A polemic by Harrison to conclude Artquest’s For The Love Of It conference exploring the various factors which can and should motivate artists.


Hello everyone, thanks for a fantastic and stimulating day! It’s given me a lot to think about as I head back up to Glasgow on the train tomorrow. I’ve been given this final slot to attempt to draw together some of the recurring themes of the day, and to give you a personal account of what has been driving and motivating me to do the things I have done over the last five years.

I think this has been a very important conference, because I think, as artists, we all must become more self-reflexive and honest in analysing and questioning just why, why, why we work. Is is for the love of it, boredom, the desire for success, for the money, to change the world, a compulsion to act, curiosity, to try to understand or to attempt to control?

Over the last five years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time analysing my own motivations and values and identifying how they have been shaped by the world around me. I have attempted to take control of these so that there is less contradiction between what I believe in and how I act. I hope this will have resonance with any artists who feel a slight unease with their chosen career path; who are concerned with the state of the world and wondering what an earth they can and should be doing to try to change it.

The last five years have provided the ideal opportunity to do this sort of thinking. As we all know it has been a time of prolonged crisis – economic, social and environmental. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the definition of this word ‘crisis’ that we hear banded around so often, because alludes to a turning point; a moment of decisive change.

It was almost five years ago now that the ‘credit crunch’ began. When that little known American investment bank – Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for biggest bankruptcy in history writing off $600 Billion dollars overnight. We all know the story – this turmoil spread to other parts of the world and in 2009, Gordon Brown gave £850 Billion pounds of UK taxpayers money to bailout our corrupt banking industry.

Just to put these numbers into perspective, and for the context of today’s discussion, I thought I’d show you how this compares with the total annual expenditure on the arts (in England, Scotland and Wales) in 2011-2012 [£478 million]. And since Cameron’s coalition took power in 2010 the changes have certainly not been the ones we might have hoped for – huge cuts to public spending which will have massive impacts on artist’s lives. These are all the factors, which I’m sure were the impetus for calling today’s conference.

But by sheer coincidence, 15 September 2008 was also the day that I moved to Scotland to begin the MFA at Glasgow School of Art. I was lucky enough to have two whole years of thinking time to really reflect on what was going on in the world around me. It wasn’t so much the financial turmoil that concerned me most, but more the impact that our capitalist system – its demand for continual expansion on our finite planet – was having on our environment.

This graph was published in the wake of the failed United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in December 2009. It shows the estimated global temperature increase over the course of the next century, which is likely to result from our ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions. This was the really sobering stuff.

It threw some fundamental questions that conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner and Douglas Huebler had grappled with in the 60s. In a world in which the over-production of objects, and the over-use of resources is essentially our biggest problem, how can we carry on regardless, passively contributing to the problem rather than actively helping to solve it?

The logical conclusion to this problem is, of course, to simply stop. The rise of Conceptual Art movement in the 60s, was in many ways an attempt to resist rampant consumerism and commodification. Gustav Metzger’s Art Strike in 1970s and Stewart Home’s in the 1990s attempt to stop feeding the machine altogether.

But sometimes if you take the path of instrumental reason and follow a problem right through to the logical end, the conclusion is actually absurd. For an artist, is giving up art, not akin to killing oneself? Comparable with the greatest of existential dilemmas that Albert Camus tried to resolve.

To be alive is to be a hypocrite. We are carbon making machines and so there is a fundamental contradiction we must overcome if we want to continue to breathe. But once you become resigned to this, it seems you better damn well make sure you’re not wasting your time so all this CO2 is mitigated (to some extent).

As career-minded MFA student at the prestigious Glasgow School of Art, I looked at this graph and I could not help but think, WTF? This just does stack up? There’s a bit of a disjunction here with how I imagine my career might pan out over the next few decades. Er? Excuse me?

So I’m here now 2010, and by here I was meant to have won the Turner Prize. I wasn’t intending to be suffering as a result of global crop failures, food shortages, massive influx of climate refugees, more extreme weather conditions, flooding, snow, heat waves etc. Whatever the future may more likely hold in store.

