Art I shouldn’t like, but do

My art-ramble on Saturday got distracted by generalities, so I didn’t get round to what I initially wanted to do: write about one of the more interesting exhibitions I saw recently.

Hack.Fem.East‘s theme is ‘women and technology in networks’ in Central/Eastern Europe. That’s the theory, at least. In practice, some of the artists have very tenuous claims to being either female or East European(*). Collectively, they’re very international in their cultural references.

Sometimes the internationalism is helpful, tweaking shared cultural references to get a message across. Take this photo display of ‘bootleg’ pot-plants, grown from the seeds of the foreign vegetables that have taken over Bulgarian markets since the 90s. It only clicked into focus once I saw the title: ‘A garden of one’s own.

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” wrote Virginia Woolf, in a wonderful essay that pulls together practical and psychological difficulties facing women writing. It is possible to put pen to paper in a sitting-room, but to write creatively requires mental space, time to think, and freedom to experiment without a husband peering over your shoulder.(**)

The same argument can be applied to men, and to creative acts beyond fiction. Perhaps – and I think this is what the artist is suggesting – you can apply it to an entire nation. Laissez-faire globalization can give prosperity, but (almost by definition) it limits security and national independence. Could that limit creativity in the same way that Woolf describes with shared rooms? It’s an interesting perspective, although I’m somewhat sceptical. Isn’t that effect outweighed by cultural interchange, and greater global markets for creative works? Isn’t the title an example of that – I can only grok the exhibit because it’s connected to familiar English culture.

At other times, the internationalism seems to diminish the exhibition: everything feels too-carefully pitched towards getting grants and selling to hyper-rich art buyers.

Religion, for example, is mostly absent. I liked the one piece I did notice, a ‘kit for taming dialectical materialism’, containing prayer-book, rosary beads and the like (one of a et of ‘kits’ pitting different ideologies against each other. Consumerism against feminism, philosophy against capitalism, and so on. Neat, funny, and occasionally thought-provoking. Here is something similar)

There are obvious justifications for the lack of religion. The exhibition isn’t trying to be representative (an impossible task), and the elite of internationally-minded feminist artists are probably more secular than their compatriots. Still, as a selfish member of the cultural hegemon, I’d appreciate seeing my assumptions challenged and integrated, rather than merely transplanted.

* I’m thinking here of the piece by ‘Miss Information‘, who is deceptively true to her name. Behind the mask is a Canadian man, who built the exhibit on the back of a VOIP coop he runs (he’s a fascinating figure, treading a thin line between prankster, entrepreneur, artist and political theorist. I keep meaning to write something about him here). It’s a phone-based game of Chinese Whispers: some callers are given recorded information about the exhibit; other calls are redirected to earlier callers, who are supposed to pass on the information they received.

** This feels disconcertingly close to the emotional/security argument for homeowning – albeit absent the 25 years’ indentured service to a bank, and the risk of ruin when the housing or the mortgage market shifts.

*** Plenty of cultural historians will argue that outbursts of creativity tend to be propped up by prosperity and freedom from drudgery: the 60s (the end of post-war austerity) and 5th-century Athens (supported by slaves) are examples I’ve often heard). This is the kind of argument that I normally see trotted out when it’s convenient, and ignored when it isn’t. There’s no doubt that an obscene proportion of the canon of English poets and authors have had massive family wealth (pre-photography painters less so, because you could make a living by selling portraits). But the relationship between general national wealth and the number of writers seems much less clear-cut.

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