The Guardian October 3, 2006 - by Madeleine Bunting


The cynics who ridiculed Margate's Exodus Day miss the point: art has broken its elitist leash to inspire collective purpose

On Saturday evening at 7pm, an Antony Gormley sculpture was burned on a derelict fairground site in Margate. A form of antisocial behaviour, you might think; but in fact this was social behaviour writ large. A procession made their way to Gormley's 25m-high Waste Man to mark the culmination of a huge arts project that had involved hundreds of Margate residents in the making of a film and the performing of songs specially written for the day-long event by the likes of Brian Eno.

Margate might well be waking up from its biggest hangover ever, still a tad bewildered as to what exactly its weekend fling was all about. What happens when big, ambitious names in art, music, theatre and film descend on a shabby seaside town and shake it by the scruff of its neck? Is this some sort of makeover show on a town-wide scale with a bit of the Pop Idol format mixed in: a combination of a town in quest of a Trinny transformation and its residents hungry for their five minutes of fame?

The event, extravagantly entitled Exodus Day, was arranged to explore issues of identity and migration in a town tensely coping with both. Before it had even happened the cynics were demolishing its aspirations. AA Gill accused the organisers - the arts charity Artangel - of being the equivalent of "Dr Livingstone offering missionary art to the natives". It "smells like Victorian imperialism", he concluded, pointing out that few in Margate would have chosen to spend large amounts of money on building and torching the latest creation of one of Britain's leading sculptors.

But what escapes the cynics is how culture and art have broken out of elitist circles in the past 10 to 15 years. Museums and galleries are no longer the preserve of the middle class, monuments are no longer just for leafy London squares or town halls; there has been a democratisation of culture. The appetite for the drama, shock, delight, intrigue and sheer bewilderment which the visual arts so abundantly provide is growing apace. Perhaps it reflects the increasingly well-educated country in which everyone is steeped in a sophisticated visual literacy - on television, on the internet and in advertising. The success of Tate Modern in London or Baltic in Gateshead is symptomatic of how the most vibrant - and engaging - part of the public realm is now cultural.

As our political life hollows out, as party membership collapses and the committee branch meetings shrivel, the crowds pour into galleries to gaze, to be outraged, irritated, amused - even inspired. As the politicians struggle to capture the public imagination, artists win themselves an unprecedented audience in their ability to do just that.

Margate is only the latest example of an increasingly ambitious type of public art. Think of the Sultan's Elephant, the giant mechanised model that trundled down the streets of London in May, closing traffic arteries and temporarily handing the streets back to the people. Or think of Spencer Tunick and his extraordinary images of nude crowds, such as those who braved chilly winds on the quaysides of Newcastle and Gateshead last year.

This is a new kind of public art. It marks a departure from the iconic monuments - such as the Angel of the North - with which we have become so familiar, but which were so dramatic in their novelty back in the '90s when they took visual art out of the institutional settings of galleries and into the furniture of everyday lives.

What characterises this new public art is engagement and participation. Gormley's Waste Man in Margate was built by volunteers; he issued a call for help in the local newspaper. The walls between the elite who produce art and those who observe it are disappearing, and art has broken out of the reserves offered by institutions such as museums and galleries. This kind of art is not something you choose to go and visit - it goes out to make itself an audience. The Sultan's Elephant was as much about the impact it had on London street life as the ingenuity of its construction.

Politicians bred on GDP and productivity statistics need to take notice of how the arts inspire collective experience in a way that our political languages no longer can. That means culture and its funding is no longer an add-on but central to any politics committed to the vitality of the public realm and how societies build collective purpose. In key areas such as identity, where emotions are raw and intense, culture of all kinds is a vital arena in which to explore hopes and defuse fears before the latter take violent or political form.

There are politicians who are beginning to grasp this; at the Labour conference last week, David Lammy delivered an eloquent plea at a fringe meeting for pushing culture up the political agenda. But one wonders how far the argument has spread in our political establishment: it's hard to imagine the Treasury relaxing its obsession with "value for money", a measure almost impossible to use in the cultural sector, let alone Whitehall launching itself into the much more controversial and risky area of subjective perception and how that shapes belonging and one's sense of self. These are crucial public goods, but they don't come with a balance sheet attached.