See It. Be It.', Public Art Project by Les Levine 1996. Commissioned by Gateshead Council. (Baltic Flour Mills Building, now The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.)

Hope Through the Fog

McGonagle argues that a similar solution like that to the Covid-19 virus, to the other virus – the virus of the small state agenda which has infected societal provision and expectations – lies in a cultural turn towards reciprocal social relations, which can be articulated in a total art process that is not limited to rhetorical modes of production and consumption. The stakes could not be higher for individuals and communities right now in this immediate crisis but questions about what principles will inform the future are also necessary and important, to see hope through the fog.

The Covid-19 virus has pushed the pause button on life as we have known it. The response involves, of course, the immediate remedial actions now being undertaken. But, since the virus has revealed the inadequacy of social provision for the protection of all citizens, a strategic response should also involve thinking long about what has been revealed.

Up to now, we have been living and working in a selfish socio-economic system based on a resetting of economic, political, social, and cultural expectations. These expectations had originally coalesced around what was known as the postwar consensus that underpinned economic, social, and cultural reconstruction in Europe after World War Two. The current selfish socio-economic model has been incrementally replacing this consensus since the 1980s. The model persisted – even after the crash of 2008 – despite its lessons, which were acknowledged but never applied in the subsequent recession, from which only parts of Irish society have emerged.

This selfish ideology, translated into the small-state agenda, has already proved itself unable to solve the ongoing crises in fundamental quality-of-life issues in health and housing in Ireland, even before the virus crisis. The small-state agenda – essentially a 19th-century model of raw unregulated capitalism and of hierarchical social relations – was reinvented in the 1980s in Thatcherism in the UK and in Reaganomics in the U.S. It has driven socio-economic policies, based on debt-funded growth, which led directly to the 2008 crash, and the facilitation of the extraction of profit from services rather than manufacturing and, in particular, from the privatisation of public services for private gain. These policies have left social safety nets threadbare and the effects are visible today.

A strategic response, this time, cannot simply mean the protection and recovery of the previous status quo, though this seems to be what is emerging in macro policy initiatives. If provision in key social, quality-of-life systems was inadequate before, why should such structural inadequacy be re-instated when there is an opportunity and a need for a fundamental rethink about what the deal is between citizen and state and what participatory democracy actually means for the future. This echoes the rethinking that took place about policies for the economic, social, and cultural ‘emancipation of the many’ in the period following the shock and disruption of World War II. These strategies included the concept of state funding for the arts at arm’s length from government – the original Arts Council model, with which we are so familiar and was first established in the UK in the 1940s and in Ireland in the 1960s. Since the 1980s, societal expectations have been modified around the small-state agenda and the remodelling of society as the servant of the economy. This has had accelerating implications for public services, in general, and for education, in particular, including art education.

The small-state agenda cannot deal with the needs of citizens – the aforementioned many – because it is not designed to do so, having been enacted to meet the needs of the few. The Covid-19 virus, and other recent natural disasters, have revealed the inadequacy of the small state but, I would argue, this revelation also points to the limitations of the solo genius model of artist and art production and its narrow forms of distribution, which has only ever delivered a decorative marginality for most artists in Ireland and elsewhere. The dominant model of the art process is still shaped around commodity, celebrity and consumerism and the celebration of individual self-expression as the received model of value in art. This model of value, of art and of artist, has been unfit for purpose for some time and an education process that reflects this model can only enable artists to function in the world on the bottom rung of an economic ladder.

In as much as the socio-economic model needs to be re-imagined and redesigned, a turn is also required in the total art process of art education, art practice/production and distribution, experience, and participation and starts with the questions What for? Who for? And then, what is the situation? And situation is where answers to these questions can be proposed, through situated practice in a gallery, a museum, the street, a college, media or social space. Situated practice does not preclude traditional media. We know what answers were given to these questions, from the 16th to the 20th centuries, but what are our answers to those questions in the third decade of the 21st century?

It is difficult for the art process, if understood only as production of product, to turn quickly but we could start with a different discourse around expectations and processes in order to nourish other ways of thinking and doing that are not predicated only on the solo agency of the artist but also on the shared agency of reciprocal practice.

It is telling, in this crisis, how quickly institutions and artists, across a range of disciplines, have turned to virtual engagement. Out of necessity, of course, but this could lead to a situation beyond debates about the form of art to questions about the purpose of art. In my view, art’s purpose is, and always has been, centred on the creation of empathy – the act of seeing self in other. That is what art is for, whatever form it takes, in whatever situation, to embody and not just re-present that core negotiation of meaning. This counters the new colonialism, in thought and action, which, as with old colonialism, involves the removal of agency from the other, whether other is defined in political, economic, social, gender, or ethnic terms. The new colonialism of the small state has, for several decades now, been trying to replace empathy with antipathy and competitive individualism as the basis of social relations. We can blame, among others, Ayn Rand, who wrote on philosophy and socio-economic issues in the mid-20th century or Giorgio Vasari, who wrote on Renaissance artists in the 16th century, for spinning individualist narratives and for seeding models of thought and understanding upstream, which have led to outcomes downstream, in the form of unregulated profit-taking capitalism, including the new robber barons of hi-tech, and the reified idea of the artist as a solo genius and an exception to society – a trick played on artists to keep them satisfied with penury. It was individualism and the denial of society which also informed Margaret Thatcher’s claim that there was ‘no such thing as society’ (Keay 1987)

If societal models are to be re-centred on empathy then the process has to start in cultural space. Neither party politics nor economics, as they currently operate, are willing or able to make that happen. There is a real role, therefore, for art/culture to create and distribute other models of socio-cultural relations, in practice and in situ. It has taken the shock of the virus for politics, and for some public broadcasters and institutional providers to re-discover a public value remit. Questions of public value have been alive in the art process for some time and new critical responses have been developed but without the issue quite getting to the centre of power or policy so far. Tai Shani, a joint 2019 Turner Prize winner, was quoted in The Observer newspaper saying that ‘a crisis of this magnitude affects most of us similarly... artists are quite good at problem solving and it is important to rechannel my energy into being a contributing citizen’ (Cumming 2020).

Empathy is what art does when considered over the longer term and I mean longer than, as the art critic Jonathan Jones put it, ‘the sliver of time from Da Vinci, to Rembrandt, to Picasso, to Koons’. But this sliver of time is celebrated as foundational in received art history and has been elevated by a particular ‘story of art’ narrative, which actually represents the march of self over several centuries in the West and the ‘ascent of man’ ideology. This march from the European Renaissance, to the Reformation, to the Enlightenment, to Industrial Capitalism and, now, to Extraction and Surveillance Capitalism, is a momentum which has brought us to the modernist separation of the figure of the artist from the ground of society and the figure of the human from the ground of nature and the consequential damage to the planet.

This is an ideological momentum, in politics, economics, in culture and is reflected in the current culture wars. It has nurtured sustained attempts to dismantle concepts of commonality and the collective and underpins inherited cultural institutional models, which are still based on providing for what art is rather than for what art does. Hence the inevitable cul de sac of resourcing into which nearly all models of institutional practice were heading anyway. As public funding evaporates, in the small state, institutions have to follow the money – a condition that has now been dramatised, but not explained, by the present crisis. To be clear, however, this argument is not simply for more resourcing of the status quo, of the existing patterns of provision or unconsidered models of practice but for a complete re-consideration of what for? and who for? and where will the centre of value lie in the total art process within societal arrangements in the future?

This moment, therefore, offers an ethical opportunity as well as an aesthetic challenge to the art sector. The opportunity is to turn away from spurious questions about the form of art and towards questions about the purpose of art. The challenge, should the art sector choose to accept it, is to build on the critical work to date, by some practitioners, in order to develop other aesthetic languages to answer to those questions – not to replace but to expand inherited aesthetic languages and thereby expand the inherited field. It may be that many institutions and many artists, if calling on public resources, will begin to understand what they do in terms of a public service, and be more able to negotiate a different relational process within social space as a result. One of the immediate effects of engaging with others, virtually, will be to see beyond and widen the singular hand-of-the-artist narrative, to consider what art can do and how it can function immaterially as well materially in a reciprocal rather than a rhetorical art process - in which missionary work plays no part.

It is already clear that the solution to the Covid-19 virus lies in selfless communal actions and reciprocation, heroically and selflessly embodied by those who work in health services. I would argue that a similar solution to the other virus – the virus of the small-state agenda which has infected societal provision and expectations – lies in a cultural turn towards reciprocal social relations, which can be articulated in a total art process that is not limited to rhetorical modes of production and consumption.

The stakes could not be higher for individuals and communities right now in this immediate crisis but questions about what principles will inform the future are also necessary and important, to see hope through the fog.

It remains to be seen if we will not only acknowledge but also apply the learning from what we are going though now, which has deeper and wider implications for society. And we should remember that there is no innocent position, outside of the societal field from which curators, artists, and educators can observe and comment on the field. The Swiss artist Thomas Hirschorn once said that the task is ‘not to make political art but to make art politically’ (Hirschorn 2010). This means making art without innocence and, I would argue, involves thinking politically in cultural space and thinking culturally in political space. This period is not only about measures to counter the virus and its effects. It is also about naming, validating, and consolidating communal, reciprocal actions supported by rebooted and invested social systems into the future. This includes a re-purposed total art process, capable of countering the reductive, selfish ideology which has already created a precariat class, which includes many artists, and has brought us all to this point of catharsis.


Written on March 30, 2020. Published as a column in The Visual Artists’ News Sheet (VAN) 3 (May-June 2020): 6. Belfast: Visual Artists Ireland, Dublin and Belfast.

Republished by permission of the Author.

Cumming, Laura. 2020. “Self-Help Is Key for an Art World in Lockdown”, The Observer, March 29, 2020.
Hirschorn, Thomas. 2010. “Doing Art Politically: What Does This Mean?”, Dislocation, September 5, 2010.
Keay, Douglas. 1987. “Interview with Margaret Thatcher”, Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987.
Your privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our site. To find out more, read our privacy policy.

Tell me more