Oakley, Jason: Art in a Time of Transition – A Report

Jason Oakley reports on ‘Art in a Time of Transition’, a panel discussion tackling DIVERSE questions around globalisation, that was held at the VAI Get Together 2014 in association with AICA Ireland, hosted by the irish museum of modern art (Friday 23 May 2014).

The notion that globalisation has wrought geo-political and economic ‘transitions’, is a slippery idea. One might ask, transitions from what and to what? Or indeed when exactly did these changes take place? Perhaps all that’s certain is uncertainty – the unstable market-driven realities of the present. This is the consensus of a growing body of thought that archly labels this transitory condition ‘the contemporary’ (1). Moreover, these thinkers cite a profound contrast between our current resignation to the eternal dominance of commerce and the utopian ambitions of modernism (high or late – call it what you will), that not so long ago dreamed of progress and a better future.

‘Art in a Time of Transition’ the morning session of the VAI / AICA Ireland strand of Visual Artists Ireland 2014 Get Together, was convened to consider art’s place and role within this fluid context – bringing together UK art historian / theorist Paul Wood, together with critic / artist James Merrigan and curator / arts manager Cliodnha Shaffrey. The panellists were invited to consider the following questions ­– Is the present typified by socio-political, economic and environmental crisis? How are current art practice, mediation, curating, criticism and collecting reflecting upon this geo-cultural turmoil? What are the alternatives to neo-liberal blandishments that posit consumerism and capitalism as the eternal order? Critic and academic Declan Long chaired the discussion (2).

In his introductory remarks Long expressed a particular curiosity about the new forms of art practice emerging from current contexts – including the changes taking place within art world systems of subsidy, display and distribution. Key for Long was the dynamic between two classic cultural impulses. On one hand, art as the embodiment of the new, change and ‘becoming’. On the other, art functioning as bearer of continuing values – akin as Long put it, to Robert Frost’s description of poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion”.

Paul Wood playfully hinted that he’d initially considered delivering a five word response to the discussion questions, but that ultimately the “impossibly ambitious” remit of the discussion had left him reluctant to “pontificate about what contemporary artists should or shouldn’t be doing, as those who prescribe moral and political agendas for art have a way of ending up looking silly. Or repressive. Or both”.

Opting instead to concentrate on his own discipline, Wood noted recent calls for developing ‘world art studies’ in light of globalisation. While the underlying impetus seemed positive – the Western academy admitting various indigenous, local or ethnic practices within the scope of art history, Wood sounded some notes of caution. He saw parallels with the tendency of powerful corporate interests to co-opt concepts such as ‘diversity’, ‘reform’ and ‘change’ in order to mask their voracious appetite for new materials and markets. For Wood the only defensible form of world art studies was one that critiqued the academy and the “commodification of intellectual work”.

Wood focussed on the ideas explored in his recent book Western Art and Wider World (3). The text asserts complex historical inter-relationships between Western culture the Orient, Africa and the Middle East. The book’s closing chapters criticise those who try to typify the globalized present – and its contemporary art – as a somehow historically unprecedented and therefore resistant to critiques and analysis in terms as class struggle; equality; human rights; ownership of the means of production / distribution etc.

Wood’s picking apart of claims for the distinctiveness of the multi-disciplinary forms and eclectic pre-occupations of contemporary art, specifically addresses Terry Smith’s assertion that it “can speak to us in some special, direct way, about our experience of living in the present time” (4). As Wood put it in presentation “I do not accept the thesis that contemporary art is qualitatively distinct from the avant-garde tradition, any more than I accept the thesis that our contemporary socio-economic system is categorically distinct from modernity. We inhabit a new phase of capitalism, a term which is strikingly absent from much of the rhetoric of ‘contemporary’. This is not a wholly unprecedented condition”.

Wood typified thinkers like Smith – who’s coined neologisms such as ‘pluralist relativism’ and ‘provisional syntheses’ – as being so wary of ‘totalising narratives’ that they advance almost impotent “theses of the total absence of any underlying stable points of reference and the definition of the present as a state of permanent transition requiring continually provisional responses”.

Wood called for new forms realism in art scholarship and practice, in order to address what he sees as the mystifications at the heart of current thinking around ‘the contemporary’ – “in earlier dark times, Brecht wrote that a properly realist art had to ‘discover the causal complexes of society’ – not its superficial self-representations – and to ‘unmask the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power’. He was not wrong about the task then and he is not wrong now”.

Having emerged as an artist and art critic during the economic crisis, James Merrigan confessed processing a “quite warped” take on the situation. In his mischievously titled presentation Crisis is Good – relatively speaking, Merrigan saw the harsh economics realities of the precarious present as spurring innovation, commenting “It might sound nihilistic or insensitive, but I like the idea of re-cycling – it’s like a change of cabinet, new artists, new institutions every 5 years or so. Things seem to get stale otherwise. The idea of making a career is very bad for artists and art institutions.”

