“JAYSUS. Is that a nipple?” As I’m trying to work out whether we can get away with “nipple” on the BBC, I nod at the man I’ve thrust a microphone under the nose of, writes LAURA BROWN.
Yes, I explain, it’s an artwork by Yoko Ono called My Mommy is Beautiful, stretching along Church Street like flags with various pictures of female anatomy (FYI “nipple” you can say on air, the producers were a bit worried about “vagina”, though).
He nods thoughtfully. “Do you like it?” I ask him.
“Oh aye, yeah. It’s good isn’t it. Makes you think, like. People make such a big deal but it’s just bodies, isn’t it?”
Yoko Ono is, possibly, one of the most avant-garde contemporary artists to have exhibited in the UK. This bloke, who says he rarely goes to galleries, is talking to me about visual art and performance with the confidence of the Director of Tate.
And that, largely, was the point. Liverpool Biennial has always had a strong persuasion for art in the public realm, a strand of the festival designed for people who don’t really “do” art to see it, mull over it, dissect it and have an opinion on it.
Free public art is important, not because it is free but because it is accessible. In Liverpool we are well versed on this. From giants to red houses on the waterfront, makeshift hotels outside the law courts and brazilian parades through the city’s streets we are used to this cultural identity of art spilling into our daily lives. Art in Liverpool is not for posh people who rattle their jewellery. It is for everyone.
This doesn’t just make us more confident to share view on the relevant merits of Ai Wei Wei over Louise Bourgeois. There is an argument it makes us healthier. Alex Coulter, who’s the Director of the arts advocacy organisation Arts & Health in the South West says: “(Public art) can have a very powerful impact on people’s sense of identity and locality.”
It is linked to who we are and how we see ourselves.
We all know the naked man above Lewis’ (Jacob Epstein’s Liverpool Resurgent) and we’re used to giving directions via bits of artwork (“Nah, lad, it’s down by Penelope, the coloured balls. Go past them you’ve gone too far”).
Clive Parkinson is the director of Arts for Health at Manchester Met University. He says: “Street festivals, where people take to the streets and witness giant spiders walking across buildings or dancing elephants, have a profound effect on people’s health and wellbeing [by] building a sense of community and addressing issues such as isolation … As we seem divorced from any sense of community, we’re increasingly isolated, so public art and public engagement is a vehicle for bringing people together.”
This shared experience is part of who we are. Like the family stories we tell each other over and over again, or the nights out we cry laughing over when we see a particular set of mates, shared memory is closely linked with community.
It is our foundation, our bedrock. There’s a video of Royal de Luxe (them of the Giants) showing their first street performance in the UK, The Sultan’s Elephant in London. It’s profoundly moving. This quite weird performance art, traditionally in a theatre or behind a closed door, spills on to the street and everyone is involved. Art is brought directly to the people and they respond with rapture.
What, you are quite rightly asking, does this have to do with football?
Yes, there is a cultural connection but football isn’t going to be free, is it? Also football is quite easy, isn’t it? Art is complex? No, let me rephrase that, art is not complex, art is often dressed in clothes that are complex. It’s framed in a language that is not accessible whereas football is dressed up as the wallpaper of our everyday.
Accessibility is at the heart of this.
I worked at an arts organisation where the galleries were very dark. There was a fear of walking into this dark space, of crossing the threshold into something unknown. This wasn’t a fear of the dark but of seeing something also you wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t be able to respond to.
The language, the “difficult” art, made the threshold into a doorway and something different: It became a barrier saying “this might not be for me”. It takes confidence to hear that voice in your head, to ignore it and step over the threshold. Much of the work in arts and cultural over the past two decades has been to breakdown those thresholds, to make it much easier to see art and talk about it, to physically remove the barrier.
Football, like culture, is part of our shared experience. But psychologically, if we feel we can’t afford something we are going to develop a threshold phobia. We’re going to feel it isn’t for us.
If Anfield, for example, becomes a space young people believe is for travelling fans, for wealthy tourists and not for “the likes of us” how will that affect our community and shared identity? It’s at the heart of this continuing debate we have about who is a proper fan. We’re grasping for our narrative back, for the ritual, the tradition, for the shared memory we all have of going the game with our old fella. That is what we feel we are losing.
The ritual of matchday is a bedrock. It taught us how to behave, how to defer to your elders, you saw your progression — your life — from holding your dad’s hand to being a gobby teenager, to grown up on the stands to old fellas ourselves. The storyline has been interrupted. When we swallow a lump when we hear You’ll Never Walk Alone it is often for the people we miss; the dad’s not there, the uncles, aunts, cousins, friends who have died and were part of our story. That is community.
And that’s what we’re losing.
There aren’t a lot of spotty teenagers in the stands at Anfield. We’re turning into a city where we’re more likely to see contemporary art for free on the streets than be able to afford to see our team play at home regularly.
And as much as the art is important, that just seems baffling to me. Anfield can’t become a threshold we feel we can’t cross. It can’t become a place we don’t feel we can be part of. If it does, I’m not sure the club realises what it will lose.
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Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo