Effective Public Engagement

Brian Cox. Now there is a man who has, for better or for worse, had an impact on telly science. He is known and admired for his uncanny ability to engage the general public in (albeit simplified versions of) the major scientific theories and developments of our times as well as the supposed effect he has on the nation’s mums. He is archetypal of a certain kind of factual TV personality.

I recently killed some time on a train journey to Sheffield watching the first episode of his new series, Science Britannica, on the real “Frankenstein’s monsters” of the scientific world; the ethically dubious tactics scientists have employed in the name of progress and the progressions that have been misused in the name of the ethically dubious: the atomic bomb, grave robbing, GM crops, animal testing, et al. He notes that some very real and grotesque crimes have undoubtedly led to scientific advances which have not only improved but saved lives. Whether, for example, the deaths of 100 or so monkeys justifies the saved lives of 100,000 humans is apparently subjective, and so the debate carries on.

One cause Cox attributes to some of science’s PR disasters is a failure to adequately present the facts to a reasonably sceptical public, and an unreasonable and scaremongering media. He argues that the current scientific landscape might look slightly different were it not for these publicity faux-pas. Using an away day appropriate phrase, he terms what is required to counteract these problems as “effective public engagement”.

It’s a common issue in our culture and indeed any public sector within society: how does an insular group of trained professionals doing things that will impact all of us show those who do not possess the same knowledge or training as themselves that what they’re doing is for the benefit of all? How should this insular group react when the public believes that, despite their hopefully good intentions, what they’re doing is wrong?

The spectrum of public scepticism in this county is both an infamous breeding ground for bigotry and the cornerstone of any active and free democracy. It is inherently tied to and most visible within British politics where public opinion is to all politicians what the rock was to Sisyphus. Cox details the similar struggles that science has faced, but science is equally lucky to have personalities like his that attempt to instil a level of interest and enthusiasm in those who are not involved in science at an academic level.

Watching Cox I started to think about the visual arts. Is there a Brian Cox of the art world? Who reports our ideas and activities to those who are not directly involved in them? Are there any individuals that we can collectively agree on being adequate art spokespeople for a practical and academic art world?

For a long time I couldn’t think of anyone. There are a number of institutions that engage with the public, but they are faceless. Maybe that is for the best? A spokesperson doesn’t require a face – in the case of Brian Cox I am sure that to many he is first and foremost the Punchable Face of Science and the University of Manchester – and, with the various forms of social media we have at our disposal, many of these faceless institutions at least now have a voice. They also seem to have eyes and ears to some extent, if not quite a recognisable face.

Just last week I engaged with one such institution during an ultimately unnecessary and thankfully shortlived Twitter debate with the ICA in London. In August of this year they launched an online platform called Art Rules. Resembling a Twitter for artists, it calls upon anyone from the established and famous to the opinionated man down the pub to supply their rules (and sometimes non-rules) for art. The scope of these rules is broad, but many focus on the timeless question of “#whatisart” which the ICA conveniently turned into a Twitter hashtag. The hashtag is used to accompany a selection of submitted rules which are posted on their Twitter feed.

The issue I voiced to the ICA was how smug so many of the submissions sound. It is far too easy for me to imagine the submitters behind their computer screens, noses up, sculpting their unpolished micro-turds of pop philosophy with a disproportionate amount of pomposity for the platform they’ve been given. In my initial 140 character tweet I resolved to only use the word “smug” and that was probably for the best.

To my surprise, the ICA replied:

Apologies if that how the conversation comes across, the idea behind it is to get people talking about art in a new way. The Art Rules have only been going since August, and we are very much open to new ideas, any suggestions?

I started to feel guilty about being such a “keyboard warrior” but I stood my ground. My problem was mostly with their choice of question: “what is art” is so limited in scope, patronising almost. In 100 years of modern art, have we not moved beyond that now as a starting point? It seems like the worst question to ask if the desired effect is for people to talk about art in a new way.

They replied again:

Have the question and answer not altered with time and the onset of the digital age? We are trying to open the debate to politics, science and technology. What is art is only the opening question to what we hope will be a wider, inclusive debate.

Undeniably a noble intention. How wide and inclusive a debate can be spawned by a 140 character truism accompanied by the option to agree or disagree I do not know. On one point, though, we agree: the question and answer most certainly have changed and, from where I am standing, it no longer looks like “what is art?” and hasn’t for a long time.