As a case in point, Merrigan noted how he’d ceased working as an artist in 2012, five years after graduating from NCAD in 2008. He recounted that on his first day at the college, he and his peers were told not to think of art as a career. Merrigan was profoundly struck by the idea, as confessed that he was always ready to quit his making-practice when he “felt bored”.

Merrigan asserted an interest in the new and innovative responses to the crisis and stressed a sense of forward movement apparent in the Irish art scene over the last five years. As he put it “in this transitional moment, the institutional and amateur elements that compose the local art scene are being forced to rethink their objectives and ambitions”. Within this timeframe Merrigan noted that he had been attracted to artists practices that didn’t explicitly reflect ‘the crisis’ in their work, but rather evidenced changing their exhibition habits and forms of exchange and distribution. As Merrigan noted, since 2008 there had been a flourishing of artist-led spaces, residencies and awards.

Merrigan didn’t believe that consumerism and capitalism were the an unchallengeable eternal reality – “I think artists exist beside politics, ethics and social norms” adding “we certainly don’t value ourselves as producers in monetary terms – I’m still waiting to get some butter with my bread and water”. In conclusion he noted “Perhaps the question we should be asking is how can we support this ‘existing alternative’, by making it more pronounced as educators, commentators and institutions?”

Cliodhna Shaffrey opened her presentation with a clear-eyed analysis “… the nation / welfare state is diminishing and everywhere there is greater precariousness. Real power now resides in the politically uncontrollable global arena of markets and circulation of capital”. Shaffrey augmented this grim diagnosis, with the observation that the proliferation of new museums, biennials and art fairs since the 1990’s, had been concurrent with greater links with big business and co-option of the sector into urban regeneration agendas.

Nonetheless, Shaffrey refused to be pessimistic. She saw a potentially bright future heralded by alternative models and forms of resistance / overcoming, emerging both outside and within mainstream art institutions. Shaffrey noted how recent texts such Nina Möntmann’s The Enterprise of the Art Institution in Late Capitalism and Claire Bishop’s Radical Museology highlighted a range of international art institutions that were successfully resisting the imposition of business and market agendas – including Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Rooseum, Malmö, Van Abbemuseum, Eidhoven; The Reina Sofia, Madrid and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ljublana. These venues shared an interest in mobilizing their permanent collections; engaging in radical education programme; and broadly setting up relations between art and the socio-political issues.

Considering the Irish context, Shaffrey drew attention to the recent flourishing of peer-to-peer exchange groups; small-scale collectives; artist-run spaces; micro institutions, networks, local and grassroots arts; alongside enterprising and progressive public art projects – such as Askeaton Contemporary Arts, Commonage or TRADE in Leitrim.Shaffrey saw the most valuable institutional developments as having taken place in tandem with communities of artists and audiences and that have precipitated clusters of DIY artist initiatives.

But Shaffrey was under no illusions about the fragility of such quasi-institutional models, reliant as they were on voluntary labour and temporary access to low-rent vacant spaces. Shaffrey maintained that public funding was essential and that a better-resourced Arts Council had to be fought for, because “ a move towards a more corporate, private funding model will no doubt cripple experimentation in favour of populist type programming”.

Citing Glasgow as an inspiration, Shaffrey remarked upon the achievement of a post-industrial city with no collector base and a small number of contemporary art institutions, punching above its weight and producing artists and a gallery scene of international standing. Shaffrey attributed the cities success to its convivial, supportive and connected art community, the role of Glasgow School of Art and an underpinning of judicious public funding. In closing Shaffrey saw the fostering of such contexts, as kinds of para-institutions was a worthy goal to pursue – citing Megs Morley’s recent appointment by the Arts Council as curator-in-residence for Galway City (5).

Declan Long deftly chaired the discussion section of the event, distilling the key thrusts of the three presentations, along with the predominant concerns aired by the audience. In line with Long’s opening remarks, the ensuing conversation traversed a range of contexts within which art practices are formed and operate – the shrinking of the state; the instrumentalization of culture; parallels between the ‘precarious’ artist and the neo-liberal entrepreneur; the ‘quantisation’ and commodification of human experience; and ultimately how artists might take control of the narratives of transition for their own ends.

Responding to Cliodhna Shaffrey’s closing points, a speaker from the floor questioned the longevity of the Galway initiative, as the arts were seldom a core remit of local authorities. Shaffrey admitted the situation was challenging – the Arts Council funding for the project was a once off; and what was required was the building of constituencies, Nonetheless Shaffrey reasserted her position that public funding was essential to support risk and experimentation.

Paul Wood, pointed to the paradox of the culturalization of politics and the politicization of culture – ie the rise of governments and other agencies use of the arts as a poor substitute for a viable public sphere and real political action and debate. Wood was also reminded of the oft-repeated adage, that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism’ and noted “We seem to be all talking about collaboration, community and mutuality – which is not the way the world is working right now. Public space is eroded by corporate and private space …”.

