Patricia Ellis has tea with one of Hackney’s most recognized artists, Bob and Roberta Smith, at the (distinctly un-Hackney-like) Ruskin Café on Museum Street, in Bloomsbury. What better place to talk about art, history and politics? Bob orders a pot of English Breakfast, surely a most appropriate beverage with which to toast his Art Party, which is something like the American Tea Party, but with artists and common sense instead of Sarah Palin and rightwing nut-jobs.
Patricia Ellis — It’s Art Party as in shindig and Art Party as in junta – give us the low down.
Bob and Roberta Smith — The Art Party will happen on November 21st. We’re going to get a bus full of artists from London, and students from University of The Arts London, The Cass (where I teach), Leeds College of Art, and a bunch of other places, and we’re going to drive to Scarborough. We’re also going to invite local artists – people who paint landscapes or whatever they do… crafts – to have an art fair. It’s going to be a very broad idea of what art is. So e Baltic will be next to the Sleaford Drawing Society or something. And they’ll all sell things and it will be open to the public. There’ll be lots of performances going on, and screenings. And we’ll have a big party, with lots of music.
We’ll have the Grubby Mitts – Andy Holden’s band, and The Ken Ardley Playboys, The Apathy Band, The Fucks, Gemma Freeman, The Flame Proof Moth, Tim Siddle… plus many more, and local bands as well. And we’ll have speakers.
I should hope so for a concert.
The other kind of speakers… We’re going to make versions of what happens in a normal conference. There’ll be a summit, which will be a sort of mountain top which people have to speak from. Stephen Deuchar, from the Art Fund, is going to speak, and Paul Hobson who used to be at The Cass and is now at Modern Art Oxford, and also hopefully Sonya Boyce.
We’re asking three questions at the Art Party conference. The first is: What first turned you on to art? The second is: How do you think art should be taught in secondary schools (or to children more generally)? One of the outcomes will be the Art Party Curriculum for Art in Schools. We’ll do that in relationship with The National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD). And the third question is: Why do you think art is important?
And you’re going to film it?
That’s the whole point of it all, you see. We’re going to make a 90 minute feature documentary that will tour around the country ever afterwards, telling people why art’s important. So it’s a cunning plan. In the film we’ll have a character called Michael Grove – instead of Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education – and he’s going to give a speech at the Art Party conference; a bit like a tribute act. It’s all a big effort to try and record everyone’s different voices and reasons for why art’s important – to advocate these to the government. What politicians say is that the art community is very good at complaining about cuts but not very good at saying what they want. The point of the Art Party is to genuinely get people outward facing, to say how they want art to be taught in schools and the kind of art provision they want.
It will follow on the Kilkenny Festival, which runs from August to October. I’m having a one person show at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, and in conjunction with that we’re turning the whole of Kilkenny into an art school, so there’s all these different sites across the city where there’ll be different workshops happening. They’re all quite conceptually-minded workshops; it’s not very messy. There’s one about abstraction where people can make their own abstract art. And paint vegetables. But a lot of them are to do with inventing new things. ere’s a bit about drawing, so we’ll be trying to track the paths of bees while they make their way around plants and things like that. Taking photographs of deceased relatives and having conversations with them. It’s going to be fun.
You’re doing workshops at the Art Party as well?
There’ll be a bit of that in the Art Party. The Art Party as an idea has another element to it: it’s looking at artists who are known and interesting that everybody knows about who were around before the YBA thing. I’m thinking about how artists now have to adopt more sustainable models where they have to generate their own interests and reasons for making art, other than ideas about the art market. Though the Art Party will have a big element to it that is an art market, its a big tongue-in-cheek. The idea is to say that there was a really interesting group of artists before YBA happened and now art is becoming more interesting and sustainable in a different way. It’s involving young artists who aren’t really friends with my generation. And we’re going to have all these artists I really liked when I was a student, who perhaps had a bit of a through time through the YBA years. People like the filmmaker John Smith, Cornelia Parker, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Ian Bourn…
Does this stem from your Make Your Own Damn Art manifesto – thinking about art as a democracy?
The Make Your Own Damn Art idea is to not have manifesto. Not to gain power and consensus by corralling people into various different conceptual ideas – it’s about just letting people do their thing. Lots of artists would say they’re not into the hierarchies of art, but I’m genuinely interested in people’s motivations for making art, things like art being therapy and all those kind of things. So this is a bit of a try out to see if that really works as an idea or it that’s too porous and purist and not really interesting. One of the things I feel very much at the moment working in art education is that state-funded art schools’ fees are so expensive they are becoming more and more exclusive, which at the moment is just the wrong thing to be doing. With all the changes to the curriculum it will make art into a subject that is only taught in private schools, like Latin or Greek. It will be a separate language if we’re not careful. It’s a no- brainer, if you want a vibrant commercial economy you need lots of people really versed in art and design to create all that kind of culture.
I find it deeply ironic that, on my lecturer’s salary, I couldn’t afford to study at the university where I teach.
It prevents a whole group of people from going to university. What happened in the ’50s and ’60s in the UK is that education opened up dramatically, and that’s why you’ve got great design, great art, great music in the ’60s – because all the barriers came down. And putting all the barriers back up again is not a very good idea for the economy, or democracy, free speech or freedom of expression. One of the big partners in the Art Party is this group called Index on Censorship; they’ll be flagging up the idea that it’s all about freedom of expression as well. What we want is lots of different viewpoints… why people think art is important – whatever those may be. It could be quite elitist. It could be that people just think art is about experts and collecting, or something. I don’t mind as long as it’s representative. We’re going to make the lm like a road movie caper. I’m hoping it will be like the Spice Girls movies meets Magical Mystery Tour.
There’s something about this sprawling way of working that I’m very drawn to yet suspicious about at the same time. For me, it has a lot to do with contemporary culture, especially the internet’s influence. It has this sort of Wiki mentality whereby everything links up and become a grass roots system that spread out. I’m quite interested in that ‘lowest common denominator’ dynamic in relation to contemporary art. I think it’s got a lot to do with what you were saying about art school – the post-YBA expectations about the art market. There’s a lot of art about that looks like Art with a Capital A – like if you had a prescribed idea of what you thought art should look like, it kind of looks like that.
I agree with you. There isn’t that much experimental art at the moment. I teach at The Cass which is part of London Metropolitan University, which is one of these universities which is sort of frowned upon; UEL is another based in this system – but it’s fantastic and it seems a lot more multicultural than other courses. There are pockets where there’s something really interesting going on. The colleges that you traditionally think of as ‘good’ have put their fees up so much – but good students aren’t necessarily rich students. If you only get the rich students, you miss out. Also, what disturbs me is where are those people going, what are they doing now?
Do you think think that’s something that the Art Party has the potential to do – to bring in people who are considered outsider artists, or from different worlds of art; who maybe aren’t even in art? Maybe art needs a different exposure or infusion to kick start new ideas?
I don’t have any delusional ideas that the Art Party will really change anything. But what I want the lm to do is point all this out and have it there as a question – have it recorded as an artefact that people can go and see. Lots of people in the art world, and in art education, think they’re doing something good, like working for charity or something. But actually, where it’s going at the moment is really not good, and people need to ask themselves these questions – especially the people in power. The Labour Party needs to ask itself a big question about why it asked Lord Browne, who’s a real Mandelsonian guy, to come up with the idea of the fee structure. The Browne Review, and the subsequent bill which the Liberals ended up voting for, needs to be taken apart because in a few years time there just won’t be art schools in this country. They will evaporate. That applies across the humanities – languages, philosophy departments, they’re all merging and closing down because there’s no way that students will take the risk of doing those kinds of degrees. Everyone now wants to do their degree in business or something. And doing a degree in business is the worst kind of degree if you want to do business. You want to be a well educated person who can read and write, who’s maybe studied English or Art History or something. If you make all the courses really vocational or high end, you wreck the structure of it. So that needs to be completely rethought. I want to make a film that states all that gently, in a jolly sort of way; I don’t want anyone to start throwing bricks through windows. But I do want to make it clear that it’s all gone a bit wrong.
This idea of power underlies all your work – Make Your Own Damn Art; Women Should Be In Charge; I Should Be In Charge…
Women Should Be In Charge was good. It was at the time the Liberals tried to get their proportional representation bit through. That was complete nonsense. Really, what we need is real proportional representation, which wouldn’t be about parties: it would be about groups of people. It would be 50% women in parliament, without positive discrimination. What you’d need to do is have two constituencies, and you’d elect a man and a woman to the two constituencies. You’d connect those people through larger constituencies, and in those groupings you’d have an elected man and a woman. Instantly it wouldn’t be about positive discrimination, it would simply be about representation.
People tend to think of politics as a professionalised field. The idea that politics is of the everyday – it’s something that anyone can do – has become a forgotten concept.
Absolutely. I was talking to Shami Chakrabarti the other day and her thing is she’s always asked which side she’s on – why aren’t you on the Left ? And her whole point is that once you say you’re on one of their sides you get co-opted into their power. The point is to put pressure on all sides all the time. It’s just the people who are in power. If it’s Labour politicians, its benign, useless cabbages; if its Tory politicians, they’re cabbages, but not so benign. They’re rather purposeful and want things to be different. So I think it’s about putting pressure on power – not so much on the Le or Right, just asking difficult questions. That’s why I’m interested in power, to devise these questions.