Posts Tagged 'art'

The art of the beholder

By accident rather than design several of the shows I saw at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe dealt in one way or another with the way art acquires monetary value and bestows fortunes on some and misfortune on others.  Tom Wainright’s ‘Banksy – This Looks  a Bit Like An Elephant ‘ narrates the impact on a homeless man living in a disused water tank in the Hollywood Hills of having his home transformed into an art object courtesy of a few words spray painted by living legend Bansky.  However whereas the urinal that Marcel Duchamp transformed into one of his first ‘ready-mades’ was uninhabited, Banksy’s act of transubstantiation allegedly (the facts are disputed see here for example resulted in the water tank’s resident, Tachowa Covington, finding himself turfed out of his makeshift home when the lawyers move in to realise the art work’s instantly acquired value.

‘Banksy…’ deals with the (we must assume) inadvertent destruction of a man’s home due to the midas touch of an artist who takes delight in poking fun at the mechanics of the art market but thereby further serves, intentionally or otherwise, to increase his own market value.  Meanwhile Long Live the Little Knife at the Traverse told the story of two con artists who are forced by circumstance (or so it seems) to turn their skill at dissembling to the world of forged art, relishing the opportunity to seemingly get away with the equivalent of insider dealing and systematic price manipulation without committing a crime.  A witty commentary on the concentric circles of greed that encompass the upright denizens of the art world, oligarchs and petty criminals alike, Long live… is a deft reminder that in the Peter Pan world of contemporary art, just as in global finance, the belief that something is valuable means that it is valuable, but only as long as there is someone who continues to believe enough to keep the price balloon inflated.

David Harrower’s Ciara, also at the Traverse, turns the art/money relationship on its head as the narrator, brilliantly played by Blythe Duff, unfolds her back story, one that has brought her into the world of dealing art to the legitimate, and not so legitimate, newly wealthy. She shows people who know they want art but don’t know what to buy, what they should want and the price tag provides the assurance that it truly is art.

All three shows deploy, to a lesser or greater extent, the familiar notion (e.g. as developed by the great french anthro/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that the ascription of value to artworks is a social practice that can’t be derived from either the content or the uniqueness of the art work itself.  Why does the forgery that no-one but the most diligent curator can spot suddenly lose its value to the person who bought it?  While it may retain its pleasingness as a work of art it has lost its exchange value, its confirmed value to others.   Long live… explicitly references this 9less than straightforward question, sometimes called the Van Meegeren problem. The irony, as Banksy… tells it, of Tachowa Covington losing the home which, until the artist spray painted it, had only use value to him and practically zero value to anyone else, is that in an instant it acquired tremendous monetary value simply because of who spray painted it.  That the imaginary values of traded art can, like the complex derivatives whose unraveling forced tens of thousands out of their homes, impact on the all too real lives of people without the tools to magic up value from a spray can is a very modern parable.

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While Karla Black pulls in the Venice crowds, Italian artists and industry join forces

Karla Black’s Scotland + Venice exhibition at Venice’s Biennale is still attracting flocks of visitors in the November sun but forty minutes inland the sights of Vicenza, home to the great architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), are remarkably crowd-free.  This may be due to the apparently rather laid-back attitude of the city to the business of attracting tourists, despite the $10 billion that the Veneto as whole earns from them.  It seems the success of the Veneto’s export-led industries such as €billion global fashion brand Diesel accounts for the pleasing absence of trinket shops festooned with blow-up Palladian Villas or Palazzio key-rings.  Gratifying as this may be, it is likely to become a thing of the past if the decline of the local manufacturing economy prompts a greater emphasis on attracting the tourist dollar, yen or remibi.

The purpose of my visit to Vicenza, home of the 16th century genius Andrea Palladio whose Villa Rotunda has inspired great and not so great buildings around the world for half a millennium, was to talk about Scotland’s creative sector and strategies to city officials, artisans and academics (including the influential researcher and recent visitor to Edinburgh Napier, Prof. Pier Luigi Sacco)  involved in Fuoribiennale and Innovetionvalley.  These  projects are aimed at ensuring the sustainability of creative industries in a region which claims to possess “the highest degree of creativity in the world”.   (Slightly more objective analysis by the European Cluster Observatory suggests that while important, the Veneto is around 23rd in the global league table of regions for creative and cultural employment clusters, with Paris Ile de France, Inner London and Milan holding the top three spots).

