Thursday, April 30, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Northern Intellectual?

A fascinating kickstart to a new round of debate, by Charles Leadbetter: an essay entitled "The Art of With", which allows paragraph by paragraph comments. It's a kickstart because it will be followed by a one-day seminar and other activity at Manchester's Cornerhouse. The nature of the essay and its structure makes it wrong to try and paraphrase it, though it's relatively accessible and easy to paraphrase. (I would argue that in art, if not in criticism, our ability to paraphrase the art rather than read/watch/engage is one of the key fallouts of "accessible art" - its the art that you can't paraphrase, John Ashbery say, or Gillian Wearing, that most interests me).

But, though I'd ask you to read the original, I'll summarise a few thoughts here. The "art of with" begins with the idea that the avant garde (in itself not defined in the article: and I've a little interest in that definition) has traditionally been "separate" - rejecting the consumerism of the 20th century, but being part of arts institutions that are themselves based upon the consumerist model. Is the web, with its ethos of "shared" and "collaborative" experience a different model? Perhaps. Yet, I've asked the question before whether Fordism is alive and well in the Googleopolis - as Google's "business model" is not mine as an artist. (There's a particular thing here of course: Google wants to give away YOUR art for free, and collect the payment not for you, but by using you.) Yet there's definitely something about the modern communication infrastructure that the internet is part of which offers the artist - and the avant gardist - a chance to "up" - whether that's upskill, or upload. I'm less convinced that the "mix culture" that Leadbetter talks about - and which has been bandied around for a while as a new way of creation - is either new or edifying. I've blogged before that writers in particular (but I would say visual artists and others as well) risk becoming middlemen in the cultural value chain, rather than originators in their own right. This is not just about "influence" but about value-added. Hip hop as the original share-culture of populist art remains a vital touchstone, because it created something defiantly and definitely new, from what was already there (and unused) - often the instrumental breaks on the b-sides of old James Brown records. The cut and paste fun of say, Girltalk, is more stars-on-45 for pseuds, because the end result is not something NEW, like "Paid in Full" or "Paul's Boutique", but something reversioned. A reversioning is not a problem - but it seems somehow lesser.

But without going much further at this point into Leadbetter's article - it does raise a couple of key questions about the "creative classes". Our institutions (and their gatekeepers) remain too powerful in this sense. The real lesson of "open source communities" is that they are outsider communities, one way or another. It's almost an impossible paradox talking about the UGC communities coming out of mass-market products like Flickr and Youtube, at the same time as discussing the open source software community, for the former is only concerned with content and will use whatever tool is appropriate; the latter wants to define and design the tools. In some ways, open source development mirrors its own enemy - for where else do you find a puritanism about "design" and "function" other than in the exclusiveness of the Eames chair or the Apple Mac?

Yet it is the open source community model which makes most sense for art, and for the avant garde artist. I would strongly disagree with the idea that the avant garde was ever non-collaborative (often entirely the opposite), but it does seem that we need to be aware of where great art comes from, and though it can be very much helped by institutions, it cannot be determined by them. (The art school gave us the Beatles, Bowie, Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols, for instance - not what they were developed for, but not a bad unexpected consequence, nonetheless). And, around this, and this is why "The art of with" debate is timely, there needs, to be frank there to be an intellectual and critical discussion. I wonder whatever happened to the Northern Intellectual? Our city and regional leaders wouldn't fit that description - and nor, come to think of it, would many of our other high profile figures. When its debating time in Manchester we roll out the interesting, the practical, and the well-known, whether its Guy Garvey, Ian Simpson, Wayne Hemingway or Dave Haslam. Nothing wrong with any of them of course; but there's a sense of either the streetfighter tamed, or the Grammar school boy acting down for the masses. It's why Tony Wilson had the streets of Manchester to himself, where 2nd-hand situationism, and a day job at Granada could make for an intellectual high water mark. On the day that MMU/Chorlton-based Carole Ann Duffy most likely gets the Laureate, our professor of contemporary poetry is praised for her humour, accessibility and popularity, not for her intellect. Main rival, Simon Armitage, is always careful to hide his intellect under a laddish cover of northern dry wit.

Yet, elsewhere in the city, the very strengths that Richard Florida noted in Manchester in his essay on the creative classes, all those years ago, are strong and well. So, there's a challenge for "the art of with" and the Cornerhouse, and that's about Manchester itself. Charles Leadbetter is fine and dandy, but its when the city doesn't have to import its intellectual discussion, but leads on it, that the city's undoubted knowledge economy will come into its own.


Dave Haslam said...

What or who is a 'Northern Intellectual'??? What or who is 'an intellectual', come to that? If you provided some examples or some desciption of this mythical being, then I would be able to begin to discuss this with you. Your question implies that once there was a Northern Intellectual but now there isn't. Or even your question implies, maybe there was only ever just one; 'the' Northern Intellectual. Perhaps a man who you once met on a train who read the same books as you and therefore fitted your ideal. I wish you'd been at the Festival Pavilion last night to hear me interviewing Guy Garvey. It was a great event; we talked about death, the creative process, the idea of 'home', the work of Alan Bennett, definitions of masculinity, drinking, how Manchester creates 'scenes', queues in Somerfield and Australian theme bars. And loads of other stuff. God knows if we were 'intelelctual' enough for you, but I think we contributed to the world of ideas in a very unique and intense and open way. The audience asked questions. The room was full of love. We had a bit more to drink. There were no 'gatekeepers'.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Thanks for the comment, Dave. I'm sorry if you interpreted my mention of you and others as critical, it may have been a little more flippant than I meant. I've immense respect for your writing, and still remember the debates about the city around the Commonwealth games which were incredibly stimulating. The same goes for Guy - and yes, it sounds like I missed a good one. What I was questioning is how often it seems that we import "big names" to do their normal schtick, and just wondering aloud why we need to do this? We're certainly still in thrall to the "intellectual" - or ideas person - from elsewhere, whether its Charles Leadbetter, Stowe Boyd or Martin Amis - whereas, wrongly, I think, anyone outside of London gets praised for everything other than their intellectual capabilities. That was really all I was questioning. I suppose one model for that "northern intellectual" (and writing it now, I can see the phrase is the wrong one, its provocative, and therefore counter-productive) would be Anthony Burgess. Like you, I'm not originally from here, so I suppose I don't hold any candle for northerness, whilst loving the city - and, yes, its vibrancy, its ideas. I hope you'll see the truth of this elsewhere on my blog. Tonight I'll be at Manchester's Social Media Cafe, which will be buzzing with ideas, and yet there's no big names, just people with a thirst for ideas, bringing their own topics to the table; I guess these are the "scenes" that Manchester continues to create. I think there's a real thirst in the city for this kind of debate - I hope that the expanded Cornerhouse as Manchester's "creative hub" will become this, in many ways - then there's the soon to be launched Corridor8 magazine - I could go on, and probably do!

Michael Taylor said...

"The city intellectuals of the world are divorced from the folk-bodied blood of the land and are just rootless fools."
Jack Dolouz (and not Sal Paradise)