Monday, 13 December 2010

Wider Reading | Art + Protest, Protest + Art

With so much having already been said about Thursday's protests, and proper comment basically now impossible because of the shrillness of the subsequent clamour – because Churchill, Charles and the Cenotaph have somehow become words one is obliged to wade through on their way to making a point about, y'know, something entirely unrelated to Racist Winston, the Monarchy or War, which is in itself a chilling testament to the British establishment's still archaically rotten core  we thought it would be more useful (and, indeed, appropriate for the site) to commission this, a little write-up from a friend of ours involved in the Turner Prize protest by art school students from Goldsmith's, St. Martin's, Camberwell etc. a week ago. Their stand entailed a much more sophisticated enjambement of culture, protest and imagination than, say, the invasion of the National Gallery on Thursday (pictured above) and should not, therefore, be forgot because some bloke did his best to poke Camilla (a practice Charlie would, let's face it, be a hypocrite to criticise) a couple days later. The fact that it doesn't fit conveniently into the tabloid narrative of 'rent-a-mobs and hardcore leftists' means it probably will, unless read-by-millions websites like Silkworms Ink step in. Over to Lauren:

Recently there has been much patronising talk of protest being a ‘right of passage’ amongst students. I was horrified and dismayed by a recent debate on Newsnight involving two students from Cambridge University, in which the clueless presenter insinuated that occupations by students at the Cambridge campus, and other universities across the country, were merely a stereotypical phase that would be grown out of: that as a student 'you have to go on a protest.' God forbid that as young, educated adults, we have collectively gathered to voice our genuine, thought-through beliefs and fears of the impact that the tripling of university fees will have on students, and society as a whole.

But the beginning of last week filled myself and others with optimism – that there are people out there listening to, and supporting us. In the morning I received an email from a fellow student at Chelsea College of Art, explaining details of a ‘teach-in’ that was to take place during the Turner Prize award ceremony. At 5pm, a large group congregated at the Fiona Banner installation, and the teach-in began, hosted by lecturers volunteering their time to speak about the impact of the proposed cuts to art education. 

The action was a far cry from the violent scenes previously depicted by the media. At first all was calm, as students gathered around the speakers like campers to a burning fire, and listened to their words as the sound of a Mark Wallinger work floated over in accompaniment. And numbers grew, as the public joined the crowd.

The atmosphere soon turned from calm to clamourous as staff, having failed to remove us from the building, erected a makeshift barrier to hide us away from the rich, middle-class, art-world elites, who were beginning to trickle inside. Two very brave students posed as life models, wearing dunce hats and not much else, contributing humour and laughter to an atmosphere already brimming with a feeling of togetherness and solidarity: a vast contrast to the hate-filled images of recent student marches. Though out of sight, we were determined to be heard, shouting the points included in the various student occupations' manifestos – and drowning out Miuccia Prada, as she awarded the Turner Prize, for, ironically, a poignantly delicate and gentle sound installation.

I personally felt demoralised after the previous student demonstrations, as the only response we collectively received was a biased, sensationalised portrayal that focused on the violence of a minority. But at Tate Britain, we received huge support from those attending, including Nicolas Serota, Susan Philipsz and Anjalika Sagar of the Otilith Group (who gave a speech outside with words of encouragement). It was amazing to hear that our message was getting through, and being understood, and celebrated rather than twisted. Excitement and hope amongst everyone grew and grew into a triumphant crescendo. Throughout the campaign the notion of ‘solidarity' had been thrown around in great quantities, and for the first time, I truly realised the importance and power of its meaning.

The impact of cuts to the arts, and art education, will be disastrous, creating a Fordist system in which children from a privileged, elite background are moulded and spat out to create products for a luxury commodity market. Stealing some words from my lecturer Dan Smith, 'We are here because we believe in art, we believe in culture, and we believe in how art can be a force to challenge as well as to enrich culture.'

I’d like to conclude with some wise words from comedian Stewart Lee, whose views on the arts sum up their importance far more eloquently than I could. The vote on Thursday may not have gone our way, but we’re by no means ready to give up just yet.

Lauren Houlton

To read Penny Red's take on the same protest, head this way. For imaginative writing about the protests generally, Penny is an excellent starting-point, however irritating you find aspects of her approach.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo. Cheerful, articulate sit-ins like these are a potential antidote to the negative media coverage. Very fine article, though I'm not entirely sure that drowning out an old lady is in itself a cause for pride.