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March 27 2012

Power to the people's placards: Save Our Placards project – in pictures

On 26 March 2011, thousands marched through London in protest against government spending cuts. At the end of the March for the Alternative, hundreds of placards and banners were given to the Save Our Placards team, who took some of them on A Placard Parade on 24 March 2012, a year on from the original march



September 15 2011

Did you create one of these anti-cuts placards?

The search is on for the people behind demo placards going on display at Turner Contemporary in Margate

See a gallery of a selection of the placards

Placards used at the big TUC anti-cuts demonstration last March are to go on display at Turner Contemporary from Saturday 17 September but organisers have a small problem: they don't know who made them all.

Guy Atkins was one of the team from Goldsmiths, University of London, which helped organise the Save Our Placards project (I wrote about it here) when 50,000 people marched through London, protesting at government spending cuts.

Hundreds of placards were left at the project tree in Hyde Park and 12 of them will go on display as part of the Nothing in the World But Youth at the exhibition in Margate.

Atkins told me: "We're trying to track down their creators to tell them about the Turner show and tell their stories of the demo and life since. So far we've got 6 out of the 12."

So if you created this placard of George Osborne as Edward Scissorhands then first of all, congratulations. Second of all get in touch at saveourplacards@gmail.com or through Facebook.

The Margate exhibition looks well worth a visit in any event with more than 200 works exploring the excitement and creativity of youth. But one of you people out there could have created an exhibit which is going on display alongside works by Henry Moore, Peter Blake, Sarah Lucas, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Mark Leckey and a young JMW Turner no less.

See a selection of the placards in this gallery.


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May 16 2011

Tracey Emin: 'Tories are only hope for the arts'

She used to upset the establishment, now the artist risks upsetting the left with her strident support for Conservative arts policy

We know that Tracey Emin voted Tory because she's told us. And we know that she's had dinner at Number 10 on the invitation of David Cameron. What I hadn't realised - dumb me, perhaps - is quite how much a cheerleader she is for Conservative arts policy.

Emin was speaking at the press preview of her big new show at the Hayward Gallery in London - a mid-career retrospective which she described as her most important show to date. If you get chance, do visit. It is a terrific exhibition.

As well as talking about the art, she spoke of her support for the Conservative party, a subject she first tackled on Radio 4's Today programme in an interview with John Humphrys.

Emin told me it was the Tory arts policy which led to her vote. She said:

"There's no money, the country is bankrupt so the arts is going to be bottom of the list on everyone's agenda except that the Tories have an amazing arts minister in Ed Vaizey who is particularly protective and defensive of the arts.

"Also the arts cuts, they are less than they were eight years ago with the Labour government. In the present climate its amazing that there's any money for the arts at all.

"And remember, Tory people are massive collectors of the arts. For a lot of my friends, who think I'm crazy voting for the Tories - I want to know who buys their work? Who are the biggest philanthropists? I promise you, it's not Labour voters."
Emin has attended functions at both number 10 and 11 Downing Street, she said, and was asked her opinion on arts policy by both Vaizey and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. "At the moment, I want to protect the arts - art and culture is the soul of a country," she said.

Coming out as a Tory had brought hostility, she conceded.

"People shouldn't be hostile. We live in a democracy. People in Sierra Leone get their hands cut off for voting. At the moment there is a government that actually likes the arts, appreciates the arts and appreciates culture."
So is she right?


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May 05 2011

Art Uncut's creative opposition to cuts can reach a broader audience | Philip Goff

We believe that a society with well-funded arts, well-funded public services and a redistribution of wealth is a better society

Some arguments between left and right are pragmatic. In these cases, there is agreement about the desired goal but a disagreement about how to achieve it; for example, it might be that both agree that we want developing countries to become richer, but disagree over whether deregulating markets is the way to achieve that goal. But some other arguments between left and right concern principle.

The day that the government's austerity measures hit arts, a debate about the issue was hosted by Channel 4 News. The participant speaking in support of the cuts to arts had a simple argument, grounded not in evidence but in principle: it's not right to take people's money off them against their volition (ie through taxation) in order to spend it on the arts. Such opinions are not uncommon these days: "it's our money, so it's wrong to take it off us." Implicit in this attitude is a belief in sacred and inviolable property rights, which any decision about how to shape society ought to respect. This view was taken to its logical conclusion by the 20th century American philosopher Robert Nozick, who held that the state ought to let the poor die rather than fund a welfare state, as this would require infringing "consenting acts of capitalism".

This belief in property rights is superstitious and primitive. It is founded in a moral conviction – akin to the belief in vengeance or honour – which humans naturally gravitate towards, but which is grounded in sentiment rather than reason. This is not to say that people don't have property rights. But whatever rights people have to "their property" are grounded in legal choices, which reflect the kind of society we choose to have. Property rights should be shaped by, rather than shape, the kind of society we want to live in.

Putting things this way round changes everything. If there are no sacrosanct rights of property, which we are duty bound to respect in our law, then we should really be focusing on what kind of society we want. Is it better to have a society in which our cultural diet is entirely determined by market forces, in which only art that has commercial value, or that happens to be favoured by the whims of the wealthy? Or is it preferable to have a society in which a fractional reduction in individuals' spending power protects the arts we collectively value and enjoy? When the choice is put so starkly, it is difficult to deny that publicly funding the arts leads to a net gain in human flourishing.

