1940s fete at PSL Leeds and ration books

Composed during a lull at my stall at PSL 5th June 2010 – these are ramblings towards an article rather than an actual article.

I’m sat at my stall at the PSL 1940’s fete to celebrate both 65 years since VE day (tomorrow) and also the culmination of their I Can Still See You show. Our table is filled with sewn crafts produced from the offcuts of canvas from my paintings, work that has surrounded the production of my paintings and a small curation of objects that have inspired me in the past but are now redundant and perhaps desireable to someone else. There is a cushion (knitted) manufactured out of the remains of a jumper that I knitted whilst I gave up smoking five years ago. There is also a draught excluder fashioned from the same garment and I think we all (my children and myself) feel that we shall not be too sorry if this one doesn’t sell. I loosely term them applied arts. The knitted goods stripes actually feature in one of my paintings. It is already past three o’clock so we don’t have too much longer left. I shall probably endeavour to sell the things elsewhere. It’s been great to meet people here though, a positive thing in itself.

My children have made some bookmarks and friendship bracelets to sell, Rufus is already ahead with the profits.

Before us is a long trestle table where my daughter Jemima currently sits making a cat. It is a stall where you pay £1 to use the materials to make what you like. The general air is of relaxed, perhaps even resigned creativity. The heat is beating down outside and we are quite glad that we chose a pitch further recessed inside PSL, in the shade beyond their great glass frontage, but it seems a shame to be indoors.

The Makers Table, 1940s Vintage Fete, PSL 5.6.10

To my right, there is a vintage clothing stall: the clothes of a collector who is selling up to afford a voyage abroad. Ahead even further than the makers table we can see the huge glass front and main entrance to PSL from the waterfront. A teashop is run by volunteers. I am a volunteer but as I have a stall I seem to be exempt from duty. There’s another lull in the proceedings and I notice that another volunteer has taken time out to join the makers table. A table to the left has a small amount of tomato plants amidst a display of more vintage clothing. One cannot help but feel that these people might be art students or recent graduates, I remember having to sell a lot of my stuff after graduating. I also used to make things to sell in a shop in the Virginia Galleries in Glasgow, and during my recent M.A. in Curating at Sunderland proposed an exhibition to the Reg Vardy gallery surrounding this subject. (Another blog on this to follow I think).
Around the corner to the left a handful of stalls selling delicious cakes and more crafts, sit in front of the photographs that constitute the I Can Still See You show – some stills from War time films of Yorkshire. In the background to all this some record player is piping music suitable to the era, some a bit later, but some good Sinatra songs.

But why are we doing it?

There is the air of some will to make a nod to VE day but where are the people who were there? Our fancy dress (1940s style clothes) is met with consternation by some of the older artist customers who seem to resent this injection of fun in the proceedings. The younger tribes seem to take it in their stride, perhaps some are friends of the other stall holders. Can we really believe we are doing this to make some money? Balancing the time that it took to make these pieces I’m selling with their sale price and the supposed minimum wage is impossible. I’ve sold one painting at much less than its value I painted this piece thirteen years ago when I was pregnant, originally for a show in Greenwich, London that didn’t happen. However, I was pleased with the customer and her reaction to the work so the value / price equation levels out somewhat.
Painfully, I recall that in the centre of town there is a shop selling prints of mediocre paintings for upwards of £300.

A lecturer once shocked me by claiming that our most romantic poets largest inspiration was remuneration. Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote to pay the bills. Since the 1960s, and the anti art, auto destructive art, non material art, conceptual art, the art world has had a difficult time reconciling and detaching itself from business and commerce. The intellectual value of the art and the price of the art often form a near impossible balancing act. At The Frieze Art Fair a couple of years ago I overheard a gallerist attempting to sell some work by an artist, going through the intellectual points of the artists career in anti art as selling points for the piece in question; it reminded me of a car dealer listing all the features and added extras. The general trends of thought amongst artists I have spoken to recently is:

i) Art should not be made for money.
ii) Artists should be paid a decent living wage.

Difficult. Rank at Leeds City Art Gallery last year (and at Sunderland’s NGCA) featured George Cruikshank’s The British Beehive (1840 /1869). Notice that in 1840 Art featured on the same level as Medical Science, Schools, Literature, Free Press, College and Chemistry! These feature in the fourth of the uppermost levels of the beehive where Cruikshank has drawn each profession in terms of its importance within the social hierarchy. 170 years later on and the artist is considered one of the least important professions by many, (and little more than a charity case to be funded by the nation), and the tailors and masons, plumbers and bricklayer and engineers and other more useful professions have progressed towards the top.

The British Beehive

Arts Council funding supposedly supports artists but in my experience gaining access to such funding is a full time job in itself leaving little time for proper creativity.

The old adage “Those who can do, those who can’t teach” is no longer true since most artists are forced into some form of teaching in the absence of patronage and private commission. Despite the fact that most artists would seize the opportunity of patronage such things are often seen as morally reprehensible by certain art intelligentsia. The other direction of evil that most find themselves following is the path to advertising design. It’s a double edged sword, for whilst your ideas and images reach a vast audience, and whilst the clever might weave their own identities and subplots into the campaign, (and thus transcend the genre on their own terms), most are sold to the advertiser in not much more than a Faustian pact. Looking back, Artistic Patronage has always had something of the air of advertising about it.

PSL were lately involved in No Soul For Sale at the Tate Modern. Other Not for Profit arts organisations gathered in the Turbine Hall for what seems like a demonstration of ideology as much as a demonstration of Artistic Thought. Not for Profit these days equals intellectual worth. And as i have intimated above this will more than probably reap recompense as intellectual worth can mean a good investment. I don’t understand why this should be. I understand why we are at this point from my knowledge of recent art history, but logically, and from a distance the whole idea seems slightly absurd.  A mad conspiracy theory grabs me, that a small but powerful group of publishers saw that a certain class of people were spending their disposable income on art, and some one had a great idea that this disposable income might be spent on books instead. Theories (in book form) appeared that attacked the notion of producing or owning a material piece of art, so the audience instead would go and buy books about why they shouldn’t buy art. Ideas can be owned by anybody who can afford the obscure-not-to-be-found-in-any-Public-Library-book where they are expounded.

PSL is certainly a very worthwhile thing to have in Leeds and we had a brilliant time at the fete.  Worth and value – aye, there’s the rub.


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