Lewis Bush

Informing Contexts: Final Thoughts & Future Moves

So this is it, the end of Informing Contexts and the beginning of the final stage of this Masters degree. I can’t believe how quickly we’ve arrived here. I’ve learnt loads, with many of the lessons still being absorbed as I try to understand how to relate the learning to my own practice. I approach the Final Major Project (FMP) with some nervousness, mainly just because I’m not sure what the format of the next few months will be, but I’m also excited by the prospect of hopefully being able to put everything together into a cohesive vision of this project.

A frustration of mine has been that the 12-week module rhythm, with the need to prepare for summative assessments at the end of each one, hasn’t always correlated with the speed at which I’m able to absorb and respond to the lessons I’ve been learning along the way. Often I’ve found myself having the biggest revelations and making the largest steps between the modules, as the absence of course demands gives me the time to reflect, let things sink in and embed into my thought process about what I want to do. Due to the demands of my job, I often feel like I’m just hanging on for dear life during the modules trying to keep up, rather than having space and time to truly assimilate the information and allow my practice to develop. This has been a particular problem during this module as I approach the end of my medical training and so have had the most important exams of my career to prepare for, alongside working and doing this MA. Those demands, as well as my struggle to see a way to move forward with the photography (‘the narrative conundrum’ I think I’m now going to call it!) has meant this has been the module I’ve found most difficult so far. 

As previously, I’m confident that the period immediately after assignment submission (which again coincides with another big work thing) will be a productive one, both in terms of the images I’ll be making as well as in terms of putting a clear plan in place to attack the FMP. It arrives too late to be absolutely reflected in the WIP for this module but, as I’ve written elsewhere, I have a much better sense of the images I want to make and how to hopefully create interesting photographs. I will also be bringing people (and possibly also myself) into the work in some way and have only just been able to start experimenting with this. 

Something else that I’m looking forward to exploring further is the internal environment and how this relates to our experiences of solitude. My work has almost exclusively focused on outdoor urban spaces to this point, but reflecting on how people experience solitude and isolation in many hidden or public indoor places (bedrooms, cars, pubs etc.) and inspired by the work of practitioners such as Lynne Cohen and Andrew Emond I am really keen to explore interior spaces and make this an important part of the work moving forward. This actually now feels like a big omission from the project to date, an oversight on my part, and I envisage interiors becoming increasingly integral to telling the story of urban solitude in my FMP.

The work of Andrew Emond, from his    Objects of Consequence    series 

The work of Andrew Emond, from his Objects of Consequence series 

Despite the misgivings I stated above I do feel I’ve made progress during this module. I’ve continued to write, with more book reviews published and in progress.

My most recent book review on   Shutter Hub

My most recent book review on Shutter Hub

I’m aiming to continue developing this area of my practice. I’m still trying to find a short writing course that I think will help me to develop my writing style and that is feasible for me to do over the next few months alongside all my other commitments. The ones I’ve been interested in so far are either too involved (essentially a writing MA) or too inconsequential to be worthwhile. I’m increasingly of the view that text will be a substantial part of the final work, and though this is not likely to be all my own writing, I do feel I’d benefit from having more competence and confidence in this area. Using practitioners such as David Campany and Lewis Bush as inspiration, I hope to make this a solid strand of my practice moving forward. 

I was happy to be selected as a ‘shortlisted artist’ for the Revolv Collective One Year Open Call which will involve some much welcome social media promotion via their channels and may open further opportunities in the future. I have also entered work into the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 161, with the outcome of shortlisting currently awaited.

I’m looking forward to what I anticipate will be the most intensely rewarding period of the MA to come in the Final Major Project. I feel that my work is on the verge of blossoming into something different and hopefully more compelling. I’m excited about the possibilities ahead and have already begun to consider the future beyond the MA, where I know the work will continue (PhD?). I’m relishing the opportunity to spend more focused time researching, exploring and developing new ideas and creating new connections with the work I have planned (workshops, joint projects with key agencies already involved with issues surrounding loneliness and urban isolation etc.). 

I look forward to discovering where the work will evolve to and how it will broaden out to hopefully include people (of all ages), interiors, exteriors and maybe even some daylight! I am less daunted by the FMP simply because I understand now that my work on this issue will not stop there, and I have a sense of where I will be able to take this work forward in the post-MA world that will soon be a reality.

Let’s get it!

Informing Contexts: Week 10 Reflection

This week’s work was inevitably overshadowed by looming deadlines and other work stresses. The topic however was an interesting one, trying to answer the question of ‘what is art’ and ‘who decides what is good art’? Clearly, they’d decided to leave the easy topics to the end of the module!! 

The work of Rirkrit Tiravanija was introduced, in particular his work ‘Untitled (Free)’, which was originally created in 1992. This work essentially consisted of Tiravanija turning a gallery into a kitchen from which he served free food to visitors. Watching this, my first reactions were ‘Can this be considered art? Why is it art? What’s the idea?’. As I pondered these questions, the video went on to show clips of interviews with patrons who had visited this exhibition and partaken of the food on offer. To my surprise, the reactions from visitors were universally positive, with smiles on faces and people feeling happy and challenged by the new experience they had just had. They had clearly found it memorable. My takeaway from that was that it’s not right to dismiss artistic activity just because one doesn’t understand it, or think it has particular merit. The stance of Marcel Duchamp then, that things were art simply because he declared them to be so, suddenly felt less like a pretentious indulgence and more like the statement of an artist’s manifesto that deserved respect. 