Art Uncut is founded on this principle, a belief about the kind of societal model that we believe to be better: a society with well-funded arts, well-funded public services, and where there is a certain amount of redistribution so that the gap between rich and poor does not get too wide. We began as a small group of artists and musicians involved in UK Uncut actions, but hope now to open up the anti-cuts movement to a broader audience: to those who are not temperamentally inclined to protest, or perhaps haven't made their minds up yet. If we are serious about building a broad, sustained coalition of opposition with the potential for political influence, we need to reach out.

A week before the March for the Alternative on 26 March, Art Uncut staged a sell-out creative preliminary for the march: a night of music, comedy and short talks, headlined by UK Uncut, Josie Long and The Agitator. On the day, Art Uncut and UK Uncut jointly occupied BHS on Oxford Street, turning it into an artistic space with musicians, half a dozen poets and a performance from the actors Sam and Timothy West. Moving forward, we have planned a series of events in London, and we hope to encourage others around the country to set up their own events of creative opposition.

As the cuts start to bite, the anti-cuts movement is evolving. It has not been easy so far. We have received hostility from most of the media and some of the police. But we're very determined, and have a conviction grounded in firm principles and sound economics. Let's hope that's enough.


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August 16 2010

The arts need diversity schemes | Omar Kholeif

Positive action programmes for minority groups should remain on the cultural agenda until there is no organic need for them

It is no secret that the new British government is making sweeping changes to arts and culture policies. From budget cuts to the entire restructuring of national and regional arts funding, the unstable future of our collective culture is increasingly debated.

In the midst of that, we must also consider where minority groups fit into the equation. Will they muster the cut-throat tactics to survive? Will policymakers choose to maintain positive action programmes, or will sections 35 and 37 of the Race Relations Act be forgotten?

As a young arts professional, I have only recently felt my career taking off, having utilised the often-controversial diversity scheme as a springboard. After graduating with a first-class degree, I spent what seemed like a lifetime twiddling my thumbs in unsatisfying entry-level roles and, like many humanities graduates in my cohort, waiting at the jobcentre. Without the financial means to fund further my education, or the resources to devote time to unpaid work experience, I ended up taking on opportunities unrelated to my vocation.

Last year, just as matters had started to improve, I was accepted onto a curating fellowship. It was originally founded in response to a survey in 2005 that revealed only 6% of London's museum and gallery workforce hail from a minority background – a disproportionate ratio, considering that black and minority ethnic residents make up nearly a third of the capital's population.

Recent attitudes by policymakers have brought cause for concern. A couple of months ago, the mayor of London's director of arts and culture, Munira Mirza, suggested that positive-action cultural policies breed "difference" and, as such, prevent true equality from taking place. Perhaps even more disconcerting, however, were the angst-ridden and misguided comments on her article that suggested cultural diversity schemes were tantamount to racism and should be abolished.

In retrospect, it seems to me that Mirza and others are missing a vital point. Certain ethnic, social and cultural groups have been historically oppressed and are, accordingly, less likely to tread down seemingly less stable career paths, such as the arts.

As a first-generation British immigrant, I was groomed from as young as the age of five to go down the route of medicine – after all, my father had sacrificed a great deal to bring us to this country.

So what are we to do? Let the case rest and suggest art exhibitions are an area reserved for the white middle class? Fine art, specifically, is a subjective medium that has historically favoured the construction of a European and North American canon. And although recent trends in globalisation have fostered seemingly diverse collections, one must remember that this construction is still formed on the basis of "difference".

For instance, it is no coincidence that the rise of Middle Eastern art occurred in the wake of the events of 9/11 – when the likes of Charles Saatchi saw the opportunity to present artists who were responding to their Islamic identity.

And while exhibitions of Middle Eastern art are certainly better than having none at all, they are equally polemical if the environment for taste brokering is not diverse itself. To avoid imperialistic tendencies, minority groups must be allowed equal footing in the forum, where they can create their own canon.

Whether that canon promotes the cause of their ethnic identity is beside the point. Rather, it is about fostering a culture that permits the free flow of ideas, without the worry that one cultural product should take precedence over another.

Of course, this isn't to suggest that diversity policies come problem free. In my experience, they can foster feelings of envy and confusion from friends and colleagues who mistakenly believe that they encourage favouritism based on race. In reality, the selection criteria for such schemes tend to be especially stringent, with numerous applicants and especially high entry requirements.

Perhaps what cultural commentators need to recognise is that just because an arts policy raises new concerns, that does not mean it is bad or should be abandoned. Rather, the thorny questions raised should be used as a means for our progression. For example, diversity programmes around ethnicity force questions about the diversification of the arts workforce on the basis of social background – a matter that requires complex evaluation. Positive action programmes bear an unfair burden, and in times of economic recession my fear is that they may fall by the wayside. Instead of abandoning them, though, one hopes they will remain on the cultural agenda. If this inclusive desire for change continues to flourish then we may find these programmes fading out organically, as the voices that form our cultural narratives become more varied.


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