So my big question became – how could I reconcile ‘the careerist mentality’ which had been bread into me – at art school during Tony Blair’s Creative Decade and as a child growing under Thatcher’s neoliberal regime – with this more pessimistic picture of what the future holds in store. The challenge was to analyse how I could use the skills I had learnt to more altruistic ends, rather than simply for personal reward, or the bolstering of my own ego.

This became the title of my MFA Dissertation. And my conclusions were that we do certain qualities, which it would be crazy to simply throw away [‘flair, self-assurance, and… sense of audacity’]. In his book ‘Why are artists poor?’ Hans Abbing talks about the precociousness of the average art student. The fact that most come from what he calls an ‘above average’ social background gives us a self-confidence (arrogance maybe) and determination that what we are doing is so important that people should take note. How useful could this be if we really were saying something that mattered?

Then there are the working practices of the Post-Fordist era which we have all become accustomed to: ‘flexibility’, ‘nomadism’ and ‘sponteneity’. Qualities, which some argue artists have always had, but which have become more mainstream over the last 30 years. But our ability to act on the spur of the moment and to be flexible in adapting to change and taking on different roles will be vital in the uncertain and unprecedented future that we face.

And finally there is our obsessive work ethic. The fact that for most artists, there is little connection between labour and wage. We happily work away ‘for the love of it’ or for those many other possible reasons, without any monetary reward. It is this quality, which Hans Abbing identifies as being what sustains the whole art world and keeps it going.

Artists! These are our skills! We should be proud. Now, rather than let them be instrumentalised or hijacked by others we should think carefully about how we best use them to fight for something that we really believe in.

So, far from quitting, I felt inspired to develop a new way of working. It was inspired by the way large campaign groups such as Greenpeace, operate: “through multi-pronged channels of official, semi-official and illicit activity to negotiate specific ends”. My plan was to use a variety of tactics, some beyond the art world and some within to attempt to illuminate some of the fatal contradictions of the capitalist system which were leading to climate disaster and to effect change.

In my new role I came to refer to my practice, not just as ‘artist’ but as hovering somewhere between artist, activist and administrator. By positioning myself between these three roles, I became more aware of the different desires and demands of each.

My first step was to launch an Environmental Policy on my website, explaining all of the things I attempt to do to reduce my carbon footprint. These were real guidelines for how I should live, as well as being an exploration of all too familiar corporate greenwash, and the way in which a strong ethical stance can be used as marketing power. If you go public about your actions, then not only do you personally win brownie points, you are also more likely to stick to them. And, you may also be able to educate and influence others to change their behaviour.

But what was my goal? If I no longer felt it was realistic or ethical to be motivated by the conventional markers of ‘success’ within the art world (the Turner Prize and all the rest), then I needed another goal, another challenge.

So mine was motivated by my concern for the environment, which developed into a passion for public transport. The rationale being that: the only way that we are going to be able to reduce carbon emissions to the extent that we need to – by minimising the number of journeys that are made by car or short haul flight – is by having a fully functional public transport that is cheap (or even free) to use.

And not one where billionaires like Richard Branson and Brian Suitor of Stagecoach, run our train lines, siphoning off our public subsidies to line their pockets whilst charging passengers a fortune. So I founded the Bring Back British Rail campaign in 2009 in order to popularise the idea of renationalising our public transport system so that this policy can again enter mainstream political discourse as a realistic option, and not the taboo that Thatcher made it into.

So as I continue to run the campaign in my spare time and attempt to adhere to my Environmental Policy, I aim to bring the principles of each of these into the work that I do still do for an art context. I’m not going to talk about that much now, But I have found it’s not as easy as it might sound to stay on the straight and narrow in the free market world that we live in, where so many temptations exist and so much money is spent on advertising, and so much effort goes into trying to convince us that we should be doing and caring about other things. I’ve been tracking the instances in which I’ve breached my Environmental Policy over the last few years and interestingly it’s always only Love of Money that’s the cause.

Last year I was asked to write a text responding to some of the latest research on human values, which I found very useful for helping me to analyse the moments when I may have strayed from the course. This diagram (from the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology), shows the basic human goals, which have been found to recur universally across 15 different cultures.

