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European art & the financial crisis: yes, it matters

Art is in crisis – again. No, it’s not a fight between alter-modernism and post-modernism or any other art world tussle. This time it’s all about the money.

Governments across Europe are threatening to slash arts funding in response to the recession, most notably in Britain and Ireland where culture has always been subject to a strange use-value equation. The British Conservative party which is tipped to win the next election, for instance, has floated the idea of replacing direct funding of the arts with US-style substantial tax breaks for private investors. In short, nobody is willing to stand up and say art is worthless for fear of being accused of philistinism but, on the other hand, they don’t want to pay for it anymore.

What is actually going on? In a nutshell, it’s a case of some very ugly fowl coming home to roost.

There is, of course, nothing like any agreement on what art’s purpose is. There are a few things that can be tentatively agreed on, though: at its most basic art is entertainment, if a rather rarefied and high-minded form of entertainment most usually centred on some kind of aesthetic experience. In addition, it is often a vehicle for framing wider philosophical questions.

What it is not, however, is useful – and attempts to shoe-horn it into ‘use’ are the source of the current malaise. This instrumentalisation of art at the hands of the various cultural bureaucracies and government agencies that subsidise cultural production is the locus of the problem faced by the arts today.

The British experience is a particularly instructive one. The traditional model for arts councils was Britain’s Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), founded in 1940. The CEMA later became the Arts Council of Great Britain and operated as such until being decentralised into separate arts councils in England, Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland in 1994. Its purpose was to patronise the arts. Today’s arts councils in the UK instead patronise the public – in the pejorative sense.

Under the New Labour administration of Tony Blair the arts were widely misused in an attempt to promote regional regeneration and openly perform social engineering. Gone is the concern for exposing people to great works of art, instead replaced by a desire to utilise art’s supposed therapeutic value or even to simply offer it up as a sop to deindustrialised communities left jobless and hopeless in the wake of two and a half decades of neo-liberal economics.

Drafted into service as an alternative to real economic activity, the supposedly decadent arts were co-opted into New Labour’s post-socialist agenda. Lurking behind the art was a scorn for the public and belittling of its intelligence: it is assumed that ordinary people do not have the wit to deal with difficult art and would, left to their own devices, spend their time immersed in the most vacuous aspects of popular culture.

Therefore, difficult art is out as funding must be tied to some other ‘results-based’ metric which can then be used to justify the spending in the first instance. Note how arts organisations are now more likely to speak of ‘access’ or ‘inclusion’ than skill, craft or the plain merits of good art.

Arguments against arts funding tend to centre on the issue of tax being used to prop up elitist pursuits – but surely a bit of elitism is no bad thing? Complaints about arts funding obscure a hidden agenda, one that the ‘culture sector’ is guilty of facilitating. Why, for instance, is the art world so afraid to ask for money in plain and simple terms? Why are funding applications increasingly couched in the language of cod-therapy? Why are bizarre extraneous factors involved in the consumption of art taken more seriously that the art itself?

The market model, meanwhile, has a similarly distorting effect on art and the public perception of it. Investment in art, particularly fine art, is essentially decadent and unproductive. Stocking-up on painting may be a good way of holding on to cash during a recession but it produces neither significant amounts of jobs nor much in the way of material that can be sold.

Neither the state nor the market truly respect art: one sees it as a platform for policy initiative and the other is only interested in cold, hard cash. But art does matter. It matters because human affairs and human creativity matter. Artists and those involved in wider cultural production would be well advised to stand their ground on art’s essential values and forget about how it may help the government achieve something or how it may make some collector rich.

Art is the space in which we find the truest expression of the vitality of life. The pain and the pleasure, the joy and the sorrow, the tedium and delirium. It allows us to transcend the mundane, to simultaneously zoom-in on the particular while also stepping-back far enough to understand the universal.

