Northern Souls & Explorations of Cultural Identity Up North

The following article first featured in August 2005’s issue 23 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article discussed the issues surrounding the romantic history of shared cultural identities forged ‘up north’ and the new opportunities emerging today (both culturally and economically) for a more collaborative North of England though a joined-up ‘Northern Way’. Since the writing of this article, this Labour-led initiative has of course been replaced politically by the more Conservative ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

Our constant desire for travel is apparently not just the legacy of our new Easyjet lifestyle and armchair-tourism with Michael Palin. Author Alaine de Botton illustrated in his 2002 book The Art of Travel, that through the great travel experiences of such writers and artists, as Van Gogh, Ruskin and Wordsworth (in Provence, Venice and the Lake District respectively), that we travel to experience at first hand, beautiful art and architecture or great landscapes and culture. Using reference to the same artists, however, de Botton also argued there was an underlying need for this travel – an idealised longing for movement and change.

In the spirit of bringing this ‘Mountain to Mohammed’, in 20 years time, there may technically be little need for us northerners to wish to travel anywhere – and everyone may wish to come here instead. Big plans are being made for the North, through the long-term implementation of the Northern Way regeneration programme – with its self-styled ‘paradigm shift’ of delivering change through major economic, infrastructural, social and cultural initiatives. Set in motion in February 2004, the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott asked the three northern Regional Development Agencies to help unlock the potential for faster economic growth and bridge the £29 billion output gap with the rest of the UK.

Allied to this, is the potential Capital of Culture legacy of Liverpool 2008, as well as the related programmes of the Newcastle-Gateshead Culture 10, Bradford’s 2020 Vision and others. As a small but important component in helping realise this bigger picture, the combined northern Cultural Consortia, are currently working alongside the three Arts Council of England regional offices. They have been tasked with researching the benefits of, and delivering a plan for, a pan-regional public art strategy – with a complex but ambitious brief that seeks to identify both the likelihood of resulting inward investment; contributions to the positive profile of the North through tourism and marketing gains; as well as comparing cultural options of added investment made to existing art exemplars, against selective new commissioning.

Of course, the North already has significant assets and advantages as a location anyway, and so to what degree can a pan-regional public arts strategy help advance its role as a destination for more inward investment and tourism? To explore the range of creative ideas and research currently available across the northern scene, is to sense immediately both the huge potential as well as the inherent problems attached to applying any over-arching cultural strategy here. After all, part of the strength of the North comes in the historic paradox of collective unity set against inter-region competitiveness, and this essence should never (and probably could never) be changed – as it lies at the very heart of an almost indefinable spirit of ‘Northerness’. However, such thinking in itself is plainly not enough, as the whole ethos of the Northern Way has been established to reinforce this strength of identity, whilst at the same time invigorating what is seen as a generally under-performing northern image and economy. Art and culture clearly has an integral role to play within the overall masterplan, but, though it must be responsive to hard economic realities, artistic innovation must not be shackled with too restrictive an economic end-game. After all, Angel of the North may now be the darling of the huge regeneration industry, but it was originally conceived as a radical and challenging artistic commission. Indeed, no one could imagine Anthony Gormley seeing Another Place, his most recent sculpture installed on Sefton beach in Merseyside (consisting of 100 life-size figures, gazing out to sea, and at varying stages of emergence from the sand or tide), as primarily an economic driver and marketing tool.

So, where exactly do economics end and culture begin? Art plainly needs be engaged on real terms, but must be allowed to explore and find its own unique and unpredictable levels – to attract, engage, inform, question, delight and even challenge northern inhabitants and visitors (real and virtual). In addition, the brief for the arts need not restrict itself to only the marketing elements of the Northern Way but could and should explore a wider remit relating to real economic and social issues – and one where a romantic aspiration is retained as the crucial ingredient.
The forthcoming show at TATE Britain, A Picture of Britain explores how the British landscape has inspired artists for three hundred years, and examines how their work has in turn influenced our view of it. The exhibition goes on a journey across the country, to focus on a broad range of responses, whilst examining ideas about travel, nationhood, industrialisation and notions of the rural. The section called The Romantic North – Man, Nature and Society, looks to the North, with its human themes of discovery of nature, and the industrial city – a contrast personified by the exhibited Morning amongst the Coniston Fells, Cumberland by Turner, and Lowry’s Industrial Landscape. A continuation on that road to discovery (or rediscovery) comes in the BBC’s related public competition to electronically submit the best digital picture of Britain’s 21st century rural, urban and human landscape.

Also strangely sympathetic to this, and curated by Grizedale Arts in Cumbria, is a madly eccentric contemporary programme called Romantic Detachment – which looks at how European Romanticism relates to the wider world, as well as our grass roots and its continued impact on our music, underclass culture and folk traditions. Arguably, this provides us with one of the best clues to our true northern soul.

Categories: Writing

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