The goals on the left are the extrinsic values, such as popularity, image and financial success. And the goals on the right are referred to as the intrinsic values such as self-acceptance, community and affiliation. I quote:

“Dozens of studies now make it clear that people who prioritise extrinsic values experience lower levels of well-being and higher levels of distress. If … money, image and status rise in importance, people experience less happiness and life satisfaction, fewer pleasant emotions (like joy and contentment), and more unpleasant emotions (like anger and anxiety) in their day-to-day lives… Placing higher importance on intrinsic values (and successfully pursuing these values) is, in contrast, consistently associated with being happier and healthier.”

The evidence also demonstrates that when a person prioritises any of these values on the left side of the Circumplex, then the ones opposite them become suppressed, and vice versa. So if you care more about your own self-acceptance and value your community and close personal relationships with other people, then you’re less likely to care about making money or becoming famous. But additionally, the evidence shows that if you value these things – because of the suppression effect – you are also more likely to act in a less-selfish and more environmentally conscious way and have increased levels of well-being. Sounds like a win-win situation to me!

I equated this to my own life and I began to see that the lifestyle that I had constructed had actually been allowing me to work in a de-alienated way. That allows me the joy of creative thinking and generating ideas simply ‘for the love of it’, together with the satisfaction of following them all the way through to fruition. This work was actually what kept me sane – it was essential for my own mental health. It was as much for me as it about communicating this process with other people or attempting to impact positively on the world around us. It is both selfish and selfless. It is in the interests of the individual, as well as the interests of the whole class.

I think win-win situations like these are our best bet for motivating selfish creatures like us human beings to do the right thing. I have a few illustrations of what I mean. The first is a bit of a no brainer – energy saving. If we save energy in our homes, not only do we get to feel smug and environmentally friendly, but we save money personally plus we save CO2 emissions and help reduce the impact of climate change globally. Win-win. It’s good for us and it’s good for the world.

Another is cycling. If you make the decision to make all you local journeys by bike. It will get you from A to B, giving you all the exercise you need, whilst saving you money and producing zero CO2. Win-win.

And finally, my favourite eating porridge. It’s completely natural and unprocessed and all so it’s good for you. It’s about the cheapest thing that you can buy so it saves you so much cash plus it’s locally grown and is minimally packaged so produces less CO2. Win-win.

But what has all this got to do with art, I hear you say? Well these lifestyle choices should all be part of the holistic art practice. So that we can construct our living and working environments to such an extent that we can close our value-action gaps – the gaps between what we care about and what we do. But we can bring this win-win analogy further into thinking about how we may best use our creativity and strive to make work.

In her book Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop sets up a number of dichotomies that present themselves within the realm of socially-engaged practice:

  • quality and equality
  • singular and collective
  • aesthetic and ethical

Although, she implies that a lot of art sways too close to either one of these poles, she suggests that there is a ‘holy grail’ to be found – an artwork which has the potential to tick all the boxes at once: to have both quality and equality, to be both aesthetically and ethically pleasing.

The Battle of Orgreave is her favourite example, which she considers to have succeeded on many levels:

  • creating awareness about an important part of British history, which had been marginalised
  • acting as reunion, a reminder of solidarity and a cathartic experience for those taking part
  • whilst at the same time, contributing something new to the development of art history and the evolution of participatory art

It’s a win-win! But for Jeremy Deller it was also a winner – catapulting him to super stardom, Turner Prize nomination etc. It was a win-win-win! Which perhaps proves the suggestion from the research on values, that:

“there is evidence that artists motivated by their work – rather than by fame, rewards or a desire to ‘prove themselves’ – ultimately tend to be the most successful”

But these win-win-wins are obviously easier said than done. But the role of the artists really ultimately should be one of problem solver. To look at all the different issues at stake in any given situation:

  • is there a brief?
  • who is commissioning you?
  • who will see the work?
  • how much are you getting paid?
  • And most importantly, what do you care about and what do you want to say?

Question whether any of these things compromise what you believe in and then, use your creative response as a way of challenging or ameliorating this.

It’s the over production of objects which is our greatest problem, not the over production of ideas. So it is our challenge, our responsibility even, to think, think, think until we come up with the perfect solution.

For the Love of It