QUOTE - “I don’t know anyone who voted leave; I didn’t on the day after the 23rd June and I still don’t.”
The chap who spoke these words lives in Scotland meaning that his observation is probably true. Even if it is a bit of a generalisation it does shine a light on something of a reality. If you work in the Arts and, more specifically, Higher Education and the Arts, it is likely that you will experience your primary community as an international body of interest with shared or similar professional experiences and habitus. For anyone in this position, it is possible that Internationalism and a sense of transnational community is an understandable and common position. Therefore, the idea of separation and social segregation on the grounds of national distinction is likely to be pretty repellant..
QUOTE - “I haven’t heard anyone talk about the imminent renegotiation of our national arrangements and agreements with the European Union in terms other than economic impact and business outcome.”
I said that. And even if it is a bit of a generalisation, it is largely true. As it happens, impacts on the economy and on business are not my primary concern in life. Possibly because of my professional involvement with education, impacts on people, on individuals and the status of their rights and cultural freedoms, are. Most of my close associates, therefore friends, were born in other parts of the world and other countries. Most of them are still there but some of them are on this island. It is likely that we all know people who are genuinely scared about the new arrangements and about how they will be driven from their jobs and homes and about a rising temperament of hatred that is dividing cultures and harming our general humanity. We might be that person. We know, rather than suspect, that there will be significant restrictions on the Free Movement of People. And yet we also know the creative, intellectual, emotional and spiritual benefits derived from a Free Movement of Culture. Open borders underpin our experiences of humanity, cultural ferment, and intellectual discourse; it is unthinkable that this simple privilege should be withdrawn from the next generation and from students new to Fine Art education.
QUOTE - “I don’t know anyone who is truly British or is fully convinced of their Anglo-Saxon heritage and yet I am consistently drawn into conversations about Britishness and British values.”
Actually, I said that as well. But when I said this, what I really wanted to say was, please don’t call me British or expect me to be proud of a nation that I simply don’t recognize or care about. I don’t particularly care about Britishness, except that the concept scares me. I definitely don’t think about my own subject interests as having specific national characteristics and I’m horrified that future students may become tainted or confined or polluted by the nonsense of patriotism and the ridiculousness of sovereignty.
The point of all of this is that, as a community of artists, our themes and our considerations and our expectations and our aspirations for humanity must prevail. Our habit and practice is to challenge authoritarian values, reactionary voices and domineering powers. We are united and given community precisely because of our individual differences and because of our compulsion to link and to connect and to speculate and to observe and to question and to share. This is the essential purpose of the NAFAE conference this year and of the contributions that will promote our discussions throughout the day and beyond.
In my professional life, I am increasingly expected to advocate in defense of the creative industries and to justify the economic value of the arts and arts education, but I refuse. Bugger off! These are not our primary concerns. I don’t understand economics; I can barely add up and I’m completely lost when it comes to difficult sums. I wanted to teach art and work as an artist because, like all of us here at the conference, I have to (it’s a conviction) and because it is the most important function of humanity. This is the theme of conference in Coventry. Not the 7 to 10% contribution of the creative industries to GDP and the high rate of growth across the sector (of course, this is a suspicious statistic in any case depending on how one defines the industry base and employment outputs from the subject field of Fine Art). Conferences, such as today, give us time and purpose so that we can focus on a wider and more realistic representation of our diverse community. That is the cultural importance of a healthy society with access to creative means and artistic freedoms and the rights of absolutely all of our citizens to participate and contribute to the arts and to education. This is the motivation for the 2017 conference event. The habits and inclinations of contemporary practitioners in Fine Art is to work in spaces in between defined or siloed interests or cultural dialectics and that is to be celebrated. The instinct to connect and to join up discourses through lateral association and without the prejudice of prescription, or through direct action and genuine humanity, is the bit of the arts that we all work to nurture in our students and what we need to preserve as our central value. We work with and between people. Art is not an economic instrument for politicians to manipulate, nor a cultural instrument of national government; it is, in itself, a dynamic socio-political process and conversation and advocacy on these terms is essential.
Our job, as educators, is to connect. To open up dialogues and discourses that promote difference and distinctiveness in our students. To encourage discovery and curiosity. To support our students in their journey and the exploitation of their own cultural capital and creative agency. I don’t intend to train students in business skills and practices, or enterprise skills, or prepare them for a fantasy job market or turn their potential into an instrument of economic growth in the service of a dysfunctional capitalism; I wouldn’t know how. Our purpose, as educators, is to service education, the fulfilment of personal objectives of uncertain prescription and the development of independent practitioners fully confident with their own critical perspectives and fully competent in defining their own social and political values. To be honest, this is not really any different from an educator of business or economics or difficult sciences, or really, really hard sums. The general purpose is to foster independence and criticality and human agency in our students and this is intrinsically reliant on open cultural discourses and, therefore, open borders for knowledge exchange and intellectual enquiry. We are connectors because that is our job. This conference is important because it is a reminder and an expression of our value and values. Today, we may be talking to ourselves and to each other but we deserve that opportunity; it is essential that we meet and share discourses to reinforce ideas and principles that are the foundation of our very being. I doubt that we will win many political debates in the wider public realm, not at the moment, not with the political classes working the way they are and the legions of post-truth propagandists functioning in media spaces. But we have to persist in our failure (it is failure to be proud of) and we have to remain focused in our convictions.
Special thanks: Jane Ball, Andrea Hannon, Linden Reilly, Andy Sheridan, and Jill Journeaux for making this conference happen.