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HomeFeaturesEditorial: Art in Liverpool Issue #29, April 2023; A Potted History of...

Editorial: Art in Liverpool Issue #29, April 2023; A Potted History of Value

It’s been over a year since we printed, and it’s not just time we’ve lost. Since Art in Liverpool stopped printing last year, we’ve lost nearly all of our local independent print in this city. The challenges for small-scale, local, dedicated newspapers have risen.

We’re taking a risk in printing again, but we know the impact this paper has, and the impact our friends from other publications did have. For the readers who rely on print, or those who aren’t aware of our digital publications, Art in Liverpool is your window to the art world, and that matters.

It matters because the art world is wrapped up in self-facing audiences whose desire to widen participation is driven largely by their own moral guilt over decades of failing to engage the communities at their doorstep.

Whatever the driving force though, the impact in recent years has been huge, from inviting influencers to press launches, to taking galleries out into communities – particularly those who have hyper-local access challenges thanks to poor public transport and swathes of homes built without driveways. Merseyside residents in those spaces (huge parts of Knowsley, Halton and Sefton in particular) don’t have a simple physical route into the arts – so travelling galleries, ambitious public commissions, and genuinely connected community-facing projects can help, not just to widen participation in buildings-based projects, but in art for the people; art with a purpose.

Taking time away from Art in Liverpool, not through choice, has given me an opportunity to view the art world I work within as an audience member, and revisit more critical ways of assessing the value of art in the modern world.

Value has never been simple to assess, but it goes deeper than quality, audience reach, or outcomes. Value is based in the quality of the impact your work has, regardless of your medium, or your intention. For artists, 2023 should be a time to really stop and process what value their work has on the world around them. For audiences, it should be a time to seek it out.

In the mid-1800s, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood took fine art to new places, geographically and critically. It elevated art into a mode of thinking, rather than a mode of representation, following the lead of their inspiration, the Renaissance – notably Raphael. The movement they sought to argue in favour of was perhaps the birth of true modern art and interdisciplinary understanding.

In the early 1900s, Dadaism questioned the value of art, at all, and has continued to be the foundation of questioning when it comes to the commodification of art. In the mid-1900s Andy Warhol used notions previously explored by the Arts and Crafts Movement, as to how high value could be translated to human experience. Keith Haring did the same thing much more successfully and continued to be a hero for his community throughout.

Since then, art has largely stagnated, and the question of value has been largely diminished to mean impact. Personally, I believe that this is down to the modern methods of funding, ensuring art is designed and planned around impacting subsections of communities. The result is that the artists best placed to add that type of value are pushed out, and the institutions reshape their programming to access those funds.

The patronage, purchase, and passion models of art that were problematic in the 1900s have now been put in competition with each other. 2023 is a time to dive into what art should actually mean in the modern world, and for artists to decide where they, personally, can add value.

From my pedestal, writing about art rather than making it, it’s easy to jump to judgements and potentially unfair conclusions, but the art world we inhabit today isn’t the art world that inspired most of us to become part of it.

Even at school, our experience of art was rarely defined by contemporary painters, sculptors, or crafters, and never performers or critical thinkers. We were indoctrinated by Picasso and cubism, or Dali and surrealism. For audiences, that is largely their defining introduction to the art world too.

So we’re starting, as members of this cultural community, from a skewed perception of what we do. When art is seen by audiences as not being valuable, it is the art of the 1900’s they are referring to, but also the contemporary art world that best fits that model.

For the artists making work to their own tune, engaging critically with their own communities or ideas, that work is often clumsily branded as ‘community art’, and not given the power it should. I believe that is largely down to galleries and museums presenting it in that light, rather than as the true modern art that it is.

We have yet to have a true new renaissance, but looking back to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s attempts to create one, and balancing that with modern shifts in creative practice from artists like Keith Haring or Damien Hirst, whose works, in polarised ways, both sought to address the problems of monetary value and access.  Because the challenges we face in the arts are no longer secondary to the subjects we make work about.

Where art was once ahead of the game on thought, philosophy, and discovery, it is now a way to reflect it. Science and philosophy are now entirely separate fields, with artists exploring both labelled as interdisciplinary. Leonardo Da Vinci, as touched on in the Editorial, was the father of interdisciplinary thinking, but that way of working is so natural to artists that we have lost sight of the value of it.

Community art, as it is largely labelled, when done properly is just as interdisciplinary, and just as based in philosophy and social science as any renaissance work – we just tend not to recognise that. So perhaps we are already in the new renaissance.

While these ideas might seem beyond our remit in Merseyside, it’s important to see this small segment of the art world as a reflective body for at least the UK. We host the UK biennial, and we’re home to several major collections and internationally significant galleries, but we also have some of the oldest studio complexes in the country.

Add to that, that Liverpool was targeted by the Pre-Raphaelites as a city to share work outside of London and as an industrial power. This is a city, and a region that has always been at the heart of culture, and played a large part in both historic milestones and historic atrocities. As artists, whatever our medium, the value of our art is essential to its success – whether that value is only to ourselves and our hyperlocal communities, or to the wider field of creative and cultural thinking.

And within that, particularly for independent galleries or grassroots artists, trying to remain true to your own ideas and shrugging off those who assess value in numbers is essential.

Your value, our value, and the value of the people we make work for and with, is what actually matters. But… we need to be paid. And assessing human value in ways that match or attract financial value is important, because the art world in the UK is primarily assessed on its returns.

A grassroots organisation, for example, is far more likely to attract repeat funding if it can prove that the funding it has already had added more value to the local economy in concrete, financial, terms. That might be by boosting audience numbers, or by encouraging people into work, or back out of personal hardship, mental, physical or otherwise.

Those projects are clearly valuable in all senses, but for those of us running studios and festivals, where the main outputs are based in one particular craft, that value is more about well-being, often in private settings. Patrons buy our paintings, illustrations, ceramics, or sculpture because it speaks to them. That value passes back to the art world by raising the profile of local artists, and ensuring they remain relevant to local audiences. It also has value within the art world by allowing artists the freedom to explore their medium, creating new ways of working that influence the world around them.

That type of value is much harder to be paid for without simply putting a price tag on your work once it’s finished.

For some, that theoretical, ideas-based, work (performance and audio in particular) can lead to significant commissions. Look at Lamin Fofana’s work at Tate Liverpool. An artist whose work has been valued by both Liverpool Biennial and Tate Liverpool with repeat commissions, and now sits in Liverpool’s most major gallery adding value to JMW Turner, whose work is amongst the most financially valuable of all British artists.

For others, those commissions are hard to come by. The patrons are nowhere to be seen. And we remain working as artists, who by all accounts earn (on average) under £6,000 a year from our practice.

If you are feeling undervalued, know that your presence is valued. And know that your voice is valued. Your place in the art world is significant, and how you choose to fund it is your choice. We are all here, trying to find a space that suits us, and we all form a conflicted but collective voice.

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith