Can Art be for All? A Suburban Gallery believes it can.

A Multi-Panel depiction of "The Altar of Earthly Immolation" by Alex Singleton -at Westbury Gallery Oxford
A Multi-Panel depiction of “The Altar of Earthly Immolation” by Alex Singleton -at Westbury Gallery Oxford

If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.”

Arnold Schoenberg

Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART. This most modern art discipline – Social Sculpture/Social Architecture – will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism.”

Joseph Beuys

For many who have spent years honing their skills of expression in a particular discipline the ideas of Schoenberg may seem much more sympathetic than those of Beuys. However I will argue that Beuys’ assertion does not take away the need to dedicate to a chosen form of expression and does not imply that community art means ‘anything goes’ as denigrators would have us believe.

In fact the opposite. The more people realise their creative potential in what they choose to do within society and respect and debate and nourish the creativity of others, the more we can have a functioning democracy of mutual respect for human endeavour. And without that equality of creative expression and understanding we risk continuing in the malaise of the decline of capitalist society into a septic monoculture of unbridled consumption and destruction that seeks to extinguish the natural world as well as the unnatural world it has engendered.

The Need for Art for All

But is creative expression as important as provision of food, health and housing? Don’t we have to satisfy those wants before we need to satisfy any desire for artistic output?  Yes creative expression is as important if we see the way we satisfy basic needs as only valid if integrated into forms of creative expression in a broader meaning of that term that Beuys intended. The separation of manual skills from creative skills, as epitomised by the view that denigrates the physicality of craft against the intellectuality of designed art, is a symptom of dysfunction that has enabled so much automation and destruction for profit. Automation has to be designed in to a system for the benefit of all, not allowed free rein in a privatised Wild-West of satisfying corporate greed at the cost of human welfare and environmental desecration. And design has to be challenged and debated.  If we satisfy basic needs without simultaneously satisfying the inherent human need for creative engagement with world and community we are, as Marx would point out, denied a substantive freedom that is integral to human functioning.

The role of traditional ‘plastic’ (3-D as opposed to polythene), visual and sonic arts is equally obfuscated by another hierarchisation in society. The dominant class in the UK educates itself extensively in the arts. At bastions of privilege like the Prime Minister’s Eton College, arts facilities are better funded than at prestigious art colleges and universities. The reason is that art and culture have become a language of power and privilege. Clearly the Etonians and the rest of the elite will be unlikely to create art but they will purchase it and control the dialogue around its value. This is an important role to take on given the lessening of other outlets for social control. Outsider art, plebeian art and the like will only be allowed into the realm of the acceptable when it suits the prevailing elite and their agendas. Admittedly our Culture Secretary Dorries is hardly a promoter of elitism, but the internal civil war in the Tory party between self-serving pragmatist capitalists (albeit with a residual conscience) and insane populists has broken some habits – not necessarily for the better.

If we recognise the human need for creative communication and engagement in craft or art, then that has to be recognised within society at all levels and that recognition must encompass debate and encouragement of all. The right to be creative is a human right as much as the right to housing, health care, education etc.

Furthermore democracy is predicated on education and education is predicated on creative engagement – on play, on design on debate. Clearly the current elite in power want to return to a style of education that stifled the debate and true learning, which is essential for a functioning democracy, except in the elite schools their children attend.

How to promote Outsider Art?

The Westbury People’s Gallery is a gallery in a suburban front garden near Cowley in Oxford. Work is on display which engages passers-by on the street who may also stop for the book share at the front. The space is about sharing with all. This is not an elite gallery where a veneer of affluence excludes all but those with sufficient funds to offset the cost of white wines and olives. It is on a street that is thoroughfare and passers-by are frequently invited in on a casual basis. Set times when artists are around are advertised for open visits.  Much of the work is by dedicated artists who have already honed their skills but still see the value of sharing and debating their work with all interested. The gallery also encourages local submissions. This is different to many funded organisations where a hierarchy has to be promoted that separates the ‘professionals’ (who are paid) from the amateurs (who aren’t).

This is not an answer to the huge problems on this Plague Island of ours and its toxic class-based divide of the arts. Nor of the contemporary plague of human exploitation of the environment through corporate greed.  But it is a direction for others to follow. The Gallery was inspired by the model of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM) who have produced some of the greatest avant-garde musicians in the USA over the past 60 years.

Boris and the Fridge - a Montage at the Westbury Gallery Oxford - Source: Author
Boris and the Fridge – a Montage at the Westbury Gallery Oxford – Source: Author

The Gallery also deliberately eschews seeking any funding, whether from the local council (Labour) or the Arts Council (independent but probably influenced by Tory donors). The Gallery will not be compromised on what it says to whom. A sad decline in the arts in Oxford has seen the scrabbling for funding. There are so many arts organisations in the city who are in constant competition with each other, which now applies to so many charities. The only way to deal with promoting the arts is to work together – something Margaret Thatcher brilliantly engineered to eradicate.

We would like to see ourselves as working in the tradition of Beuys but in a way that reflects our era and our multicultural society. We are dedicated to the crafts we practice and enable and facilitate debate, dialogue and development as equals – for everyone not just ourselves.. We are just those lucky enough to have a chance of working in a craft we choose despite the constraints of wage slavery.

Ed: The Westbury People’s Gallery can be viewed online here.


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