Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Manchester Artists' Bonfire

This is a piece both about and for the Artists' Bonfire. I was comissioned to write an accompanying essay for the event, which was a great opportunity to get my ideas and opinions straight. I went last year and while I had fun, I've never been quite sure what I think about the whole thing. I've heard lots of criticisms and lots of 'urgh I just don't like it' so I wanted to incorporate that in the piece. It was never meant to be a hymn to the event, or even positive, but the more I thought about it all the more I liked the idea. This is just the first part, I want to look into non-western sacred art, where the destruction is as important as the creation, in relation to how the participating artists feel that the fire affects their practice.


In January 2011 the Manchester Artists’ Bonfire happened for the first time. At its genesis the event was heavily influenced and stimulated by anger, confusion and panic at cuts in government funding which have been inflicted on the cultural sector. This element of the event was emphasized in the official literature, and in some ways it felt like an extension of protests which had been taking place as a reaction to the rise in tuition fees. The question of funding for non-compulsory education is, of course, another issue similar to that of funding for the arts, whereby much of the argument relies on qualitative judgements and abstract concepts, versus the arguably more ‘real’ issue of cost. The Artists Bonfire' is taking place again this year and aims to become a regular annual event, which removes it from the particular conditions of its first manifestation. Whilst we have still been grappling with issues surrounding 'the cuts' since last January, the situation is different, and it will differ every year from now on.

With this in mind I seek to avoid dismissing the Artists' Bonfire purely as a form of protest, rooted within the wider context of demonstration, riot, and occupation. It can be argued that whilst the historical and political context of the event is important, there are fundamental art historical questions concerning iconoclasm, reception and the status of art in contemporary society which the Artists’ Bonfire raises. It is the above which I seek to address; how the event functions as a collaborative performance, and what the destruction of a work of art means in terms of its status as art, especially when such destruction is engendered by the artists themselves.

One of the initial criteria for submitting work to the fire was for the participant to give a speech, to say something about their work, their practice, the event, and what it means to them. This requirement to verbally express thoughts and feelings about your work coherently, in front of your artistic peers and non-participating viewers, is an incredibly important part of the event. Galvanised into action by a financial threat to the credibility, and sustainability of a vocation which the participants had chosen to devote their lives to, they were also required to at the last moment justify and explain their choices. Thus, whilst fire and destruction in the context of politically motivated anger is at once evocative, exciting and notably clich├ęd, significantly there is also a platform for debate and uncertainty amidst the fever of action and destruction.

Unsurprisingly the contentious and evocative nature of fire, along with the very notion of will full destruction has attracted harsh, and not unfounded criticism. In this way the event recalls the famous iconoclastic orgies of history and as such jars with a traditional conception of how art works should be handled. This destruction for the sake-of-it could be construed as a pretentious tantrum, indeed to many the whole event seems distasteful and decadent; a spectacle to gawk at but with no serious artistic content. If we are reacting to a perceived threat, and criticism of our conception of art as a vitally important part of society, then wouldn't it make sense to treat artworks with reverence? A simple way to counteract such hostility is to merely acknowledge that art which processually self destructs is not without precedent, there is a rich history of contemporary art for which decay and eventual disintegration are essential components. Dario Gamboni recognises this in his discussion of iconoclasm and vandalism, but also accedes that this is not a 'normal' way to treat works of art. Thus, he concludes, that 'attacks' “can prove particularly useful for illuminating those 'normal' attitudes”1.

The above point is vital in relation to the Artists Bonfire, whilst perhaps 'attack' isn't the most appropriate word in this context; the Artists who take part are forced to confront their 'normal' attitudes toward their work, and that of others. We could invoke the old adage; “You don't know what you've got till it's gone”, which neatly sums up philosophical attitudes pertaining to the benefit of exploring death, destruction and the abject. Thus, an important message that the Artists’ Bonfire can convey, is that in order to genuinely appreciate the value of creativity, it is necessary to confront the inevitability of death and decay in both objects and ideas. Furthermore, by forcing ourselves as artists to confront these difficult ideas, and to question our own ingrained and comfortable attitudes towards art, we can better formulate defences against the ideological attacks which recent funding cuts have precipitated. Reverence here would not be helpful, we need to delve and discuss in order to carve out a place of Art in an austere society where, for good or ill, respect is increasingly difficult to maintain for anything which is not incontestably pragmatic.

As well as being a forum for artists , the Artists' Bonfire is also open for non-participants to attend, and with a club night afterwards there is a definite element of entertainment and spectacle. With this in mind I wish to further analyse the event in terms of its identity as a collaborative performance, which can be viewed and experienced aesthetically by an audience. Returning to the above argument pertaining to the problem of how we treat artworks, it is necessary to further define why a reverent attitude towards art can be construed as unhelpful in audiences as well as artists. From the viewpoint of a spectator, as I was at last years event, if the Artists’ Bonfire is essentially a way to reaffirm the credibility of art and creativity, it is somewhat disconcerting that the treatment of art during the event/performance runs contrary to traditional defences of art against iconoclasm. Such defences have sought to ideologically raise art above political or religious persecution on the grounds that it is autonomous, and therefore should not be judged by any criteria other than that which has purely to do with art itself.

However, considering art to be autonomous is perhaps not as advantageous as it may seem; Michael Kelly argues that identifying art in this way engenders a 'disinterested' attitude towards it. In this context 'disinterest' is taken in both the philosophical, and every day sense2. Kelly locates iconoclasm in this 'disinterested' understanding of art as autonomous, an interpretation which is particular to modern and contemporary art, turning a traditional and historical view of what iconoclasm looks like on its head. To elucidate further; disinterest in philosophical terms, originally defined by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement3, calls for art to be apprehended independently of bodily desires. Kelly argues that this type of disinterestedness consequently breeds disinterest in terms of a general indifference towards art. This is not to suggest that all art should be politically committed in order to have credibility, rather that art and creativity can be part of life along with eating, shitting, having sex and walking to the shops. Art does not have to be partially incomprehensible and removed from the mundane, necessary and genuinely exciting parts of life.

With this in mind, art which admits annihilation necessarily by dint of the materials from which it is made, or how it is employed by the artist, confounds the viewer’s ability to appreciate with philosophical disinterestedness. Danger, disgust and recognition act as a barrier to reverence. In terms of the Artists' Bonfire, whereby art works which may not have been initially intended to decay into oblivion, are wilfully destroyed by the artist, this dissension from disinterested appreciation is intensified. This is because, referring back to my earlier point about the 'normal' way to treat works of art, the pledges which are incinerated during the event/performance have often been removed by their creator from their 'normal' situation. This cannot be taken as writ, submissions would be welcome from those who work within ephemeral media, but nonetheless work in relatively traditional media is the norm.

Therefore, the vast majority of work submitted does not coincide with what we would usually recognise as temporary art work, which is intended to decay as part of its directive. In 2011 there were no pieces made with food or bodily matter that would ordinarily deteriorate when exposed to air and moisture, rather there was paper, wood, wax and glass, which when consigned to flames cracked, melted, crumbled and decomposed at an alarming rate. I don't pretend to claim that this rejection of philosophical disinterestedness makes the pledges more 'interesting' in every day terms for every spectator, rather that the nature of the Artists' Bonfire as exciting, destructive, voyeuristic and sensual does not detract from its' status as serious art.
1Gamboni, Dario The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution Reaktion Books Ltd. (1997)

2Kelly, Michael Iconoclasm in Aesthetics Cambridge University Press (2003)

3Kant, Immanuel Critique of Judgement First published (1914)