The New Year seems a good time to review the health of art in the Wairarapa. This is particularly opportune given the decisions pending about a new local government grouping with, or separate from, Wellington. Wellington prides itself on being the cultural capital of the country. If the Wellington region as a whole were the subject of this review, it would get a resounding tick for regional cultural policies effectively encouraging a diverse and healthy art scene. Wairarapa, taken in isolation, hardly achieves a pass mark having almost no coherent policies about the social value of the art project.
Art, like Health, Psychology, Music and Sports all seem to invite opinions from everyone on the basis that “I know what I like and therefore that is what is good”. All of these sectors are industries with a vast and varied production. Only a small part of this production addresses the core purpose of the particular discipline. Art’s core purpose is to present ways of looking or thinking about the contemporary world that allows the viewer/audience to gain some experience or viewpoint they would not have been able to try out by themselves.
It is very hard to achieve this core purpose when most people regard art as a fashionable compliment to their interior décor. This ‘art as entertainment’, like reality TV, cooking programmes, sitcoms and talk back radio endorses the commercially based status quo rather than stimulating thought and reflection. The key to entertainment is not the creative subversion that art engages in but the direct opposite – the repetition of existing ways of seeing, of stereotypes and prejudices. Good art encourages doubts and questioning, entertainment encourages the status quo by ‘packaging’ itself as a normal marketable product.
It is a good test of any artwork to ask if it raises new issues or makes some comment on contemporary happenings. If it does not, it may be because you as viewer cannot unravel the new perspective. Art, like cryptic crosswords, often takes some practice to understand. New ways of seeing the world are often difficult simply because the established ways are always established as the norm. The core function of art is to seduce the audience into going places they do not really want to confront. The value of this to the community is that it encourages practice at lateral creative thinking. One just has to think of the technological, ideological and social changes of the last couple of decades to realize how important it is for society to be able to adapt and respond to changing circumstances and values. Art, at least in its core form, is one of the human activities that concentrates on encouraging that flexible thinking.
Wairarapa has an abundance of art as entertainment. Most of that production is adequately skilled in its manufacture and marketed well. Buyers will purchase some of it to decorate their homes locally or elsewhere and it is probably good for our economy that we have so many practitioners making these works, but they do not contribute to the aim of making us think about the world we live in.
Because the task of cajoling or seducing the audience into new ways of thinking is bound to be financially unsustainable, the responsibility for presenting this sort of art falls on publically funded art institutions. The Wellington region has a range of public galleries whose funders do understand this as the role of the public gallery. Pataka in Porirua and the City Gallery are good examples. These galleries, and occasionally privately run professional ones, exhibit the work of serious artists. While some established artists still concentrate on entertainment, at least in larger cities the balance is a little more in favour of the core project.
Aratoi is our only publically funded institution, but because of that public funding the gallery is required to be all things to all funders and pay its own way as much as possible. To the extent that those funders see art as only entertainment and not a useful mechanism for encouraging progressive thinking, the Wairarapa will neglect to pay attention to arts most useful purpose.