It has been interesting this week to gauge the wide ranging response to Assemble, a loose collective consisting mainly of architects (and no artists), winning this year’s Turner Prize for contemporary art. According to Morgan Quaintance, writing in e-flux conversations ‘It was a decision that saw non-artists instrumentalised to introduce and legitemise the ‘useful’ ideology. It was a decision that could have seriously detrimental ramifications for British contemporary art’.
The butt of Quaintance’s ire was Alistair Hudson, Director of MIMA and member of the judging panel (though not chair) who he believed had influenced the decision to award the prize for ‘useful’ art. Hudson believes that art underwent a fundamental change with Romanticism losing its ‘symbiosis with craft, design, architecture and social activity’. Before this shift toward the art world we recognise today ‘art had been embedded in people’s lives, it had function’, whereas now ‘art’s role is one of spectatorship, as a spectacle, as part of the attention economy’. I find many of Hudson’s points compelling, given the context of my own research into concepts of functionality within contemporary art – a more comprehensive statement of his concerns can be found here.
Quaintance meanwhile believes that within this context ‘contemporary art is a critically engaged field that, for the most part, produces critically engaged actors who are uncomfortable with state power and its various methods of citizen subjection – this is nowhere more prevalent, diligently observed or else thoroughly critiqued than in socially engaged practice. Because Assemble are not and do not claim to come from this discipline, because they are not critically engaged, and because they are a firm of architects employed to creatively fulfill a design brief, however open, theirs is an acritical almost completely depoliticised response to a highly politicised social situation’.
It’s an illuminating difference of opinion and seems to bring us back to the ongoing discussions about the ‘autonomy’ of art and it’s distinction, or lack of it, from design more broadly. Pretty well anything can be enfolded with contemporary art as long as you consider yourself an ‘artist’. For I suspect Quaintance has no argument with the Artes Mundi 6 Prize being awarded to Theaster Gates ‘poster boy for socially engaged practice’ who is happy to describe himself as an ‘artist’ while initiating many of the same outcomes as Assemble. It will be interesting to see if Amy Francechini; founder of farming collective ‘Future Farms’ wins Artes Mundi 7, for which she is short listed, especially as Alistair Hudson is on the judging panel.
This is a link to an excellent blog entry from Lara Eggleton that covers some of these concerns.