Absolutely no human understanding taking place at such an uneducated level. Photo: John Franks/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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No, Jake Chapman, opening culture to young people is never a waste of time

The artist, nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003, has stoked controversy to gain media attention. It is still worth resisting his fundamentally misguided claims.

Art world insiders are frequently charged with accusations of “snobbery”. Why are artists so self-aggrandising? Why are families who visit art galleries so self-applauding? Of course, it is a stereotype which dogs visual art in particular, where pretentiousness is seen as par for the course. Stereotypes can stem from legitimate concerns. They can also have pernicious effects. If we want culture to remain a vibrant part of our society - and we do - where people are encouraged to explore new and fulfilling aspects of life, we need to deal with the perception that “art just isn’t for me”, or worse, “I don’t get it anyway”.

Set against these worries, comments made recently by Jake Chapman seem especially absurd. The visual artist, whose work in collaboration with his brother Dinos is often shocking and confusing (Sex – an array of decaying bodies fastened to a tree – and Death – two blow-up dolls in a 69 position, are prominent examples), has claimed that taking children to art galleries is a “total waste of time.” On the familiar comparison of Henri Matisse paintings to a child’s, he asserted that that “there is no connection ... It’s a ridiculous thing to say.” Assertions of this nature are rooted in a desire to underscore the depth of meaning behind works of art and bolster “high culture”. Exploring the message behind artistic works is a valid enterprise. Telling people not to help their children experience art is detrimental and irresponsible.

The most stinging, and most revealing, element of Chapman’s critique was his statement that presenting a child with a work by Jackson Pollock is “like saying ... [the work is] as moronic as a child.” “Children are not human yet,” he added. It is clear that Chapman – whose father was a school art teacher – is deliberately trying to be provocative. That’s his aim here. But the result will be that the popular impressions of art as esoteric and self-important will prevail, and the artistic community will become isolated. It is unlikely that Chapman actually wants this latter effect. If he did, then “snob” would be an appropriate label. If he were to aiming his comments purely at those who are “less than a village idiot,” then we could reject his ideas as unpleasant and move on.

However, there is something much more objectionable in the targeting of children. To understand why, Anthony Gormley’s rebuff of Chapman is a good place to start. Suggesting that art isn’t to be understood, but instead should be “experienced,” Gormley touched upon the central issue here. Trying to reject children’s interactions with art on the grounds that they are not “human” makes little sense. The human experience is something that, as Dea Birkett has pointed out, begins at birth. To reject that is to reject any creative work that uses a child’s experiences or interactions as grounds for its message. Birth, says Birkett, is the “magical moment” that qualifies us to experience art.  This is completely accurate. Merely existing as a human being is all we need connect emotionally and consciously to a form of expression. It is simply not true that we must always rationalise our feelings into highbrow statements of meaning. Even if the faculty of artistic experience lacks practice in a child, claiming that we shouldn’t foster it from an early age is madness.  

Not every person who enjoys abstract art could list off all of the deep, psychological or emotional ideas it revealed to them (or the theory that underpins the work). Are those who are unable therefore less “human” than the artists themselves? His is a dangerous game to garner attention. There cannot plausibly be any harm in taking a child to view some works by Picasso even if the child will merely develop a taste for bold colours drawn in interesting ways. There is no zero-sum game here; children enjoying art aesthetically doesn’t mean that some buff of high culture need suffer. If people begin to think that it does, we will be worse off for it.

All things considered, perhaps the children who enjoy art in their earlier years, for whatever reason, will continue exploring, or even producing, works as they age. What could be better for the maintenance of a vibrant artistic community and the health of culture in our society? Chapman’s comments are more than just incendiary. His view is counter-productive for the cultural world and would impoverish artistic life universally if he had his way.

Discussion of these points can go on indefinitely. For Jake Chapman, it seems that the most enjoyable – and lucrative – part of his performance is offending people. Will Gompertz, the BBC’s Arts Editor, cynically described Chapman’s craft of media manipulation. “The formula is simple: When you have an exhibition to promote, say something mildly inflammatory to the press, and watch the ticket sales soar.” But if more people enjoy Chapman’s work thanks to this exposure, that would be no bad thing. Resfreshing our ideas about art is always worthwhile. Avoid taking the kids to Chapman’s exhibition though - it really isn’t pretty.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.