"Is art accessible to all?" The Shady Series pt. 3

In part three of the Shady Series, we’re discussing accessibility in the art world, from the barriers that prevent some from engaging to how openly we are welcomed in experiencing it. Is it a case of having art education for all, where art can be viewed or intimidating reception desks? 

In this episode, we hear about taking mums to commercial art galleries, door bells and ejaculating over the canvas. 

CSM Degree Show 1 - Fine Art, May 2016

CSM Degree Show 1 - Fine Art, May 2016

HJC: The only interview I can think of is, a discussion with Tracey Emin when she comes on and her fingers are all bust up and she's like, "I'm leaving! I'm going to be with my friends and family! They love me, you guys this isn't even real, I'm going." 

AS: It was the Turner Prize discussion, she's at her best in those sorts of contexts, it's a complete two fingers up to the whole scenario. It's her at her most Tracy. 

AS: Alex Schady, Programme Director for Fine Arts
AM: Andrew Mallinson, from BA Fine Arts 3D
HR: Hollie Ralphson, from BA Fine Arts 3D
SG: Sally Gorham, from BA Fine Arts 2D
HJC: Hailey Jane Chapman, from BA Fine Arts 2D
VY: Victoria Young, from BA Fine Arts 3D
GC: Georgia Clayton, from BA Fine Arts XD
TB: Tom Ball from, 3D Fine Art
TC: Tom Coates from, XD Fine Art
JH: Jess Harrison from 4D Fine Art

AS: So, the first question I wanted to ask is: To what extent do we think that the Art world is open to everyone. And I'm not specifying my terms at this point, let's see what people think. 

TB: It really depends on what you mean by the ‘art world’, somebody experiencing something, does that mean they're just seeing it the way that someone sees a piece of graffiti on the way to work. That would be the same as what we think of as ‘being in the art world’. It is an engagement in something. 

AS: So, if we start first with how we might define, the 'art world’. What do we think is the most exclusive version of it? 

AM: When you talk about openness, somewhere like the Tate gallery pride themselves in being very open, with welcoming advertisements. It's not that what you will find in there will be necessarily open, but they do pride themselves on being very open as a gallery and publicly aware. 

SG: Well, some art spaces are equally exclusive but in a different way. 

AM: Within those institutions?

SG: No. Only if you are in the art world, like an art student or connected, can you actually even know where those art spaces are. At least with the commercial galleries, they're on a main street and if you dare to walk in the door they're actually quite welcoming. And, they will talk to you about the work. Whereas if you go into an art space, you normally don't even know where it is. Some of those artist-run art spaces are in obscure locations. You have to know when they're open, they're actually quite difficult for an ordinary person to access. 

AM: In a sense, they’re ‘art for artists’ and commercial galleries are for the public.

The Cross+ng: If you could just explain to me, what does a ‘very commercial gallery mean’?

AM: Like the Halcyon Gallery, the work you would see in there is really all intended for sale. It’s not always extremely conceptual, challenging or it’s just very commercially viable work.  

AS: So instantly, that becomes problematic. What are the barriers that might be placed to access art in a range of contexts, for the general public? I'll leave that as an open term for now.

JH: I suppose one way of thinking about it is in terms of education. People like my mum and dad, aren't sort of engaged with contemporary art but would say that they have an interest in art. They know what type of art they would be interested in when they go to see it. When you open up this doorway to contemporary art, which isn't as understood outside of the art circle, how does someone go and discover that for themselves, when they don't really know what that is yet or how to sort of infiltrate that. How do you then allow access to it? 

TB: Is that a problem with the language then? It's abstracted language that is not used within the wider context of everything, not surmountable by everyone. It is encrypted, so the reading of whatever is within these spaces. Even if they talk to you in private galleries, the language they use is lofty, there's a barrier there to understanding it. 

AS: Are you talking about the language of say, the press releases? Or the language that people speak inherently in the work itself? 

TB: It's everything that surrounds the art world, everything that is encrypted and it wants to be lofty. It wants to be viewed in this different respect. In this different world. Almost a dream-like world, the language which is sort of posed against it or with it is not accessible at all

VY: I agree. I actually did a publication last year where I asked my parents to critically analyse my work. First of all, they didn't actually know what 'critically' meant. So, it was kind of going back to the idea of when CSM used to bring in taxi drivers to look at the work and get this different perspective. I told them what other students or lecturers would say when they critically analyse my work and they said there was such a vast difference between these people trying to understand and those people who understand. It's a lot to do with the education and I feel there should be a way for the education to be more accessible.