A simple photograph, well taken, is enough to stop us dead in our tracks, to bring up an aching pain of joyful remembrance and loss; a few bars of a piece of music can lift our mood or depress it and even when depressed, there is a joy to be had in the sorrow; the most abstract and self-consciously non-representational painting, seen in the correct light and at the right time, can make us change our minds about things we did not even know we were thinking about.

Art renders visible the ties that bind. Beyond family and friends, beyond politics, beyond community, the best art not only reflects the complexities and contradictions of our daily existence, it transcends it and formalises it, making sense of the senseless.

Who cares how it is funded, so long as we recognise that it must exist?

And for those whose jobs are on the line should the cuts be administered, well it’s time to stand up and explain that art matters in and of itself.

7 thoughts on “European art & the financial crisis: yes, it matters

  1. I don’t want to get into the funding the process vs funding the ‘product’ argument but that’s certainly an interesting issue.

    When I write ‘use-value’ I don’t mean in a strict Marxist sense, though I guess that does apply too – after all, artworks whether paintings, plays, novels or whatever else certainly have an exchange-value.

    Anyway, I think instrumentalisation has to be resisted.

  2. I can speak only from the U.S. experience, but when public agencies cut back funding for the arts, it might be because, at least in the U.S., public agencies often view arts funding as support for artistic ‘products’ rather than for the practice itself of artistic craft. Bureaucrats then debate whether the ‘products’ produced are ‘useful’ enough to deserve funding — i.e., whether such ‘products’ are of enough value to be traded for a profit, as it were, outside their inital venue or market.

    Advocates of arts funding should instead argue for support for the practice itself of artistic craft (e.g., not only in performance but in workshops and the like), because craft and skill do have enough use-value to be traded for a return outside their initial application, since craft/skill can be applied to other areas of the economy and society.

    One argument for of the continuous use-value of artistic craft is that, unlike artistic ‘products,’ artistic craft/skill can be continually honed and improved not only to improve performance but also to be adapted to the changing needs of society and economy.

    This argument for the greater use-value of artistic craft over artistic ‘product’ is anything but new, and I think guides the policy of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. But at any rate, if governments can be persuaded to invest in supporting artistic craft rather than artistic ‘product,’ arts advocates might have more success in retaining funding for the arts.

  3. Revision to above comment in the first two paragraphs:

    In both paragraphs, instead of “PRACTICE ITSELF of artistic craft,” the better term would be:

    “DEVELOPMENT of artistic craft …”

    I hope this revision clarifies my initial comment.

  4. One further addition to my initial comment:

    I know that in my initial comment I’ve confused ‘use-value’ with ‘exchange-value.’

    I conflated the two concepts, when talking about arts funding, because I think that U.S. public arts agencies themselves merge these concepts when debating funding for the arts.

    But I probably should have said that the continual development of artistic craft (as opposed to individual artistic ‘products’) has both a greater use-value and an
    increasing exchange-value (through continual improvement) over individual artistic ‘products,’ and this greater use/exchange value should justify government funding for the development of artistic craft.

    End of my comments. Thanks for everyone’s patience.

  5. One further comment:

    I realize that my comments support government’s ‘instrumentalizing’ the practice/development of artistic craft, in opposition to what Jason Walsh is advocating.

    But, simply in order to justify funding the arts to the fiscal detriment of, say, healthcare or defense,
    governments are forced to resort to ‘instrumentalizing’ the development of artistic craft. Governments have to show that funding the development of artistic craft will actually benefit taxpayers outside the circles whose aesthetic preferences might be satisfied by specific artistic ‘products.’

    I’ll end it there. I apologize for these multiple comments and their extremely sloppy organization; my excuse is that I’m writing these at work.

  6. It is not about elitism. It is about who decides which are the great works of art you’re talking about. Peer Review? Research suggests it leads to cronism; lacks transparency. It created, for instance, the situation in the UK where most people in the arts are very white and very male. Funding Councils? Ditto and very bureaucratic. I support any movement that empowers the taxpayer to ask and answer the question: is my money being used for the public good.

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