An audience member stated that ‘transition’ was a misleadingly benign term – rupture and unsettlement were perhaps better descriptors for the rise of a global corporate culture that sought to quantify and control all human existence, while peddling the circulation of a glut of information and images. Wood concurred with this analysis, but cautioned getting against “swept away by superficial responses – that we are living in unprecedented times”.

Another individual focussed attention on the power dynamics at play in circulating narratives of transition, asking which voices were included and whose were occluded. Picking up Wood’s point about the co-option of language, they emphasised the importance of devising new forms “content is obvious by now, we need of new forms narration, production, theorisation”. The same speaker stressed the need for artists to devise new forms of linking and de-linking from the ‘entangled’ nature of contemporary reality – including that of the art world – governed by corporate / managerial interests. In connection to the latter another audience member made the significant point that the emergence of the idea of an almost self-contained contemporary art-world, had been concurrent with the rise of globalised neo-liberal capitalism.

Cliodna Shaffrey noted that the contemporary artists form / role – a combination of a migrant worker / business innovator – was an all to cosy fit with neo-liberal capitalisms requirements for independent flexible workers, who endlessly compete within an economy of over-supply.

Wood admitted he was suspicious of the form / role of the curator acting as a “corporate cultural manager”. But on balance, he saw tremendous value in “cultural operators broadening their role and the blurring of lines of possibility”. By way of example, Wood mentioned how he’d found the curation of information areas relating to journals; exhibition histories; art market economics and biennales, that accompanied the 2011 exhibitionThe Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989’ ZKM Museum Karlsruhe, anespecially compelling discourse on the structures and narratives underpinning contemporary art (6).

Merrigan felt that a key form missing in Ireland was a buoyant commercial art market. In his view, it would provide a healthy alternative to a reliance on public funding and be broadly beneficial for the complexion of the Irish art scene.

Offering a perspective on dominant forms of current and recent Irish art practice, Merrigan typified the current scene as young, driven, innovative artists. He drew attention to a prevailing DIY / ad hoc approach and aesthetic. Not surprisingly in economically challenging times, Merrigan saw artists favouring cheap materials, processes and ways of doing things – putting things together to create alternatives. In parallel, Merrigan compared the form of his online journal Billion to a similar form of art practice – “stumbling through the present and taking risks, not knowing where things are going”.

Calling time, Declan Long admitted one last question, which was a request to Paul Wood to share his succinct answer to the discussions aims of diagnosing the present as a time of crisis; delineating arts response and suggesting alternatives. Providing a more than fitting close to the event, Wood graciously obliged with five words “Yes. Search Me. International Socialism”.

Jason Oakley, Publications Manager, Visual Artists Ireland


Quotes from the speakers are derived from their papers, supplied to the author or transcribed from an audio recording of the discussion. The author was one of the organisers of this event.

1. Some further reading (but not exhaustive) – Questionnaire on The Contemporary, October, Autumn 2009 edition; E-flux Journal 21 (12 / 2010) and E-flux Journal (12 / 1/ 2010)

2. Paul Wood is Senior Lecturer in Art History at the Open University, England. He has published widely in the field of modern and contemporary art, and is co-editor, with Charles Harrison and Jason Gaiger, of the landmark three-volume collection ‘Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing Ideas’. His most recent publication is ‘Western Art and the Wider World’ (Wiley 2014)

Clíodhna Shaffrey, Director TBG+S, Dublin has over 20 years experience working in the arts in Ireland. Most recently she has been Visual Arts Advisor to the Arts Council Ireland (2011 – 2014). Curatorial projects include: ‘Unbuilding’, County Wicklow; ‘BodyCity’, Dublin Docklands Authority; ‘Artist-as-Traveller’; and ‘TRADE’ Leitrim County Council. From 2009 – 2011, Shaffrey worked as part of a team to establish www.publicart.ie. Shaffrey was Arts Officer for Cavan (1990 – 1994) and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown (1994 – 2000)

James Merrigan is an artist and art critic. Merrigan has written for Circa, Fugitive Papers, Occupy Paper, Visual Artists’ Newsletter, A-N Magazine, Aesthetica. Merrigan’s online journal endeavours to “free up the editorial etiquette and standard frameworks for art criticism that one usually works within as an art critic”. www.billionjournal.com

Critic and academic Declan Long is Course Director (with Francis Halsall) of the MA Art in the Contemporary World at NCAD. Long is a reviewer for Artforum, Source Photography and RTE radio and television. In 2013 Long was a member of the judging panel for the Turner Prize.

3. Paul Wood Western Art and the Wider World November 2013, Wiley-Blackwell

4. Quoted by Wood from Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, Lawrence King, 2011

5. https://www.facebook.com/parainstitution/info

6. The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989’ZKM MuseumKarlsruhe, Germany (17 Sept 2011 – 5 Feb 2012)