Thursday, 17 March 2011

Biting the Hand.

Union Terrace Gardens as they are.
People who live in Aberdeen will not be unaware of the controversy surrounding the business-community-driven redevelopment of the town's famous Union Terrace Gardens. The intention had been to create a very large new civic square. Promotional efforts used the name "City Square Project". This redevelopment scheme has since been rebranded as the "City Gardens Project".

Original concept
Here at Other Aberdeen House, our personal greatest vexation with this proposed redevelopment was the way than an opportunity to anchor a progressive arts and creative sector in Aberdeen was so thoughtlessly as to appear maliciously squandered. The City Square proposals caused the collapse of the Peacock Visual Arts Northern Light initiative which would have created a new contemporary arts centre for Aberdeen and the north of Scotland. Those unfamiliar with the controversy can read comprehensive and in-depth analysis on Fraser Denholm's excellent blog: Blerr De Blerr Blerr.

The creative sector forms an impressively huge part of the UK economy, contributing as much in Gross Value Added as the financial services sector and is a predominant source of export revenue. With the securing of the Victorian & Albert Museum's northern outpost, Aberdeen's 'competitor' city, Dundee, is now poised to take a leading role in this economic sector for generations to come.

Over the last few days, the City Square Garden Project has launched a new promotional website, presumably with the intention of winning 'hearts and minds'.

Revised concepts
Browsing the pages of the site is an odd experience. We mentioned earlier that some of the use of language and content came freighted with information which we might infer about the promotors of the scheme to redevelop the existing Victorian-era Union Terrace Gardens and replace them with a hyperreal diorama of our town's heritage.

Then, we looked at the "Cultural Space" page. What most disorientated us was the use of these words:
Imagine ... mixing with art lovers and tourists
It took a little while for us to pin down just what it was that troubled us about this. Then we worked it out, we managed to unpack the statement. It's that conflation of "art-lovers" with "tourists". The promoters of the City Garden Project talk to readers of their website as if they are not the art-lovers. The implication is that art lovers are, like tourists, outsiders; they are 'other'. It is clear that they believe that the people of Aberdeen are not, therefore, art lovers. In effect they are inviting us to: "Come and look at the funny art lovers - aren't they strange?" They obviously cannot see how insulting this is. Their assumptions are showing, and, in turn show us that it is the promotors of the scheme who are themselves not art lovers.

Original concept
The promoters of the City Garden Project have, by use of this one sentence inadvertantly dropped the poker-face by which they had hoped to assuage the concerns of Aberdeen's beleaguered arts community. They have by use of this unguarded phrase exposed their bluff which attempts to revise project instigator Sir Ian Wood's ill-considered and temerarious words in Scottish newspaper The Herald:
... this is ... for the wider interests of people in Aberdeen who don't care about the arts. Eighty per cent of the people who spend time in the square will have no interest in the arts.
Revised concept
From such a local-press-lauded "man of vision", this displays a breathtaking lack of perspective. We hope not to fall into the trap of condescension, but we would point out that all people who participate in our civilisation are consumers of the arts, almost all the time. We live and work, relax and consume in an architect created environment; we listen to music; we read literature; we watch factual and dramatic films and television; everything we touch, wear or see has been brought into reality by a designer - these all are branches of the arts.

One of the ways in which anthropologists working at the edge between archaeology and paleontology discern the human condition in the artifacts they unearth at early hominid sites is the artistic content of the objects. Art is not strange and other, it is ancient and basic to the human condition. It is the fundamental fountainhead from which all other culture and civilisation emerges.

From the earliest rock art and clay fetishes, through the anatomically super-perfect and beautiful statuary of Ancient Greece, we discern, understand and participate in our world in the way we do because of the filters and guidelines which the artists of those artifacts have created for our cognition to follow. You do not "feast your eyes" on art. Rather, you feed your brain. The arts is the branch of human striving which provides the context for our society and civilisation to then fill with content. That we think the way we do; that we say the things we say; that we behave the way we behave is all the product of the artists who have provided us with the collective cognitive tools to interpret and interact with the world around us since the beginning of human civilisation.

When the controversy surrounding the redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens was raging at its height, we remember hearing and reading opinions to the effect that the arts community should be careful not to "bite the hand that feeds it".

We would counter that by suggesting that it is rather those who propagate condescending material like some of the words on the City Gardens Project promotional website should be careful.

They should be careful not to bite the hand thats create the context in which civilisation thrives.

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