– Summer 2012

Grizedale Arts: Use Value and the Little Society

John Byrne

Grizedale Arts, Lawson Park Farm, Cumbria. Courtesy Grizedale Arts

There is a photograph on the website of Grizedale Arts, in the north of England, that depicts the organisation’s director, Adam Sutherland, in working overalls and mounted on a horse. In the photograph Sutherland wears an oversized commedia dell’arte-style head of the nineteenth-century critic, thinker, philanthropist and social reformer John Ruskin, while wielding a baton, of the type usually associated with mounted riot police. The baton carries the inscription ‘Fors Clavigera’, which was the name Ruskin gave to the monthly pamphlets he self-published from 1871 until 1884.1 During his lifetime, a period in which art and artists were gravitating towards new ideas of autonomy and art for art’s sake, Ruskin was concerned that art should remain firmly rooted within the society in which it was produced.2 Consequently he came to be seen as a reactionary — a kind of Victorian King Canute, attempting to turn back the incoming tide of self-referential modern art. However, for Grizedale Arts Ruskin provides an unlikely rhetorical figure through which neoconser-vative reconstructions of history, as well as neoliberal reconstructions of work and labour, can be challenged and re-imagined. More specifically, Grizedale Arts are keen to resuscitate Ruskin’s role as an activist in early workers’ education movements, or ‘Mechanics Institutes’, as they were called, where art played an integral role in a multi- disciplinary approach to learning and social improvement. In light of this, Grizedale Arts have been developing a series of collaborations with the Coniston Institute, a community centre in the village closest to Grizedale Arts’ base at Lawson Park Farm, a site overlooking Lake Coniston in one of the UK’s designated Areas of Outstanding Natural

  1. Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain were originally published monthly by Ruskin as a series of pamphlets, the first of which was written on 1 January 1871. Fors Clavigera were later published as volume sets by George Allen, Sunnyside, Orpington, Kent, 1872—96.

  2. In letter 79 of Fors Clavigera (1878), Ruskin famously accused the painter James McNeil Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public’. Whistler subsequently sued Ruskin for libel and won the case, receiving damages of only a farthing (Whistler also had to pay court costs which contributed to his bankruptcy). This case, which was played out in the public eye of Victorian England, came to be seen as a watershed moment, a move away from the moral imperatives of Victorian art and towards the development of self-referential modernism. For a brief but telling account of this case and its implications, see ‘Introduction’, in Charles Harrison, English  Art and Moderinism 1900—1939, London: Allan Lane, 1981.

  3. Ruskin moved to Coniston in 1872. His house, Brantwood, is now a popular tourist attraction and is close to Grizedale Arts’ base at Lawson Park Farm.

  4. From an interview with Adam Sutherland, director of Grizedale Arts, available at http://www.artplayer.tv/video/83/childs-play-written-composed-by-ray-davies (last accessed on 5 March 2012).

  5. See Grizedale Arts’ web page for Child’s Play, available at http://www.grizedale.org/projects/child-s-play.1 (last accessed on 5 March 2012). The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition that celebrated the country’s arts and culture in the immediate post-War period. It led to the creation of the South Bank Centre arts complex in London.

  6. Claire Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, vol.44, no.6, February 2006, pp.179—85. Bishop was a trustee of Grizedale Arts at the time, though Grizedale Arts are absent from the ‘catalogue of projects’ with which she begins her article.

  7. See Grizedale Arts’ ‘About’ webpage: ‘underpinning the programme is a philosophy that emphasises the use value of art, or at least promotes the usage of art as a way to make art and artists more effective in wider culture and society.’ From http://www.grizedale.org/about/ (last accessed on 29 March 2012).

  8. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, After the Future (ed. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn, trans. Arianna Bove et al.), Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011.

  9. See also Alberto López Cuenca, ‘Artistic Labour, Enclosure and the New Economy', in this issue, pp.5—13. 

  10. Liam Gillick, ‘The Good of Work’, e-flux Journal [online journal], issue 16, May 2010, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/142 (last accessed on 5 March 2012).

  11. Alistair Hudson, Happy Stacking Theory [blog], 22 July 2008, available at http://www.happystacking.tv (last accessed on 21 March 2012).

  12. For a full account of Grizedale Arts’ work since 1999, see Jonathan Griffin (ed.), Grizedale Arts: Adding Complexity to Confusion, Coniston: Grizedale Books, 2009.

  13. Grizedale Arts, ‘São Paulo Bienal’, available at http://www.grizedale.org/projects/sao-paulo-bienal/the-sao-paolo-mechanics-institute (last accessed on 28 March 2012).

  14. See C. Bishop, ‘The Social Turn’, op. cit.

  15. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, New York and London: Verso, 2011, pp.19—20.