More often than not, art, in the broadest of terms, is defined by its endorsement by an institution like the ICA itself and so to have them ask the question themselves seems most likely to encourage a thought paradox more than anything else. I’m surprised that they still have the patience for it, to be honest. I’m surprised we don’t hear more gallery texts along the lines of: “Yes, there’s an enormous debate around this question. It’s not above you or anything – that would be elitist – but most of it will make you want to use Duchamp’s Fountain to cave some skulls in so let’s just skip it and get to the really interesting stuff, shall we?” I am all for public debate, particularly using an online platform like the ICA has done – let me make that clear. I’m all for informing the public and informing them about a multiplicity of possible views on a subject. But that question. That fucking question.

I do not see how the ICA’s Art Rules project is more interesting or engaging than this Connect Four deconstruction (pictured) spotted at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull to accompany a Martin Creed exhibition recently. Both attempts at public engagement feel as arbitrary as the other. At least Hull’s attempt leaves no room for unattractive and empty posturing as well as betraying the vague whiff of a sense of humour.

There’s a pattern of this amongst British institutions. Explanatory texts in galleries are full of reverence, spoon-feeding the public and limiting, more often than not1, the question of whether something is art to be the full extent of their thoughtful engagement. Even studying an arts degree at university, the depressingly banal retort of “it’s all subjective, man” would ring out frequently as the ultimate rebuttal instead of the start of richer, more substantial debate. Is it any wonder that hope dwindles for art criticism?

We don’t have to move too far from defining what art is to get into more workable territory. “What is art for?” seems like a question that could at least have a concrete and attainable answer but is it really much of an improvement? Let’s allow ourselves a few assumptions. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all art at least has a function and a purpose and debate what that might be. Not all art does, obviously, but we’ve got to start somewhere. We could even limit the question with a few preset conditions. This was recently achieved by an artist who is perhaps the best candidate for art world spokesperson to the general public: Grayson Perry.

His Channel 4 series In The Best Possible Taste can be seen as an investigation of what art is, but he goes further to ask what art might look like through the eyes of Britain’s antiquated and repressive class system. Yes, our class system is “problematic” – there’s that word again – but it exists and each part of it has a very distinct taste that is often the main source of discrimination and judgement for the other two. After spending time with different people and pockets of working, middle and upper class communities, Perry makes art in the form of three tapestries that reflect their daily lives and communitarian concerns.

Sadly, I have not seen an artist lead the way for “effective public engagement” in such a way before or since. Perry has always been an outsider figure of irreverence and perhaps that is why he is resigned to have one daring Channel 4 mini-series and little else – a real shame. I hope he graces our screens again in the future.

The only other sources of engagement comes from critics. Serious ‘Art Criticism’ – with a capital ‘A’ and a capital ‘C’ – seems to be the exclusive territory of academia. However, there are some ripples of change. Art critic and historian James Elkins is someone at the very forefront of breaking down the established artistic canons and practices with an irreverent approach to art theory, practice, criticism and academia in general2. His compendium The State of Art Criticism3 is a fantastic read in particular. Academic in approach and delivery, the wider intentions of the book and its various contributors are outlined by Michael Schreyach in the collection’s opening essay, The Recovery of Criticism:

I wanted to write against the idea that art criticism could – either now or in the future – offer nothing substantive, that is, nothing that would nourish and sustain a prevalent desire on the part of the public for a meaningful engagement with art. 

This is at odds with the limits of criticism set out by Dave Hickey – who is also featured in The State of Art Criticism – in his own book, Air Guitar4. For Hickey, criticism is “the weakest thing you can do in writing […] It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone. It neither saves the things we love (as we would with them saved) not ruins the things we hate.” Hickey is describing the criticism that we know but he does not say that there is no room for an alternative.

Hickey outlines what art criticism cannot do and how recognising that is to find yourself free at last, to write how you want and to write well. Towards the end of his essay, Schreyach describes a similar approach: “if art criticism is in disarray […] the question becomes, is it necessary or advantageous to regularize it as a practice, or indeed, to even agree on its functions?” Is he not saying that the questions “what is art criticism?” and “what is art criticism for?” are ultimately pointless and futile? Is he not saying that writers have much better and more interesting things to spend their time writing about? It may be worth expanding that notion to include art as a whole. I’m sure very few artists spend their dazes contemplating whether what they are doing is art. To do so would surely get in the way of more important and informative questions as well as obstructing the actual act of doing.  It’s about time that the institutions that represent artists acknowledged this and at the very least revealed this to the general public.

Elkins himself has great potential as a spokesperson, for an online audience if not a televisual one. Sadly, besides the legendary Dave Hickey, there are no critics amongst those featured in Elkins’ book that I recognise by name, but that is likely a result of my own ignorance. It shows that he and those like him deserve a much more prominent profile outside of academic circles.

