In July this year the first Arte Útil Summit was held at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Roughly translating from the Spanish as ‘art as a tool’, Arte Útil is a movement initiated by the artist Tania Bruguera around 10 years ago, but is now emerging as a growing constellation of projects and people from around the world. It proposes moving away from a market-driven, object-based conception to a broader creativity that is fundamental to human activity, with art able to transform ordinary life and effect social change by reconnecting to the world and the concerns of people.
This thinking has challenged the orthodoxies of modern and contemporary art. Although being very old, the idea of art being ‘useful’ is for many an anathema – and it has not been well received in many parts of the art world. This was evidenced by the strong and defensive reaction to Assemble winning the Turner Prize last year, particularly for those heavily invested in a system based on control and connoisseurship. Especially resonant that night was the sight of Muriel Gray, once of acute punkish sensibility, raging at the destruction of art.
But this is an urgent issue, and these are urgent times. I write this in the shadow of Brexit and against a backdrop of precariousness in politics, identity, economics and day-to-day life. By the time this goes to print we could be back on an even keel again, but I doubt it.
We have accommodated disruptive change as part of our modern sensibility. It is even written in the code of modern art itself, in a cycle of revolution and then assimilation into the norm, driving us forward to a hoped for better something else.
This story began around 1848 with European revolutions opening the door to an Age of Capital, dominated by its mercantile classes. This established the system of the modern world as we know it, and subsequently, with a dash of romanticism, our current understanding of art as an autonomous thing, created by genius, mostly distinct from the messy, ordinary world, separated from it by the frame, the museum and the market.
The last chapter of the story began in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which offered a glimpse of a possible future without division and conflict. The End of History was declared. However, the mirage soon vanished as simultaneously we introduced a digitised world and a truly global, exponentially complex marketplace. Art and culture followed this runaway train and we are now seeing it hit the buffers.
The referendum decision for the UK to leave Europe revealed the extent to which these conditions had divided society, into the one per cent, the underclass, the terrorists, the debtors and the creditors, the haves and the have-nots.
I would argue that culture itself, and particularly the visual arts, have been complicit in masking the severity of the social divide. The decision on what is ‘great art’ is inevitably made higher up the chain, and no amount of participation in the agenda will change that. A singular consensus of what art is, who it is for and who decides cannot serve well the plurality of cultures and interests at play out there beyond the gallery. A top-down, almost colonial conception of art has held sway for the past 150 years or so, and it should be at this moment, when the digital age liberates us from centralised power, that we should rethink the art world as a multiplicity of art worlds, driven not by a few, but by the complex networks of communities and constituencies that employ culture on their own terms.
This is the liberation that movements such as Arte Útil offer: to claim user-driven, ground-up versions of artistic activity as a way to enhance the conditions of life and challenge the status quo, to offer a glimpse of another way of doing things.
On this basis it no longer becomes a question of whether we choose to have culture or not, but what kind of culture we want.