Sam Abell was introduced as the photographer who took the original cowboy photographs that were subsequently ‘appropriated’ by Richard Prince. He discussed his reaction to seeing what amounted to a direct copy of his work being put forward by another practitioner, who attracted both commercial and critical success with an image that Abell had originally created. Most gallingly of all, Prince achieved a level of success that had not been available to Abell in the first place. 

He was amazingly sanguine about it all (much more so than I would have been!), but he raised some really interesting questions about the nature of the art world and how they assign value to certain works over others. He made the point that his original photograph, which had been shot for an advertisement, would never have been welcome in an art context, nor been eligible to be sold at high value, as it was considered ‘only’ an ad image and thus of no real creative or artistic merit. On the other hand, Prince’s facsimile was hailed as a great work of art and sold for millions. Abell calmly questioned the rationale for this. 

To me this example highlights the ridiculous opacity of the ‘art world’ and hints at the idea of a closed and somewhat irrational cabal that holds a disproportionate degree of power over the fortunes of practitioners everywhere. Because the answer to the question ‘who decides what is art, or what is good art’ seems to be a small number of curators/museums/critics whose opinions are not open to challenge or scrutiny and who literally hold the power to bestow success upon someone, or prevent a practitioner from ever rising out of obscurity. This state of affairs is elitist, conspiratorial and self-serving, particularly when you consider the demographics of this group and consider too those who remain perpetually under-represented when these decisions are being made and the prizes handed out. For example, female practitioners and issues relevant to women, people of colour, working class people or their concerns, perspectives from developing nations or cultures with traditions or ideas that do not conform to Western norms, have long been grossly under-represented by the art world.

Lewis Bush recently wrote passionately about the lack of transparency in the circles where these decisions are made, arguing that the opacity surrounding decisions about whose work has merit, who gets to win the prizes and whose careers shall be catapulted forward can hide alarming conflicts of interest that not only threaten the integrity of such awards but also call into question the idea of prize-giving at all in art. 

Lewis Bush's   recent blog   about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

Lewis Bush's recent blog about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

The art establishment is a conservative place stuck in its way of doing things, it is unresponsive to change and operated by people who are predominantly from a very narrow section of society, and yet who somehow retain the responsibility for all of culture and for all aesthetic concerns in our societies. They decide what we should look at and experience and tell us what’s good and what’s not. They get to bestow the title of art on an item and decide if it has value as a commodity, if it can be worth a lot of money or nothing at all. 

Like with most things, the people with power get to decide.

If you’re not in the club, or lack influence, you don’t get a say. You don’t get to decide if something is art or not, you don’t get to decide if something is museum-worthy or not. Your opinion is unimportant, your aesthetic preferences are irrelevant. It’s easy then to see how closely the ‘art world’ mirrors wider society, with inequality of influence, under-representation of minority groups and preservation of power within a small minority of society, to their benefit and the disadvantage of all others.

Art cannot be separated from society. Its influence and importance has long been understood by powerful people, hence the desire to retain control of decisions around what can be valued or acknowledged as art and the prevention, or at least regulation, of true freedom of artistic expression. It’s interesting to note that the degree of regulation of free creative expression rises directly in proportion to the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime. It’s no coincidence that Hitler sought to control the way his subjects viewed art for example, and the Nazi regime systematically stole and destroyed culturally important works. The more recent persecution of Ai Weiwei in China could also be considered in a similar light. We are of course lucky in the UK that things aren’t quite as extreme but that shouldn’t lull us into believing that there isn’t a subconscious agenda at play that might not be working to our advantage as practitioners. Reluctantly, I can’t escape the impression that the British art establishment is a white middle class preserve, and work that originates from a different perspective begins at a disadvantage, though that is not to state that there’s no room for alternative viewpoints.

Reflecting on how this relates to me and my practice, I am ambivalent. I don’t think anything I’ve stated above is outlandish or particularly controversial. I also don’t believe that the prevailing conditions prevent work that doesn’t fit the mould from necessarily being seen or championed by the establishment. In all things, I’m inclined to return to an old maxim, which is that ultimately the primary objective of all practitioners is to make good work and stay as true to oneself as one can while doing so. Any further good that may come as a result is gravy. 

References:

FRIEDMAN, Martin. 2014. ‘“It’s Art If I Say So”: Martin Friedman on Marcel Duchamp’s 1965 Visit to Minneapolis’.Walker Art Center[online]. Available at:  https://walkerart.org/magazine/martin-friedman-duchamp-minneapolis[accessed 22 April 2018].

ROTH, Michael S. 2017. ‘How Nazis destroyed books in a quest to destroy European culture’. The Washington Post [online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-nazis-destroyed-books-in-a-quest-to-destroy-european-culture/2017/02/24/244aee94-cdf3-11e6-a87f-b917067331bb_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.664bdadf95f2[accessed 23 April 2018].