openness.
Being open to everyone, being open to ideas, to failure, to debate and challenge. We have tried over the years to very genuinely involve people in creative processes, and to enable creative participation and expression. Whilst some of our static exhibitions are, by their nature, objects on plinths to be viewed, there are also sculptures in the open air that can be touched. Artists work on site, in open conversation with visitors and school groups.
Simon Armitage, YSP’s 2017 poet in residence, has taken a view of the organisation as being a mini kingdom, like Christiana in Denmark, or Glastonbury festival, which opens up an interesting thought. Perhaps if organisations are to change the world they first need to create it within, to establish a set of values, a way of being, which is constantly renewed through its community of participation and makes a difference through its presence.
Portrait Helen Pheby with Martin Boyce 'Souvenir Placards (Standard Edition)' 1993 (C) the artist. Arts Council Collection, gift of Charles Saatchi. Photo (C) Jonty Wilde