Situation Art is not the same as Accessible Art.


The homeless and itinerant Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank
play on the cafe terraces in Antwerp Belgium in early summer.
picture from the Antwerp newspaper "De Nieuwe Gazet"(but after years of popular performance their spontaneous appearances were curtailed by a licensing scheme - see TERROR IN THE STREETS italicised paragraph).

SITUATION ART

Is all this very important to anybody other than the small body of eccentrics who would want to spend their lives tramping around the streets and stations for a few pennies?

Many people ask this question. But most of the activities nowadays described as "art" or "entertainment" have grown from spontaneous creations and performances in the early days of society; there is in fact no break in the series of links between the underground platform and the stage. Each performance situation is surrounded by stereotypes - the undeveloped performer remains imprisoned by them, developed performers rise above them.

Traditionally, busking was an accepted part of the culture of many countries. It was generally illegal, but there was normally a gentleman's agreement (if you can call it that) between the artists and the police that prosecutions wouldn't be that frequent or that painful. (We can't talk about the situation before the existence of police forces; we're not writing a history of the traditional culture, but analyzing the meeting point between a traditional culture and a new one.) So there was a certain social tension, adding a poignancy which the old artist could incorporate into his act, and which in fact many traditional buskers saw as essential to the effectiveness of their art.

Now,in amongst the massive cultural upheavals of the post-war period was born a new type of artist - the situation artist - who was to grow up in the shadow of the traditional busking fraternity, but was eventually to come into conflict with them. He learned certain aspects of his trade from the traditional buskers, but came to use it as a vehicle for an entirely different spirit from that of the traditional folk-hero. This new spirit relates to the oriental idea of freedom from the opposites, it entails a freedom from the parcelling up by men and women of their environment along rigid lines of distinction The Situation Artist among other things bridges a gap between high culture and low culture. This will be discussed again later.

Situation art rebels against the unnatural restrictions of formal ways of presenting art. The spirit of the modern movement in art had brought a liberation from representational art (for example, things like abstract paintings replacing things like landscapes), but had if anything widened the split between high and low art - due to the general public's disinterest in the intellectual concepts in what came to be called modern art.
As Sutcliffe writing in the Guardian in 1981 suggested "if one accepts that modernism has for 35 years now....been enabled to peter on, instead of petering out, largely by the agency - in Britain at least - of subsidy and official approval (art schools, the Tate, the BBC and subsidized theatre) one may ask whether conservation has not here spoilt cultivation. Is it good that so many creative artists have for so long been so out of touch with the broader public taste?"
But Situation Art has survived without subsidy, and has evolved in direct contact with public taste, which either puts money in the hat or not.
(In his day the modernist pop artist Andy Warhol said, his art is about being "in the right place at the wrong time", but ironically Situation Art could be described as being "in the wrong place at the right time".)

*A situation artist comes down from the pedestal of "high art"and respects both educated and uneducated audiences. He sees any gathering place as a cultural situation, be it the street, subway, train, bus, restaurant,pub/cafe or even W.C. His speciality lies in finding the appropriate situation for his art - and the appropriate art for the situation. Thus if performing music he would play one set of songs in, say, a subway, and a different set in a railway station waiting-room. Furthermore, where people are gathered for some purpose which is neutral as regards the high culture/low culture division mentioned above, the situation artist has an ideal opportunity to practise his/her art - a street poet for example can distribute poems very effectively on an underground station or a railway station concourse, and a musical performance can effectively be given on a train, where artistic preconceptions and cultural defence systems are easily side-stepped. And the street itself, of course, could well be inspiring to a Situation Artist.*

When Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank were homeless itinerant performers basically wandering round Belgium, they performed to passengers waiting for trains in the ticket hall of Tienen train station, a small town whose main asset was a sugar refinery; then years later they heard in a radio broadcast one of the early itinerant authentic american blues artists Honey Boy Edwards saying how he and his friends used to turn up in small towns and busk in the ticket halls of the train stations.

(The occurrence of these types of folkloric performances is not an indication of conscious valuation of the art form by the belgian or american public, who may well have enjoyed these performances at the time, but may not have seen any significance in them beyond their immediacy.)
SEE SITUATION ART AND BELGIUM

But Situation Art was born into a hostile world in which prison cells and police oppression are only a part of the persecution. The new type of artist also had an enemy in the old lady who stood up in the train compartment where he was performing and said:"This is an outrage. I am making a train journey, not attending a concert. Buzz orf", and waved an umbrella in his face.The lady was uttering the philosophy of the institutionalized society, which says that this place is for this and that place is for that.

As time progresses, more serious infringements of the people's peace and tranquillity are taking place in public places and on moving vehicles. Artistic disturbances of the peace seem, by the principle of de minimis, less outrageous, and just physical examples of the conflict that exists in the relationship between art and society.

Situation Art is not in opposition to society; Situation Art is a new and far-reaching idea, the coming to consciousness of a new realisation about public place performance. Situation Art presents a form of art which is free from the opposites.It is neither high art nor low art - but neither is it middle-brow. The majority of people have an unconscious understanding of interactive performance, but some people react with dismay to things which upset or confuse the normal pattern of the world around them.

But it is also possible that they could be caught off their guard, as it were, and react with spontaneous approval; because this confusion can be a release, a brief opening of the curtain which keeps the light of immortality out of the chamber of everyday life.

the tradititional buskers and situation art:-
only slowly is the difference surfacing between what a situation artist does and what a busker does. "all the world is a stage" goes the great bard's famous quote; but being trapped in the conventions of a dualistic culture, Shakespeare himself could only express this truth on an artificial stage. and the traditional busker, trapped by the same dualism, felt he was deserting his role as a folk artist if he stepped onto the artificial stage - or indeed if he performed in any situation other than on his streets, where he was the complete mirror-image of his theatrical counterpart. but the situation artist sees both stage and street - and anywhere else for that matter - as just another performance situation.

the tradition of the folk hero is deeply embedded in national psyches of many countries, and they expect their folk heroes to take their lot "like a man" and don't like those who complain in public, and see them as troublemakers. The traditional buskers lived in a twilight world of petty criminality, but the myth they lived in remains as a shadow around all who perform in this way, and a change of heart is needed far greater than any "licensing-scheme" or any layer of further bureaucracy burdening the performer could produce. In Leicester Square many famous traditional buskers used to play, including Ronnie Ross and his sand dance, Jumping Jack (Lord Mustard), Don Partridge and too many more to mention. But they were also driven off and "cleaned" from the square, just as Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank were, even though these traditional buskers toed the line of criminalized submission. But in their way the traditionals were great artists and showmen, and their demise is a real loss to London culture.

In their early days, Bongo and Extremely admired and were influenced by these traditional buskers. But later, as they were developing Situation Art, they realised that many of the traditional views stood in the way of this development.

THE COLUMN ABOVE IS BASED ON THE ORIGINAL LEAFLET CALLED "AN ARTISTIC DISTURBANCE OF THE PEACE", COMPOSED SOLELY BY BONGO MIKE AND EXTREMELY FRANK JEREMY IN 1983, AND REVIEWED IN "THE TIMES" NEWSPAPER BY TONY SAMSTAG ON THE FIFTH OF JANUARY 1984.