VISUAL ARTS: Home is where the art is

Or will be if Colin Painter has anything to do with it. But do we really want our most private of spaces to be taken over by the stuff? By Tom Lubbock
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Personally, I prefer to keep art out of the home. It's wasted there. I have a few things, by friends and relations, and some of them I certainly admire, or did at first - but it's a long time since I paid any attention to them. They have become clutter. And clutter, sure, is good - pictures, objects, whatever, friendly familiar presences about the house. We need such stuff. But we should not call it (even if it originally was) art. That's not the job it does.

Now, I could put this in a more moralising way. I could say that the whole point of the modern work of art is that it does not fit into the world. It takes a stand against the daily run of life. It is a challenge, an alternative view, a piece of stubborn foreign matter. It is essentially undomesticated, and the last place you should find it is in a home. Actually I do kind of believe this too.

But others feel strongly otherwise. They think that this is the whole problem with modern art. It doesn't connect with the normal world. It sits around isolated in vacuum-chamber modern art galleries, with occasional aggressive forays on to the streets. And this is bad for artists and sad for the public. So there have been countless attempts to make connections, to get modern art into what are called "people's lives" - community art projects, "art for all", saturation festivals etc - and these attempts have limited and temporary success.

But one way has never really been tried: through the home and through the pocket. Professor Colin Painter is a curator who believes that "contemporary art should find its way into people's lives in the same way as gardening and football". And At Home With Art is a project he's devised to encourage this process. Over the past year, nine artists have been commissioned to design a household object - to be mass-produced and marketed to the consumer.

The artists involved are Angela Bulloch, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Permindar Kaur, David Mach, Richard Wentworth and Alison Wilding. Some are more famous than others, and none of them comes from the really aggro wing of contemporary art (because obviously things like dildos and dead babies aren't what's required).

The nine resulting products include a shower curtain, garden tools, a towel, a plate, and other more ornamental items. Samples are now part of a South Bank Touring Exhibition, which has just begun its tour at the London Tate Gallery. They've also gone on sale at many branches of DIY store, Homebase, which is collaborating in the project. Prices range from pounds 7 (a single coat peg) to pounds 57 (a table lamp).

We don't yet know how well they'll sell. But when Colin Painter proposes that "contemporary art should find its way into people's lives in the same way as gardening and football", I am not sure that he knows what he is saying. For instance, when I was 10, a young "friend" of mine used to torture me until I could name all the members of the then Man U squad. That is how football "found its way" into my life, and then found its way out.

Again, perhaps he'd think it nice if contemporary art had (like football) pages of newsprint and hours of TV devoted to it each week. But for this to be so, contemporary art would have had to transform itself into something that its current fans would hardly recognise. People sometimes seem to see the arts as simple, solid "good things", which just need a bit more access and distribution. Well, every art form wants a wider audience (and despite a lot of recent hit-and-run publicity, the contemporary art audience is still small). But let's not be naive: we know about ratings wars, and what they do.

So in this case, art tries to distribute itself more widely by metamorphosing into household-accessory production. Fine. But there is already a name for this activity - design. And most of these artist-conceived products are quite indistinguishable from more or less OK bits of up-market design.

No one who knows his work will be surprised that Anish Kapoor can do you a perfectly tasteful table lamp. His severer critics would say that this was his metier all along. I certainly liked one of the pieces - Alison Wilding's ceramic sculpture which might be a handy bowl and might just be a curious thing. But it's not as though contemporary designers don't also deal in such borderline cases.

The only difference is that no contemporary designer would ever be shown at the Tate. That's one side of the project, and I don't think it promises much. Art distributes itself by simply dissolving into something else. But there's another side that is much more interesting - in fact, it is revolutionary. Not the home, but the pocket.

Never mind about the domestic angling. Notice what these artists are doing economically. They're producing objects in unlimited editions, and at lowish prices. In other words, visual art is here approximating to the economics of, say, books, discs and videos.

This is a revolution that visual art has never had, a transition from a feudal to a market economy, to a situation where it is paid for by its public. It is still financed and run by prince-patrons, rich private collectors and state-funded administrators. Imagine the alternative. Imagine an art world where the customer was king.

I'm not sure one can. For would artists or their audiences ever be satisfied with art experiences small enough to be individually afforded? And home would still be a problem: books have shelves and discs racks, but where would we find room to pile up all these artworks? Could shop sales only work with things like prints? So should we be thinking rather of bums- on-seats - art financed (and I mean almost entirely financed) by entry ticket? And how would that go? And how would art be changed? Home nothing - this project opens a far away vista that needs a good long look.

At Home With Art: A South Bank Touring Exhibition. At Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1, until 13 February 2000. The show then goes on tour nationwide over the next two years. Objects are on sale at around Homebase stores around the country