In certain key respects the Veneto region is not dissimilar to Scotland with a population of 5 million and GDP of €141 billion (Scotland’s is around €150bn). However it has a larger industrial base (33% of GVA to our 26%) and a smaller services sector (65% to our 74%) although the balance has shifted around 5% towards services over the last decade. Notably over 30% of the 458,000 businesses in the region are ”related to craftsmen” – an indication of the artisanal tradition that remains an important element in future economy development alongside the “high concentration of small and medium-sized enterprises highly specialised in a productive sector.”  This is after all the $3bn ‘world centre’ of tanning  – the leather in your shoe could well have come from the region, not to mention the shoe itself .  But it is the Veneto’s design-intensive and high valued-added clothing industry (evident in the success of global brands €1.3 billion Diesel and €2 billion Benetton) and the numerous design-led sectors such as glassware and ceramics which concerned the creative industries champions gathered in Vicenza.

The focal point of their effort is the conversion of the majestic Palladian Basilica in the very heart of Vicenza into an incubator for new creative businesses.  Following a €25m restoration the Municipality of Vicenza, working with academics from the University of Padova, hopes that the traditional skilled artisans of the region and a new generation of designers, artists and creative entrepreneurs will find a way to ensure the continued generation of creative design IP that can be manufactured in the region.  Their objective is to secure an international market for smaller companies without falling prey to the outsourcing which has become an industry in itself.  Helping artisan-based companies to develop marketing and media skills is one key objective, the thrust of which is:

re-branding the North-East of Italy as a creative hub, far from the traditional manufacturing image. … The entire region is characterized by the existence of creative hubs – e.g. Venice – technological hubs – scientific and technological parks in Venice and Padova –, a thick population of emerging small firms in tertiary activities – communication, marketing, It – and a changing population of firms operating in the design, manufacturing and commercialization of a variety of Made in Italy products. These elements need to be connected coherently in order to communicate a new identity of the region to the relevant constituencies in Italy and on foreign markets”.  Source: Task Force on Using Excellent Clusters toAddress Emerging Industries.

While direct comparisons between Scotland and the Veneto or, say Edinburgh and Vicenza, are not straightforward the challenges facing the Venetian textile sector are perhaps analogous to those facing companies in the Scottish Borders while the desire to better connect the creative skills of service-oriented companies in advertising and digital media to IP-generating businesses in the cultural sector is shared by, for example, the recently re-launched Creative Edinburgh.

One of the most interesting aspects of the incubator project in Vicenza is the leading role of Fuoribiennale “an association of artists and creative professionals gravitating around the Biennale of contemporary art of Venice”.  It would be interesting to see a grouping of Scotland’s artists making common cause with say the Borders textile firms in pursuit of a creative-industries led regeneration strategy in Hawick, Jedburgh or Kelso though the existence of Borders Creative might well allow that to happen.  (Indeed there might be some useful mileage in the latter getting together with their opposite numbers in the Veneto to swap notes. )

My Italian interlocutors were most interested to know about Scotland’s experience of Creative Industry incubators , the short answer being in truth its difficult to say as no-one has really researched the topic.  Other research (see for example Jo Foord’s Strategies for creative industries:an international review)  suggests that, on their own, incubators may be of limited value, particularly if their underlying purpose is to stimulate a ‘creative cluster’ of businesses. Rather what really matters is a holistic approach to SMEs’ needs from start-up to sustainabilty.  While Scotland’s artists, creative practitioners and businesses may not exactly be breathless in anticipation of the Scottish Creative Industries Partnership detailed action plans,  they have the potential to be important step towards realization of the Government’s aspirations for a truly ‘joined-up’ strategy for the sector’s development.  Meantime when the works of the world’s cutting edge artists are packed up and sent home, the Venetian artists and artisans will be forging links in the home of one of the world’s greatest creatives.

The extraordinary Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, the oldest surviving (indoor) theatre in the world and, alongside the Villa ‘Rotunda’, arguably the crowning achievement of Andrea Palladio, although he did not live to see it having died before it was completed in 1585.

The extraordinary Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, the oldest surviving (indoor) theatre in the world and, alongside the Villa ‘Rotunda’, arguably the crowning achievement of Andrea Palladio, although he did not live to see it having died before it was completed in 1585.  True to the values of the Renaissance the founders of its sponsor, The Academy Olympia, saw no division between the arts, science and literature but viewed them as part of the same human endeavor.  Endowing a theatre was for them as important a contribution to understanding  the world as the pursuit of scientific knowledge.


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