AM: We're taught to understand art and it’s something that my mum doesn't have, she doesn't have a way to access art. So, when I take her to the Tate, she might react more emotionally or physically but - when she sees something highly conceptual she kind of becomes alienated. And, that comes again from the language. 

TB: It's funny how we sort of compare ourselves to our mums or dads. Do they not have any critical analysis at all? Or, do they critique something completely differently from us? And, what sort of language do they start using? It’s horrible to say that only artists critique something, everyone critiques something in a different way, language or form.

The Cross+ng: Does this suggest or not, that you need training to access contemporary art or you shouldn't need it all. 

AM: That's the thing, people think that you do need that. It's not the truth. For example, with my mum, it’s wonderful when I take her somewhere and she has this very raw emotional reaction because sometimes I can get far too wrapped up in it. ‘What is this, what am I looking at?’ We would rather have that pure, visceral feeling. 

SG: That's the best work, when it operates at a number of different levels so even if you are steeped in knowledge, you can get one recessive thing from the work.

AS: Ok, you've all been at this institution for either two or three years because we're talking about education and ostensibly you have been here receiving education of some sort or other. So, to what extent has that education shifted your ability to access or not access things? 

HJC: For instance, talking about big commercial spaces and institutions, when you do your first trip to London and you go to the Tate Modern. From my experience, I went again recently, walking around everything feels more accessible to me now. I feel much more open to the work there because I can actually comprehend this work being made and understand this actually existing. That as a young person, I'm like why not? I can achieve such things when I'm older. I think it's really great to have that feeling. 

AS: So, there seems to be - and I could be wrong here - a consensus around the table that art should be accessible and yet I want to slightly challenge that notion. What I want to pit it against, is a different discipline. If we were talking about say, complex abstract mathematics, we wouldn't be saying that abstract mathematics needs to be accessible to everyone, irrespective of whether they have ever studied Math or not. And yet in Art, we might wish to have Art accessible to all. Is there not a case to say that, actually Art shouldn't be accessible to all if you've never thought about Art. Why should it be accessible? 

JH: We are looking for an answer, when we look at an equation we are expecting an answer from it. It actually took me a long time to learn what an art practice is and why it’s called a practice. I think when you look at artwork you start to realise, you’re not looking at something and expecting an answer back from it. It puts you in a position of questions and then allows you to have a discourse around it. I think when a lot of people maybe don’t have the art education we’re privileged to have had, look at contemporary art work, they might think ‘what does it mean?’ when actually it’s more a questioning of that. We should be questioning art work rather than art work viewing us. Surely the artist doesn’t know why the art work has been made and it’s not knowing that allows the discourse and an engagement around it.

AS: But it’s a fraudulent one. It’s not true that the artist should be seen as completely irrelevant and independent to the art work in most cases, unless the artist is part of the art work, I would say. Because, I think there is a dangerous link that starts to be made, where you imagine that the artist knows the art work more than anybody else. They may not, they may have a version of the knowledge when they created it and they know how to manufacture or make that to get that point. It doesn’t mean that they understand how that work operates in the world and also I think it imagines that the artist understands what they’re doing before they have done it and they may not do that either. I’m always wary, this is my opinion and wouldn’t say this across the arts, a sort of default position of a sort of biographical starting point with the work, knowing of the work before creating is deeply troubling and problematic.

SG: But that seems to put Art, in a different place to virtually anything else I can think of. Because with the vast knowledge of other studies of any sort, you are expected to become more knowledgeable and know about the subject. So, if you’re training to be a musician, you’ve practiced over and over and over again the same piece, to be able to perform it to somebody else’s standard and there is a standard that is sort of measurable and known. And that seems to me to be something that doesn’t exist, in quite the same way, in contemporary art because it is so much about that rather precarious balance between what the artist is putting in, what the viewer is seeing and the object itself.

