Saturday, March 6, 2010

Interview with Siân Ede, William Shaw

Use and beauty | Siân Ede unravels preconceptions about the purposes of art

Siân Ede is Director of Arts at the Gulbenkian Foundation in the UK. There she initiated a ground-breaking Arts and Science programme, encouraging artists from all art forms to engage with science and technology. With broad experience in fine arts, drama and literature, she frequently chairs and speaks on panels about science and art. She's also the author of Art and Science, and the co-author of Strange and Charmed: Science and the contemporary visual arts.
What, we wondered, did she think of the objectives of the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre? How "useful" is art when it comes to creating social change?
Siân Ede talks to RSA Arts & Ecology's William Shaw.

In Art & Science you write about how scientists talk about the elegance and beauty of a project, but also from the 20th century onwards, you say that artists never do. How has that come about?
I think it's because scientists have a vision of the world as something that is implicitly perfect, and it is their job to find out how it works. This would be particularly true of physicists and mathematicians because they're Platonists, and you can't underestimate the effect of classical thinking - Plato and Aristotle being, in a way, the two sides. This is my philosophical take on it, but I can talk it through as well.
Plato does have this idea of the perfect world that came with the ideal forms. And in mathematics you get people like Marcus du Sautoy, all the time saying he's looking for pattern, and the pattern is an indication that there is a mega-pattern to be found. And I think they go off with a spring in their step every morning because they find things that somehow confirm this and then sometimes don't. But even when they don't they're still finding it. I think that biologists are more Aristotlean and they are more about, "What do my senses tell me?" and "How do I find things out every step of the way?" But I still think there's an implicate way of thinking about things, even though evolution, as we know it, is what biology is based on, it is about the accidental. Physicists would say that it's only responding to the implicate universe.
In the arts we are rooted in the experience of being human. It's a subjective experience. And ultimately we know we die. That is at the heart of it. And so even a concept of beauty has a kind of sense of time passing in it. I did an event at the ICA the other week, Can Art Make Us Happy?, and I said, "Look, there are four latin phrases: tempus fugit, mememto mori, carpe diem and vanitas. And they are all about the poignancy of time passing."
Even though the Romantics were interested in science and enthusiastic about it, Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn is a central poem for me. It's absolutely central! The people frozen round, "For ever panting, and for ever young", on the point between one thing or another - yet in life we're full of grief. There's this terrible contrast between the ideal and a fantastic sadness.
Then you get the 20th century and there's an awareness that the world is full of grief and wars – I suppose there's always been an awareness of that – and then since Duchamp, a world full of irony. So if there is humour, if there is a lightness of heart, it's tinged with irony and misery.

People think there must be a use for art in issues around the environment – and we believe there is – but quite often they misconstrue what that use is.
Yes. Artists never use the word “use”. What Kant says about art is it's purposiveness without a purpose. And it is a response to the world in any number of interesting different ways because all the artists are looking at it slightly differently. So there is a fundamental problem for me, and I think for the RSA too, and for the Arts Council, about asking artists to make things that have a utility, that are issue-based, in the jargon. You'll get people like Cornelia Parker saying "as an individual I am very moved by the politics and the ethics of environmental issues, but I can't do that in my art." It's not how it works. Because the arts are much more complex and do not have a particular purpose.
Obviously there will be some artworks that have a particular purpose, and interestingly the attitude to nature that we hold enshrined because of Romanticism, means that we are now aware that nature is no longer the nature that it was. Romanticism came about in response to the industrialisation of the countryside. Now we know nature is no longer the sublime, the transcendent, the beautiful, the God-given. It is tainted. It is sad. It is ending.
You can't say, "Hail to thee, blithe spirit!" any more like Shelley did, without being aware that the lark is in decline. If you read the Shelley again you read it with this new awareness and you bring this awareness to it.

Is there a problem then with a project like Arts & Ecology - or is there only a problem if you think about it in terms of "use"?

Oh, subtle question. I mean, you could say, arts and sport, or arts and economics, couldn't you? And arts and anything? In fact my book Art and Science is part of a series of books that are art and anything... Art and Medicine, Art and Sex, and in a way you're just making an interpretive selection. "Ok, let's look towards all the art that looks at the environment, and look at environmental issues." Which is different from being an agenda given to artists. Of course, how can you not make art about the environment? Nobody's isolated.

So Arts & Ecology, or Art and Science, gives you a pair of critical glasses through which to look?
Yes. Yes it does.

I'm going to eat away at this some more because it's obviously of huge concern for us as a project. Matthew Taylor asks the question, "Given that artists are publicly funded and educated why should they not then be obliged to look directly at a social agenda?"
That is an enormously utilitarian question to ask. And it's not one that I could possibly ask because I think art just is. I don't think anybody said to Shakespeare, "What are you doing this for?" I don't think anyone said to Samuel Beckett, "Give us a list of your aims and objectives." Or, "What are the outcomes?" I would never expect artists to answer that even though I think every brush stroke or word is going to be influenced by the politics of their time.

Another argument in relation to social change is that artists are individualists. It's an individualist practice. And it's justified by art. You've got to let them do what they do because they're artists. But we're in a crisis of individualism right now; you could say it's individualism that has got us into this mess.

That's very interesting...yes.

So artists have to change at this point? Do they have to think more collectively? Is there a possibility of a different culture? If art is what it is at any time, can it change?
I think what you say is a profoundly interesting observation, because art came out of human development about 60,000 years ago at the same time as religion and it had a function - if you want to call metaphysics a function. It had a function in giving you a vision of the other world, side-by-side with religion and probably was shamanistic. And it was cohesive; it was there to keep the society together.
I think that one of the great turning points in English literature – we're talking about the beginning of modernism – is Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech, because I think that's as much to do with the individual as it is to do with the social responsibility, and the rise of the individual is something that happened in modernism.
Until then art was about the collective experience, even if Chaucer and others wrote about the individual. The rise of the individual went through to Freud, which is of course about the "me", and in the 20th and 21st centuries we have been in the centuries of the single person - the outsider. "What is my role?" was enshrined by Sartre and Camus and existentialism. "I have nothing to do with anyone else. I am not part of anyone else."
I am enormously interested in trying to see how far we really are collective and no longer individual and I think it's very interesting to look at neuroscience. That's why I love this question. I'm a bit sceptical about evolutionary psychology. I think we are far more about collective biology than we are willing to acknowledge.
Just before Christmas I did a symposium called Embodied Mind on the neuroscience of performance at RADA, and Antonio Damasio, who is one of the experts on neuroscience of emotion and feeling, was there, as was Raymond Tallis, who is again very interested in the phenomenology of the body, and the playwright Caryl Churchill. We were talking about what's going on in the mind and the fact that the body and the mind are as one. The body expresses the mind and the mind expresses the body. Somebody asked Antonio Damasio about collective behaviour and swarming in animals and he said, well actually that is what's going on in the brain. There is no ghost in the machine, it is all a mass of signalling. I think it's the most interesting idea - that there is not a me. There is an illusion of a me, but it is all swarming and it is better seen as the sum of its parts.

What a great metaphor, at least.
Isn't it? Now it's quite difficult to analyse a society that is complex. We're not living in a village any more. I think there's a lot of interest in the way in which we communicate and act as a body.
Now, your question had political undertones. You're saying it's the responsibility of artists as social creatures, in the global village if you like, to be the voice of conscience. I think that's a fair comment. They probably are. They wouldn't.... express themselves as such. (I'm worried about the word express because people think artists are "expressing themselves". They're not. They're making art.) But I think their interest is very often in collective issues. Very interestingly at the last Venice Biennale - two years ago - there was a huge amount of documentary work, photography, art about the Middle East's problems, the world in environmental crisis. This was shown as art. It's already becoming the collective responsibility as opposed to the old-fashioned idea of the artists communing with his muse.

When it comes to discussing the environment, a lot of art becomes naturally apocalyptic and dark. Is that problematic?

I think what artists like doing is setting up a scenario and then trying to work out what will happen. It's no accident that a lot of writers at the moment are writing books set in the near future, Doris Lessing, Paul Theroux, Margaret Atwood. Lots of writers are projecting into the future and it's almost like they are saying, "Ok, let's imagine what's going to happen?" Faye Weldon's wonderful at this.

Finally, with the economic crisis, do you see a change coming in art?
Well according to the Art Newspaper, which is my Bible in these things, of course there will be because a lot of people who buy art are very rich people. You could argue it's not all bad because some investors - caricatured as the Russian oligarchs - overinflated the price of art, and bought thoughtlessly. I tend to hope some idea of the idea of value and price would be separated off. Apparently the historical art marketplace is holding very strong and it's the more frivolous art pieces - fashion really - which are losing value.

Siân Ede is the Arts Director of the Gulbenkian Foundation and is author Art and Science, and editor and author of Strange and Charmed, Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts.
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