The more I think about this conundrum of the art world’s train wreck of a PR record, the more I wonder if the idea of having our very own Brian Cox is not a horrible, horrible idea. Alan Yentob might be the best comparison to Cox. Sadly, his appearances on our screens as part of the the BBC’s imagine… series are often eye-gougingly pretentious. He is a walking PR train wreck for engagement with the arts, capable of butchering even the most popular of cultural phenomenons. His introduction to the BBC screening of Beyoncé Knowles’ self-aggrandising documentary Life Is But A Dream was perhaps the most horrendous few seconds of television since JFK’s assassination and if it never sees the light of day again we will all be much better for it. Perhaps that’s how Brian Cox comes across to the world’s scientists? He has certainly led the way to a different kind of TV personality which I’m sure has its benefits, but since Cox began appearing beside Dara O’Briain to explain science its hard not to have a mostly negative outlook.

We need some sort of call to arms, so that the Grayson Perry’s and James Elkins’ of this world can come forth and bestow upon us a glimmer of hope; an alternative voice and/or face that shows the disheartened and disillusioned masses that its not all how it appears. The art world isn’t all elitist and posturing. There are those of us who base our entire practices on public engagement and on being very serious about having fun, but when interpretation becomes synonymous with “artwank” or “bullshit” it is evident that somewhere something has gone amiss. Sadly, much like the effects of the studio lights that reflect off Dara O’Briain’s shiny bald head, it is easy to become blind to the good when faced with excessive amounts of the bad and the ugly.

I’m reminded of an article by Steven Wells for the Quietus called Death to Corduroy5 in which he refuses to mourn to deaths of a succession of online music magazines. For Wells they were

not so much the spunky young inheritors of the revolution-spewing underground press of the late 60s and 70s as they were part of a beige-coloured and wilfully underachieving fan/muso mutual masturbation industry that’s been slowly and dismally choking on its own vomit for years.

His description is both hilariously colourful and painfully familiar. The same can be said of the similarly “unreadable and entirely interchangable” independent art and photography magazines that currently infect the nation’s hippest artbook shops and fairs. There are great magazines also. Aperture and Photoworks lead the way, but the majority of what follows behind isn’t worth picking off the bottom of your shoe. They are everywhere and they are unrelenting. To see them so frequently is to wonder why you even bother sticking it out and trying to make something of yourself in this wretched business in the first place. Music and the visual arts are similar industries in this respect: haunted by a crisis of critical judgement and inadequate representatives of all scenes and groups. This sense of doom is far-reaching. It touches the magazines, the galleries, the educational institutions, the festivals and even the artists themselves. What do you expect when so many are put through a mill that consists of all of the above? Few emerge unscathed.

For those expecting some sort of solution to this, I am afraid you won’t be getting one. The very act of being sceptical and having doubt in the powers that be is integral to a progressive society. Considering the current state of things, conservatism is an irrational social affliction. I do have a shortlist of names that I imagine to be a part of a Watchmen-like group of cynics that are dedicated to the cause of fighting against the New (Art) World Order, but at the time of publishing it remains incomplete. Adequate spokespersons are needed, that I’m sure of, although Brian Cox may not be the best example. In the mean time, I cannot hope to write a more fittingly antagonistic conclusion than Steven Wells has already written for his aforementioned essay so I shall shamefully reproduce it here, with all those repressive galleries, institutions and indie art mags in mind:

This is not a solution. The wilfully insipid will always be with us. They will use the internet as both platform and mutual support system. They will thrive and multiply like maggots. I merely argue we should organise and torture and murder them for fun, and be proud of our sport.

I cannot condone murder as an act of effective public engagement, but it might clear the way for representatives of more effective modes of engagement to be put in their place. I’ll draw up a hitlist of names for that purpose later …

1. There are many institutions that are doing brilliant things to engage the public, particularly in a practical way that is of particular interest to me. Engage are an organisation I came across recently that are definitely worth taking a look at if you are also that way inclined. Sadly, it does not seem that such an approach to the arts and art education has reached many mainstream institutions yet. 

2. Elkins’ arguably unorthodox use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads for serious but irreverent debate and criticism is brilliant. Follow the links to his respective profiles. 

3. Available as a PDF here: http://www.tartumuliseb.net/State_of_Art_Criticism.pdf

4. The title essay of Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar is available as a PDF here: http://dcrit.sva.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Air-Guitar.pdf.

5. The Quietus — http://thequietus.com/ — is an online music-centric magazine that, in its short five years of existence, has started to feel like the savour of British music journalism. To commemorate their fifth birthday, the site released an ebook, Point Close All Quotes: A Quietus Anthonology, where Wells’ essay can be read in full. You can buy it from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Point-Close-All-Quotes-ebook/dp/B00EO5C7IK

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