Thursday, 4 November 2010
In a number of previous posts I have mentioned the value of "the project" as a way of both getting work done, and ensuring that the resulting work has a level of coherence. I don't think anyone who has worked this way would doubt its value. However, there is another kind of project which, in my experience at least, is rather less benign.
From time to time, galleries or arts organisations will request a "project proposal", either directly from selected artists, or by open submission. Before I came to terms with my fate as an Eternal Also Ran, I would usually respond to these invitations, because I thought it might open a magic door into a new life. Ha!
Now, it is a fact that my mental metabolism seems to work somewhat faster than the norm. If my interest is piqued by a subject, by the next day I'll more or less know what I'd like to do about it. By the end of the week, I'll know what I need to know about it. By the end of the month I'll have come out the other side of my enthusiasm and be looking for something new, unless it's really got its hooks in to me, and has joined the ongoing party of my resident obsessions. Conga! So, I'm a sucker for a project proposal.
For example, back around the year 2000 I was approached directly by a gallery: they liked my work, would I be interested in submitting a proposal for a Year Of The Artist project and exhibition? I explained that I was in full-time employment and anyway did not go in for the kind of work that would tick the "community outreach" box or indeed any of the other bien pensant boxes the Arts Council would require to be ticked in exchange for their cash. No problem, they said. They really, really liked my work.
So, being an idiot, I said OK, and I gave it the full-on treatment. It was quite an exciting prospect. The gallery in question was in a town in the south of England with strong and historic military connections. Hmmm. By the next week I had a fully-fledged project in mind, that could be carried out in the time I had available. It was brilliant, though I say it myself.
It had long puzzled me that, in any town of any size and of any greater antiquity than the New Town I grew up in, certain street names would always be found, especially in those older parts of town where rentable accommodation was to be found. If you are British, and have been a student, I'd bet you knew people who lived in or near Alma Road. Or possibly Inkerman Terrace. I gradually realised that there exists a connection between them -- the Crimean War of 1854-6. This half-forgotten conflict, overshadowed in memory by the Great War of 1914-18, was immensely important in the history of Britain and Europe.
Those roads of modest-but-respectable housing built in the housing boom of the late 1850s often bore names that memorialised the battles and personalities of the Crimea. A roll call of some of those names gives the flavour: Alma, Inkerman, Sebastopol, Balaclava, Raglan, Cardigan. Note also that connection with knitted comfort-wear for cold climates -- balaclava helmets and cardigan sweaters, sometimes with raglan sleeves!
I decided my project would be to photograph in and around those streets in towns with names that derived from the Crimea, looking for ghosts of that long-ago war, that I would connect to our eternal ambivalence about our army and its role in foreign wars started by our politicians. Think Rudyard Kipling's "Tommy". I put together a killer proposal, a statement to end all statements, plus a portfolio that showed I meant business. In military terms, I was pretty sure we'd all be home by Christmas.
But, as any general knows, no plan of action survives first contact with the enemy. Despite the gallery's enthusiasm, just as I predicted, the Arts Council weren't having it -- my project ticked none of their boxes. In the end, the money went to precisely the kind of forgettable "community photography" project that gives publicly-funded art a bad name. In this man's army, at least.
There were other similar "project proposals", too, none of which came to anything, and I -- like most losers in what are, in effect, competitions -- ended up looking on both the winners and their sponsors with a jaundiced eye. Sour grapes aside, I think the problem is the way a "curator's view" (thematic, thought-through, neat, after the fact) gets superimposed on a "producer's view" and distorts it, by demanding a degree of forethought and deliberation which is inimical to the production of anything except conceptual work or community projects.
In the end, those galleries and organisations which commission new work to order by judging competitive artists' submissions (rather than looking for coherent bodies of finished work) have the same relationship to those artists as Tesco does to its producers, and it's just as unhealthy and one-sided. If Tesco wants blemish-free apples, that's what Tesco gets. At the risk of sounding like a free-market libertarian, I think a whole generation of artistic work has been corrupted by competition for public subsidy distributed by committees. If you have to spend your creative life trying to second-guess committees, you end up with no real creative life left at all.
Despite the senseless slaughter, a number of good things came out of the Crimean War, apart from the knitwear. One of them was putting an end to the corruption, inefficiency and sheer military stupidity engendered by the sale of commissions in the British Army. I'm just saying. Stand easy!