A manifesto of sorts outlining Harrison’s values and strategies for approaching life and art-making. Written in 2012 in response to a provocation by psychologist Tim Kasser for The Art of Life (p.19-21) published by Mission Models Money & Common Cause. (Word count: 1,229)
You may be pleased to hear that as well as being an ‘artist’ – a supposed creator of the ‘arts and culture’ in question – I am also a human being. Even though on good days I convince myself that I’ve finally cracked it, my life, like yours, is an ongoing battle against the barrage of consumerist propaganda that surrounds us, to remind myself what I really care about, what I actually need and what makes me happy.
It certainly hasn’t helped growing up and being educated in a system which evidently prioritises all the wrong things. Recently I listened with some horror to an interview given by my younger self in 2002. Just one year out of art school, I was quizzed by a perky local radio show host, about what I wanted to do with myself in the future. “I want to be a famous artist!” I replied, with no hesitation or sense of irony. I seem to recall that it wasn’t the money I was after, so much as the ‘glory’. I had graduated from a system that prioritised the ‘popularity’ and ‘image’ of the artist rather than the values of creativity itself.
Unfortunately, it took me until I was nearly 30 to realise that this ‘careerist mentality‘ was not necessarily the healthiest way of approaching life. Not only did it isolate me by pitting me against my peers, but it also appeared wholly unrealistic (not to mention irresponsible) in a dawning age of environmental and financial crises, to base my life’s future on the petty reward structure of today’s artworld. But, crucially, it made me realise how this narrow-minded vision of what I could ‘do’ was restricting the skills, dedication and energy that I did have, from being put to good use.
It was a moment of enlightenment that’s for sure. But what it is important to reflect on here, is that this moment came not from being lectured to about the error of my ways or from being told how I should behave by the powers-that-be, but from finally allowing myself the time and space to study and analyse the world around me and to critically reflect on the place I had assumed within it. I suddenly began to notice the glaring inconsistencies between what I had been taught to aspire to and what would actually be better for my mental health, society as a whole and, of course, the environment. But, most importantly, I began to feel empowered about what I could actually ‘do’ to try to change things.
I began to reimagine my role in the world, both as ‘artist’ and as human being. I set about attempting to remove as many contradictions as I could, by creating a more holistic approach to living and working that could support a very different value structure. I had to start by living by example, “to be the change I wanted to see” as Gandhi so wisely advised. And so, with a cheeky re-appropriation of corporate jargon, I launched my own ‘environmental policy‘ on my website to outline all the day-to-day actions I vowed to take responsibility for to limit my own impact on the world. This was the foundation on which all my other activity could be built.
Disturbed by the elitism and institutional limitations of the artworld, I then began to re-channel some of my time and energy into direct political action. My concerns for the environment, for the provision of public services and our increasing inequality and atomisation as individuals, began to coalesce in a passion for public transport. And so, in 2009, I set up the Bring Back British Rail campaign (which I continue to run today) – as an attempt to create awareness for the continual privatisation of our public services and to popularise the idea of renationalisation as a policy motivated by moral, rather than financial, gain.
And finally, without wanting to discount all I’d learnt at art school, I began to analyse the key benefits of my creativity and to work out how these might best be used to develop my own and others’ well-being and encourage social justice:
- By paying attention to how I was spending my time, I began to notice how creativity (and the ‘flow’, ‘play’, ‘interest’ and ‘curiosity’ that came with it) really could improve my own quality of life. The best days were those when I did not engage in consumerist society at all and instead allowed myself the time and space in my studio to just read, write and have ideas.
- Then, if I was going to continue to allow ‘art works’ to result from this creative process, I felt they must be about all the new things I was studying. Projects such as A Brief History of Privatisation and Early Warning Signs, attempt to use playful and inclusive language to engage a broader audience and to draw attention to the negative side effects of the free-market system, which big-business would rather we did not notice at all.
- As well as these more conventional ‘art works’, I also chose to invest time and administration skills in creating frameworks, situations or experiences which would bring people together. The Work-a-thon for the Self-Employed and Artists’ Lottery Syndicate attempted to create temporary (or long lasting) convivial spaces or communities, which would allow people to notice our similarities (rather than our differences) and to realise the real power we have when we come together to affect real positive change.
OK, so I might now be a shameless counter-hegemonic propaganda machine, but someone’s got to do it! This new multi-faceted approach is perhaps the necessary proof that I do believe that ‘arts and culture’ can and should function alongside those all important ‘personal interventions’, ‘civil society campaigns’ and ‘policy approaches’ (described in Tim Kasser’s text) as a tool for enabling people to learn how to reject the pressures of the market and focus on the good things in life. However, this can only be ‘arts and culture’ which is intellectually autonomous and uncorrupted by commercial (or other) interest. Art that is free in both senses of the word can only result from (bottom-up) grassroots organisation or, in some cases, (top-down) public funding.
If we are going to offer this position of ‘responsibility’ to our artists, then we must first make sure that they are not in it for all the wrong reasons themselves. Changing the way art is taught would be a good place to start – breaking down that entrenched myth of the ‘famous artist’. We need to remove the stigma attached to not fitting this mould when leaving art school, so that young graduates have the confidence to use the skills they have acquired beyond the artworld, where they can best become useful members of society and fulfilled human beings. This battle is huger than it sounds as it must also resist the continual marketisation of higher education and the insistence on sidelining ‘arts and culture’ altogether.
But, as my opening sentence may suggest, it is actually wrong to think of artists as being in an elevated position at all. What we all need, regardless of our occupation, is not ‘arts and culture’ per se, but simply the time and space beyond the realms of the market, where we can each access knowledge, critically reflect and feel empowered change our lives for the better.