A chance encounter with Meanwhile Gardens

DSC_0657In spare moments, I sometimes like to google the names of the artists represented in the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues I have (dating from 1967 and 1969) to get a sense of what type of artists were involved. While some of them are famous names, such as Elizabeth Frink et al, most are artists I have ever heard of. As you might expect, many seem to have little or no online presence, but others turn out to still be practising artists, some mentioning Pictures for Schools on their websites as an exhibition they took part in many decades ago at the start of their careers, as well as listing local authority collections in which their work is represented. There have been a few artists who seem to have had particularly interesting careers, or links with art education, who I might like to speak to if I get chance. Unfortunately, many of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools are long dead and one artist who really captured my imagination in particular, a sculptor named Jamie McCullough, died far too young at the age of 53, in 1998.

When I googled Jamie McCullough’s name, many of the results related to a project McCullough initiated in 1976 and completed in 1978, called Meanwhile Gardens. For two years, McCullough temporarily turned his back on sculpture in order to transform a patch of vacant land next to the Grand Union Canal in Paddington, London (overlooked by Erno Goldfinger’s infamous Trellick Tower) into a community garden, outdoor theatre, skatepark and bike facility, turning a site the council and planners seemed unable to think of a use for into a resource for the local community. McCullough worked with volunteers, along with labourers sourced from the Manpower Services Commission, begging and borrowing tools and assistance where he could. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation published McCullough’s experiences of the project in book form (the book is still available from the Foundation’s website, and although a price is quoted they seem happy to send it out for free), capturing all the frustration and long, hard, cold days of work on site, as well as eventual success. The book reads as a manual for communities hoping to achieve something similar elsewhere, setting out the processes, paperwork and easy-to-overlook bureaucratic considerations that need to be taken on before attempting such a project, from establishing land ownership, getting official approval via committee, obtaining insurance and winning financial support from charities to establishing the exact location of all the electricity cables under the area in question!

Although it’s not exactly related to Pictures for Schools, I’m glad to have come across Meanwhile Gardens. McCullough worked on Meanwhile Gardens in the expectation that it was just a temporary solution for the space, as the council was due to eventually redevelop it. Happily, the redevelopment never happened and Meanwhile Gardens still exists as a community garden and skatepark today: I’m hoping to visit one day.

One of the best online resources I have come across about public art in this period is the website of David Harding (town artist at Glenrothes New Town), and true to form he both knew and wrote about McCullough.

I like the sound of another of McCullough’s projects,  the Beginners Way down in the South West of England, even more, because of the way he transformed the existing natural resources of a forest into an experiential artwork, with its own, limited lifespan which saw the sculptures gradually decay in line with the natural lifecycle and renewal of the forest, yet refused to publicise it, leaving it as something to be stumbled across and discovered by accident (nevertheless, as this local BBC article explains, it managed to become very popular with the public!).

The psychology of art: mid-twentieth century ideas of visual perception

In my last supervisory meeting one of my supervisors mentioned the Gestalt in relation to twentieth century art and art education, so I’ve been trying to read up on the concept. I’ve also been looking at a couple of really interesting books by Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1956) and Towards a Psychology of Art (1966), a Gestalt psychologist who applied modern psychological theory specifically to the analysis of art and visual perception. Arnheim was writing at a time in the mid-twentieth century when psychologists were increasingly using art to try and understand the human mind, and when art teachers were consulting professionals such as psychologists to inform their teaching of art and understanding of children’s artwork (as I have seen through articles in the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene).

I’ve been really interested by definitions of the Gestalt, which emphasise ‘wholeness’ and ‘integrated’ personalities; Gestalt theory suggests that a subject’s wholeness can be threatened by an ‘atomised’ society in which subjects and activities, including art, are compartmentalised, specialised and seen in isolation, and in which the goals of society are too abstract and unobtainable. A key idea within Gestalt theory is that the whole determines the parts, and that the view of what is being focused on depends on the interaction between a background’ against which the point of interest, the ‘figure’, stands out. Gestalt therapy works on the basis of restoring the subject’s ‘wholeness’ and ‘integrity’, with the individual experiencing growth by coming into contact and assimilating with the environment. As Goodman, Hefferline and Perls explain in Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, published in New York at the start of the 1950s, the Gestalt approach to life is one which is original, undistorted and natural. Individuals are encouraged to have a heightened awareness of where they are and realise that they and their environment are not independent entities, but that together they constitute a total system. Individuals must not take their environment as a given, something over which they have no control, but realise their capacity to influence it, whether in private or in public spheres such as town planning. It is important, therefore, for the modern citizen to be self-aware.

