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16 / 06 / 2023
'The Art of Nick Cash and Matt Hale in the Context of a Library Fine System'
by Neal Brown
These works of art by Nick Cash and Matt Hale all have physical books as their origin, many of which have been deaccessioned from public libraries. The works are on view in the exhibition area of Westminster Reference Library, available to view without charge. The books have been profoundly changed and altered, in a way that would seem to breach the usual terms and conditions of a loan made by a library. Cash and Hale’s books themselves may not be borrowed. In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this text is currently in dispute with the City of Westminster’s library service in respect of late book return fines. He has been accused (Porchester Library, 2015) of failing to return books on time, and has received letters from a debt collection agency (Unique International Recoveries) instructed by Westminster’s library service. He does not dispute that he returned certain items beyond their return date, but asserts that the amount of the fine demanded is incorrect.[i]
The point and purpose of public libraries is much debated in the context of new digital software technologies and socio-economic change. Leisure, research and scholarship reading are now much less closely identified with libraries, as readers look elsewhere for information resources, and book loans diminish. Libraries are now often community spaces, used for many different purposes, and the idea of a library as a quiet repository of knowledge wealth seems to be falling into an uncertain abeyance.[ii] These changes are monitored by regulators and agencies in the service of political and economic authorities.[iii] In spite of the decline of physical books in libraries, books do remain available for loan, however, and (almost reassuringly, for those who like physical books to be present in libraries) continue to be inextricably associated with the library fine system, in which librarians punish readers for the late return of books. The library fine system remains a true constant in libraries, and is a model of enterprise initiative which is said to allow libraries to remain resilient and sustainable.[iv]
It may be of value to consider library fines as an inherent system, whose fiscal survival logic will always prioritise its own self, and how it may seek its continuance in a future without books.[v] Cash and Hale have made works which are intellectually and aesthetically stimulating. Their themes involve ideas of damage to what are often ex-library books, caused by defacements and damages such as internment, cutting, soaking, compressing, burning, entombing, staining and soiling. But it would be unfair to the principle of library fines to fine Cash and Hale for these as the point of fines is not that that they be levelled on authors – or, by extension, artists – but on library users, and only for returning books late. How then should the library users who view Cash and Hale’s work be fined? A reasonable start might be the levelling of fines for the failure to return, or the late return, of meaning and pleasure. Although the works in this exhibition are, in some respects, works of agony, in which are expressed ideas of almost transcendent suffering, they are also formally exact and satisfying in their approach to ideas of soiled spiritual beauty. Librarians could ask viewers to come back to the exhibition space after a period of, say, three weeks, and surrender the pleasure or knowledge they have gained from having seen Cash and Hale’s works. This could be done through the penance of having to make the effort of travelling back to the exhibition space: by formally closing one’s eyes in the presence of a librarian; by giving the librarian all one's money; and finally by leaving the building with eyes remaining closed, painfully feeling one’s way out to the street on hands and knees.
Alternatively, librarians could issue fines in instances where viewers fail to properly respond to Cash and Hale’s works. This would draw the fine system into an even further closeness with the increasing drift of libraries into places which are somehow a continuance of schools – schools still being places where punishments, even if non-physical, are commonplace. Viewers of the exhibition could be physically beaten by librarians until they confess whether or not they have responded fully to the work – to the formal qualities that arise from the shapes, colours and textures that Cash and Hale have arranged and rearranged, or to the ideas and moods that the artists have summoned. Viewers might be expected to understand (and be able to prove they understand) that although Cash and Hale’s works are in some ways a unity, that they are, in other ways, a disparate experience, where contradiction and reconciliation are part of the artists' process.
This examination of viewer understanding might be delegated by libraries to art critics, such as myself, employed by libraries, thus widening the funding circle in which art criticism – that is, the socialized understanding of art – is articulated. This would offset the welfare and subsidy costs on which art criticism now depends heavily, as a consequence of the changed economic circumstances that determine art writing to be a poorly paid, low-status occupation. The actual issuing of penalty notices could be effected by the police, or private security companies or other private finance initiatives (PFI) such as the aforementioned art critics, so as to reduce the time demands on librarians, and allow them to sleep quietly in library back rooms – although librarians would, of course, remain administratively responsible and maintain database systems.
[i] The author has received two conflicting fine demands from Westminster’s library service for the sums of £64.75 and £94.71. These figures, even if they were correct, would not be as large as the world record for a library fine (£203.29), but are still respectable. It is an irony that Westminster’s library service has now disallowed the author further use of its libraries (to which he should be entitled as a council tax payer), and which means he is unable to use the free, interactive, online legal advice service recently introduced into Westminster Reference Library in London (provided by Instant Law UK).
ii For reasons of space it is not possible to examine the relationship between libraries and churches, and related ideas of the value, or not, of socialized quietness and contemplative silence.
iii For example, see the Arts Council of England’s excellent Envisioning the Library of the Future series of reports (2012-13).
iv This is not actually as frivolously humorous as it might sound. Libraries gain significant funding from the issuing of library fines, and their economic model is predicated on these incoming monies. Librarians have monthly fine targets to meet.
v Perhaps a future fine system could be modelled on the BBC’s television licence fee system. In the same way that the BBC assumes that every citizen in the country watches TV, and has to prove otherwise if they do not, perhaps libraries could regularly fine everyone in the country as a matter of course, unless they infallibly prove they have not borrowed a book – or, if they have actually borrowed a book (increasingly less likely), can prove they have returned it on time.
Neal Brown © 2016