Before I start dancing about architecture, let me preface this by saying that it was Liverpool being dubbed “European Capital of Culture” that took me there. But what does that mean exactly? There is The Beatles’ history and the Liverpool football team, and I had heard about hooligans up there.

What I found was a lot more than just art in the eye of the beholder. The city itself is undergoing renovation: lots of construction everywhere, like a Renaissance masterpiece being restored. But it is impossible to walk a few blocks without running into a few free art galleries, a sculpture hanging from a building facade or grand city parks and invitations to live music.

Considering it is a small city, geographically speaking, it has a lot condensed in the city centre and by the waterfront. The theme that stitches the city’s spirit together: Liverpudlian pride. The locals care about their artists and preserving their culture, more so than in many more “non-capital” cities I have seen.

The accessibility of culture, the fact that it is free and it is everywhere, motivates the production and consumption of art, if you can call it that – art can be appreciated without being consumed in the commercial sense of the word.

By democratizing art, it also makes the average person into an artist, making any message, emotion and any medium legitimate and equally worthy of being curated, displayed or performed.

It is a tricky feat to attempt. New York City offers art to the masses by having free outdoor concerts and operas. The operas in Central Park end up attracting the uptowners (excluding Harlem), who are more educated and radically different from the crowds that flow into Manhattan from other boroughs for street parades. Trying to cater Opera and the Guggenheim to the masses is like feeding caviar to the hungry homeless.

Sydney does it in a smart way with the Sydney City Festival, where live music, raves, dance performances and theatre take place simultaneously in the opening weekend, giving the audiences so much latitude to find what is right for them, but also enticing them to see what is going on five blocks away, and maybe then developing an appreciation for something they would not otherwise seek.

Liverpool engages all Liverpudlians and magically creates mass appeal to the otherwise scholarly subject. My journey began at the Liverpool Art Prize, where everything was thought-provoking. I immediately started pondering on that argument over purposeful art versus ars gratia artis. This was definitely brilliant and subversive. It was not art created just because. Having been the finalists of a long running contest between local artists, these geniuses had aimed to shock, emote, engage and involve the viewer. Particularly the works of Gareth Kemp and Imogen Stidworth: while the former appealed to me visually, and for handling one of my favorite subjects, snow, in a clever context, the latter was a study on communication and the making of meaning. You will think, “now how can snow be such an interesting subject?”. Anything can be, if the artists manipulates it, not just records it. But snow is fleeting, if you think of the quality of the matter, the air pockets between twigs of ice that can quickly break or melt. Art, like snow, is never static. (I warned you I was going to dance about architecture)

Think of Matthew Barney, my favorite artist. A lot of his sculpture work, i.e. The Cabinet of Harry Houdini, which I saw at the Guggenheim, is appealing because of the medium, the use of petroleum jelly and glasslike shiny coatings that make it inviting to the eyes and the touch. It is his manipulating of the subjects and the context in which he depicts them that make it special.

Onto to the Tate Liverpool, a more traditional range of art works are on display, from well established legends, from Degas to Warhol. The main differentiator in the experience is seeing the work of late artists compared to the fresh and politically charged work of the living authors. The museum has a survey dubbed “The one that spoke to me”, in which the viewer is asked to single out the one piece that, well, spoke to them, and to tell why. They all spoke to me so before I went insane from the voices in my head I headed to the next point along the Albert Dock tour…

The Beatles’ Story! – where I learned a lot more from Mersey beats than from where Lennon and Paul went to school. It allowed me to draw a parallel between what was going on culturally in the late fifties and early sixties. The changes that spanned across about a decade are a testament to how film influenced music, and how both of these influenced the more traditional visual arts. Talking pictures and movie soundtracks paved the road to rock n’ roll, and eventually punk, metal and, dare I say, the notion that soup can could be art.

A friend who joined me on this trip argued that contemporary art is not art if you cannot immediately recognize the artist’s unique and extraordinary talent. She reckons that if anything is not original, beautiful and meaningful, it is not worth calling it art; i.e. anything that can be reproduced is useless. “A child could have done that, I don’t get it, this is not art at all.”, says Jessie. Point taken, a lot of people feel that way, and I will not dismiss their claim as ignorance before giving due reason to refute it.

It’s about personal taste and economic leverage on the gallery owner’s part or the art buyer’s desire to choose something that not everyone will appreciate, thus making it all the more scholar and exclusive. It also boils down to the essays written about the artwork that dissect and overanalyze the elements of the piece, the medium, the stage which it represents in the evolution of that artists’ style and so on. To put it bluntly, abstract contemporary art is often bashed, especially the kind that curates a pink neon beam across a room (seen at the Tate Modern in London). But to compare it to the Seventh Art, this is like me saying that a Will Farrell comedy is a movie, but not a film. The truth is that anything recorded on celluloid or digital video IS a film and that anything displayed properly and arranged by anyone is, indeed, art. Democratized and devilishly simple.

We wrapped up the weekend in Liverpool at a Pub near the train station, where I was hoping to discuss the upcoming Liverpool Fashion Week. Before I could delve into that, I got into another philosophical conversation with my friend about people-watching (e.g. much like I did in Edinburgh, taking in the characters that crowded this place from a writers’ vantage point). My friend wanted to sit by the window, to watch the streets buzzing outside, and from there I couldn’t see the room properly. The beauty of looking to the interior of a place instead of looking out the window is the same as that of looking within oneself (consciousness, inspiration, ripples of emotions from earlier sensorial experiences), instead of being a spectator to the world on the outside. They both have its merits, but there are places that encourage you to turn in either direction.

To end this posting on a more superficial note, alas, one that actually makes sense: Liverpool is having its first ever Fashion Week. It is being funded by private investors and featuring local designers, as well as local real Liverpudlians as models. The efforts are being driven by WAGs, who of course are the cultural celebrities du jour.

Liverpool’s “capital” status is not something that they have to live up to at all. It was well deserved, it outweighed my expectations and it is something that could live a dent the size of Merseybeats on the history of European culture.

Posted by Kaz, filed under

. Date: March 13, 2008, 12:46 pm | 1 Comment »