This seems to tie in with ideas of the ‘active’ or ‘aesthetic’ citizen promoted during the post-war period who, it was thought, through exposure to ‘good’ examples of art and design, would become sensitised to and therefore care for their environment. It also relates to writing on citizenship and art education in the post-war period, notably by Herbert Read, who argued in Education Through Art that art education is a process of educating the individual as a whole person and enabling them to ‘assimilate’ to society by making a contribution as a citizen at the same time as maintaining their own uniqueness as an individual. Read argued that the purpose of art education is to enable an individual to develop a creative outlook on life, and this has parallels in Gestalt theories on visual perception, which link vision to a creative grasp of reality and define vision as a creative activity of the human mind. Herbert Read has been coming up so much in my reading – he seems to have had a finger in every artistic pie in the mid-twentieth century – that I wasn’t really surprised to discover that he actually translated one of Arnheim’s books from English into German.

In his writing on art Rudolf Arnheim explained that pictures and sculptures work by communicating dramatic tensions which convey universal patterns. Art functions by discovering order, law and necessity in seemingly irrational experiences, thereby helping observe, uncover and predict the nature of things. Visual perception works, and art can be understood, then, by grasping these significant structural patterns and not reducing them to uniformity but by making them comparable to other things. Arnheim suggested that a person’s responses to artworks and expressions are shaped partly by what they have learned through education and by being subjected to external standards, partly by insight and observation, and partly by stereotypes influenced by the viewer’s peers and social group. One of Arnheim’s most interesting observations, made in Towards a Psychology of Art in 1966, is that the experience of modern art had become mediated by an array of experts and lay people pontificating on what art was and what it wasn’t, and what was done, when it was done and why, in a series of books, articles, talks, lectures and guides which left art in danger of being ‘drowned by talk’. Modern art, along with much of the art of the past, had become remote and incomprehensible to people, argued Arnheim, because it had been split off from ‘practical life’ and become the preserve of experts. All the thought and discussion surrounding art meant people could no longer discover meaning from simply relying on their senses and instinctive judgements. Museums, said Arnheim, consisted of remote objects seen at an aesthetic distance, meaning that people could visit museums yet not really see the art. Partly, suggested Arnehim, this could be remedied by experiencing the creation of art.

Arnheim was keen to debunk myths that the artist is mythical or irrelevant and link the artist with everyday life, saying that the artistic outlook is about a person finding and shaping information from what’s around them. Therefore, he argued, it is not just gifted experts who can take a creative approach to life but every person. Art, said Arnheim, is in all objects and activities, and it is what makes the world visible (Arnheim argued, furthermore, that the realistic tendency in Western art had produced a gradual decrease in visibility of the world). Art, he explained, both expresses an attitude toward life and is a tool for dealing with life. Art cannot be seen in isolation and must be viewed as an attempt to understand the meaning of existence through shapes and colours and movement. Art, therefore, cannot be seen as light entertainment to be enjoyed after work but is something to be immersed in fully with all the viewer’s mental powers.

Also of particular interest to me are Arnheim’s discussions of abstract art versus realist art; he argued that abstract art is just as valid a means of conveying expression, and can enhance the artist and viewer’s understanding of the world, just as much as realistic art, sometimes even more so. Abstract art is just one way of looking at the world. Arnheim argued that the purpose of the artist is not just to record faithfully what is around them, and that images of reality that are not ‘realistic’ can be just as effective as detailed transcriptions of reality. As in other types of great art, Arnheim pointed out, abstract art is not easy to analyse and good form does not show.

Arnheim also made some interesting observations on modern art and its reception, saying that modern art is far from naïve but derives naturally from spontaneous observation and the characteristics of the media; experimenting with techniques, he suggested, can help people find their way in the world. Furthermore, Arnheim suggested that modern style goes back to the beginnings of art, to a time before it was thought that works of art should be observed solely from one constant viewpoint. However, Arnheim acknowledged that twentieth century art was not easy for many in society to accept, often representing unpleasant sights and appearing violent, full of conflict, ugly, and disillusioning: new ways of expression represented familiar figures of men, landscapes and cities in frightening and mutilated ways, something that was hard for ‘the average man on the street’ to relate to. Arnheim used this to caution against the idea that art should be easy or pretty, saying that the tradition of artists offering amusement, entertainment and decoration should be challenged. In art education, Arnheim cautioned against a trend towards allowing the child to express shapeless emotion’, and a tendency for artists and art students to practice composition for composition’s sake without having something to say.

Some history on the Arts Council

As Pictures for Schools exhibitions received funding from the Arts Council, I have been doing some reading about its history and development to understand some of the context of funding and state patronage in the post-war period. I have found some interesting things to bear in mind, for example how cultural experiences and official support for the arts was mediated by the choices and decisions of those in charge of the Arts Council, who were often seen to represent a fairly elite portion of metropolitan society. This also ties in with ideas of expertise, and the type of people who were seen as fit to serve on such bodies (usually those with an amateur rather than professional interest in art) and be consulted about the type of culture suitable for consumption by the modern British public. The information below was gleaned from two texts: ‘Cultured into Crisis: The Arts Council of Great Britain’ by Jonathan Harris, in Art Apart: Art Institutions and Ideology Across England and North America (edited by Marcia Pointon), and Arts and Cultures: The History of the 50 Years of the Arts Council of Great Britain by Andrew Sinclair. It is amazing how two texts on the same topic can give such a different impression of a subject: Harris paints a critique of the Arts Council as a cautious and reactionary institution, whereas Sinclair details at great length a heroic organisation which is the envy of the rest of Europe.

The Arts Council of Great Britain was a major enabler for the arts in post-war Britain. Its formation in 1945 as a quango under Royal Charter from the monarch, at the same time as the welfare state was being set up, indicated that art was considered worthy of receiving public funding along with essential social benefits such health service and housing. Set up with the purpose of developing a greater knowledge, understanding and practice of the fine arts and improving the standard of their execution, the Arts Council grew out of a growing realisation during the Second World War that Britain had a national culture which was worth defending. The Arts Council also took on an advisory role, working with government departments, local authorities and other bodies. It was structured around committees comprising a mixture of professional administrators and private individuals with amateur or informal interests in the arts. As these people were not paid, this tended to favour those who could afford to work without a salary, leading to accusations of a socially homogenous organisation with members drawn from a relatively narrow section of society; officers and advisors were mostly based in the South East, close to the Arts Council’s location in London. As the government also chose the chairman and all other members, this led to further accusations of members being broadly supportive of the government’s political and ideological principles and policies, and a lack of transparency in decision-making.

Other criticisms levelled at the Arts Council included a lack of definition of the ‘fine arts’, and that the Council has tended to represent a certain type of media and practitioners over others. For instance, visual arts have always received a small amount of funding compared with drama, music and literature. Supporting only professional cultural activities, the Arts Council started by aiding the best that had already developed in the metropolis and the regions (Sinclair) rather than nurturing new talent. At first, a large part of the Arts Council’s work involved managing its own touring exhibitions, with large grants made to around 15 prestigious galleries, mainly in metropolitan areas such as London, which could be seen to share its values and standards. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, a number of regional organisations comprising amalgamations of local government bodies, specialised arts clubs and other associations of people with interests in a wide variety of cultural activities were established and began to seek funding from the Arts Council. They were later officially recognised as Regional Arts Associations.

One thing I found it hard to get a sense of was the Regional Arts Associations which formed later in the post-war period: what type of people were involved in these Regional Arts Societies, how they operated, and the kinds of activities they supported at a local level. Gaining more understanding of how this network of regional arts bodies operated could be relevant as my project will look at Pictures for Schools on two levels: how it operated centrally, through annual exhibitions in London anchored in the Society for Education in Art, and on a local level, in geographically-distributed local authorities and schools. So far, I believe that local authorities in a few key areas – chiefly Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire – built up particularly strong collections of council-owned artworks, with some of the artworks purchased through Pictures for Schools, and I am interested in seeing whether there were any links with and support from Regional Arts Associations.