AS: I think that gets to the core of a question about accessibility. I would say that one of the key factors in making people feel removed from art is a sense of fear, that they are not in a position to judge it or that it’s not been judged by somebody else so they know its proper five-star stuff. They have to make their own judgement; they don’t know whether they’re being conned or not and there is this sort of anxiety that can come in there. “I’m not in a position to make a judgement because I don’t have an art education” is a particular fear that I think does hamper people from accessing work and having that gut emotional response that we were talking about earlier.

HJC: That’s so true. I think a lot of people forget that everyone has an opinion and that opinion is always relevant no matter who you are. Once you get to the setting of an art gallery, you know the atmosphere is shifted, it usually can be quite cold and there is not necessarily much conversation happening. People are scared of what you might overhear them saying and then you end up judging them. You see the child in the gallery and they’re reacting emotionally. Why can’t you go into something without knowing and experience it like you do with other experiences in life? 

TC: I’ve gone through so many galleries and overheard conversations, “Yeah, but what do you think the Artist wants us to think?” It almost puts someone on a pedestal. We’re like a puppeteer line doing exactly what the artist wants us to do.

HR: I think the one thing in a gallery that frustrates me is, usually, the big piece of text that tells us to think the way they do.

AM: For me the Lisson Gallery, the text that goes along with their show is impenetrable! They’re just four pages of crap! Alex, what you were saying before about that fear – we have that fear of making work! So, it’s just a mirrored process. I don’t think I’m ever going to make a piece of work and think this is going to be fun because you’re just as scared making it as you are looking at art.    

SG: But, we’re talking about the public, not actually people who go to galleries. So, we’re already way up the hierarchy because actually the vast majority of people never get anywhere near a gallery and the best they’re ever going to are on a TV, or in a glossy magazine. For those people, I don’t think it’s about fear I think it’s actually their life is just so much about dealing with the basics. They haven’t got the space or the time to think about art.

AS: Well, I wonder about that. I think they access art differently, by going to the local shop and picking up a poster. Or, by having something that they found someplace and it was framed and they’ve inherited it. There are different ways of accessing it, those are works that might not exist comfortably. The reasons why those art worlds create those hierarchies is perhaps because of money. But as artists, we should be willing to cut across those hierarchies, what other duties do we have as makers of work in accessibility? Or do we just throw it out there?

HJC: Yeah, we have to make it accessible I guess.

AS: To who?

Chapman: I think that’s a personal decision, that relates to your practice. For me personally, I would like to make it as accessible to everyone as possible but I do agree with Sally’s point. There are people, many people, who are perhaps working class and don’t actually have the time to go to galleries or do these things. I’m talking about galleries again, but that is often where we see art or think of art. I think that this accessibility does come down to the patriarchal system. Art is a reflection of society and vice versa. In galleries, a lot like Tate, are paintings and painting on canvas, male paintings on canvas and these things are the result of the patriarchal system; this is where accessibility comes in too. Am I welcomed into that space, as a young woman necessarily, am I reflected in that space? So, why would I necessarily want to enter that space if I don’t feel I am represented there, or welcomed.

AS: So, that is big, white men ejaculating over the canvas, their innermost anxiety presents a particular romantic notion of art that is embedded within a patriarchal system, I guess.

TC: Isn’t it quite interesting the fact that everyone around here calls themselves artists and those who are not around here are merely called viewers. But the people who go to galleries, the viewers, where do they cross the line where they actually become artists.

AS: Well, I would say that perhaps all we can do with that is say that at a particular moment, in a particular context you inhabit one or other of those roles more prominently. So perhaps, when in a gallery faced with work, I become a viewer.

TC: I have actually thought about this a lot. I don’t always feel entirely comfortable with that title.

AS: Artists or viewers?

TC: Artists.

AS: Does anybody here feel comfortable with that title?

[Collective “no”]

TC: I feel that there are some people in this building who very much like that title.

[Everyone laughs]

AS: So, if as makers we understand that there’s this danger of exclusivity. What strategies can we employ to cut against that, to not make art elite? Unless we do want to mark our art elitist…but if we don’t, what strategies can we employ or have we employed? Because all of you are in the business of getting stuff out there in different ways and different contexts.

SG: I made an art work in the shopping centre. I got it ¾ finished. They were life-sized figures made of plaster -  there was mother, father, grandmother on a zimmer frame and baby in the pushchair. I took it into the shopping centre in Harlow and spent three days finishing it off, with everybody watching and it was sort of playing off of Henry Moore’s family group.

