Can art really be for everyone? Artistic director and curator of Art Turning Left at Tate Liverpool, Francesco Manacorda invites you to think differently about the idea of ‘art for all’ and share your view
During the preparations for Art Turning Left we researched how values linked to the political left kept influencing artists. We looked in particular at equality, the primacy of the collective over the individual and the search for alternative economies. Collectivism seemed to us an important aspiration both in the moment of making – with artists setting up collaborative practices – but also when the public encounters the work. The notion of collective reception is a powerful concern that artists have attempted to resolve through a variety of techniques: extraordinary use of public space (such as in the reproduction of Walter Crane’s images on union banners), by bringing art to a larger group of ‘users’ (for instance in the Bauhaus’s use of industrial production or through community engagement such as the Hackney Flashers’ travelling shows), or using live performance and publications to stimulate the viewer as an active reader of art, as with Bertold Brecht’s theatre and poetry. The principle of art being for everyone is fundamental to Tate’s mission and ethos, and this show has been an occasion to learn from artists’ different ways of achieving this aim.
Brecht in particular inspired our curatorial work and the way we constructed the exhibition. His theatrical technique of ‘defamiliarisation’ or ‘distantiation’ – Brecht employed various methods to restrict audiences from passively identifying with characters in his plays – was designed to break the illusion and unity of storytelling to activate the public’s curiosity and invite them to take a position over what they are watching. For example, in his plays the narrative would be interrupted by questions addressed directly to the spectators or by placards on stage explaining the play or giving out instructions. Actors speaking in the third person about their roles or swapping roles – regardless of genders – were other effective procedures to surprise viewers. Brecht’s original layouts for the War Primer 1955 included in Art Turning Left use these techniques by juxtaposing war photographs with poetry thus encouraging viewers to abandon conventional reading of the image and rethink its role in society.
We debated at our curatorial meetings how to translate these strategies into the display of the works, as well as in the construction of exhibition narrative, and we opted for two different principles: superficial incoherence amongst works in the same room and the prevalence of questions over answers in the wall texts. Works in the exhibition are gathered under headings in the form of questions – such as the title of this blog – and, in order to testify to the variety of possible answers to the same question, visitors can find close to each other such diverse materials as Situationist collages and a studio copy of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat 1793. Our intention is to experiment with how exhibitions talk to the public in order to invite, through a form of ‘distantiation’, our audience to reflect and ask their own questions in response to the works on display. It is a new way of thinking for us and we hope this will activate curiosity and innovative responses. We would love to hear your thoughts on our new approach, either via the comments section here, or on Twitter and Facebook.