AS: What made it accessible to people do you think?

SG: There were just lots of people passing by, some people just wanted to have their photograph taken with it and wanted to know how I had made them. People wanted to know why I had made them. I was able to talk to them about the town sculpture collection and a bit more about the history.

The Cross+ng: What’s the likelihood that as artists you can engage directly with the audience with no gallery, with no distribution channel, with no curator, you know the press release about your work, et cetera?

AM: It’s very difficult, when you start to think about placing a set of rules or guidelines or a kind of prescription to your work before you’ve even made it -  then its problematic.

I think if we spoke about Art education, how it can become more accessible in a sense, you have to think about art education back even further than you would. When I was a child in primary school, I wasn’t getting art education. So why can’t there be a question of bringing an art education into schools? Can’t we start it younger so that we are more aware?

AS: This is something that all of us have to acknowledge; there is currently a systematic assault on arts education in this country. From primary, secondary school, higher education and further education – it is being decimated. Gallery education - projects that used to exist within these contexts, are being removed. Often what’s interesting between a broad education context, is how art and other disciplines can actually combine in interesting ways and complement each other; this is being removed and is deeply troubling.

The Cross+ng: Which translated means that already, being a student in an arts education system, it is in itself a deterring choice.

AS: It is becoming a harder choice because we are at the point where we might choose an arts education but we’re likely to have had less exposure to art within a conventional educational system. 

The Cross+ng: So, access problems start way earlier.

TB: That access point that you made is really key if you look back at our childhood, we had kind of arts education but we were never aware of it at all. That awareness needs to be brought in. At the moment, it’s almost hidden. I had no clue what I was doing at a young age in arts, I was not aware of it.

AS: And we know, that diversity is increasingly becoming a problem at higher education and fine art has a very particular problem in that. I think that is two-fold, one to do with education and two to do with the art world, is perhaps beyond arts education and is not as diverse as it should be. There are questions for us all to answer in that, what is it that we can do to address that?

HJC: It’s again, for me, it’s just a reflection of the world, of the place that we live and going back to Sally, when she was talking about building her work in a shopping centre – I think the point of seeing an artist in action, seeing someone actually make something makes it so much more accessible.

The Cross+ng: When you enter a gallery, you automatically feel like, there is an etiquette that makes you check up on others and what they’re saying. People don’t just openly speak or react to the art. Why is that?

HJC: It comes from the bourgeoisie. Come on, we’re only in the 21st century now, and in the last 100 years’ art has amazingly shifted! But we’re still in this! We’re talking about the word artist and claiming It for ourselves, why can’t we say that we’re artists and why are we taking the point so seriously. When I was in France this year, the students in the class wouldn’t claim the word artist, they’re just students.

VY: I just want to go back to thinking about people and the access of art. For me, Art is about expression, me being a maker, maybe not making it such as Damien Hirst but being in this system that I loved being in; to be in a studio. So then, there’s that question of do we make art accessible through money and education in that way, or does that then change what we are doing right now?

AS: I guess there are two questions there that are interesting. The first is one around whether Art as an experience is accessible to people. The second, is art education accessible to people? I think they’re quite distinct questions, to be addressed differently.

If we could just finish with some anecdotes. If we’re talking about exclusivity, can anyone pitch in any fearful experiences they’ve had where they felt excluded or rejected by art, the art world or an art piece.

VY: It’s the front desk. I find that when you go into these commercial galleries, there’s a desk and people sit at that desk. They look like they’re doing absolutely nothing, except judging you. It’s almost like this desk is there to suss out who should be there and who shouldn’t.

AM: I had a really fun, almost fingers up at it, experience. The Halcyon Gallery on Bond Street, very commercial gallery. It was four years ago, I walked into the gallery and it was the guy right at the front door handing out champagne because they had an event on. And I could just see the gallery people staring at me, you just watch them judging you. They are very intimidating spaces.

HJC: It could be every time, at some point or another, I’ve had this feeling of distance. And you know, I agree the front desk – you can’t even find the door half the time – or there’s a bell. Then you get in there and they are most of the time, cold-faced, make you feel distant, and what happened to customer service?