Thursday, 10 March 2011

What Price Artists?

In the third of my series of politics and culture, I want to offer a devil's advocate case for why no art form ought to be subsidised by funding from the public purse. It isn't necessarily what I believe, but it's a debate that in the light of economic recession and new technologies ought to be had. The Arts Council have been charged by the UK ConDem Government to cut its subsidy budget by 25%.

Okay Diablo, over to you:

When like all good libertarians you were reading Kropotkin and Proudhon, did you, as I did, imagine we'd all grow into a post-work, leisure economy? One in which our greatest export would be the arts, seeing as we would be free to practice and hone our creations all day, along with some sporting excellence for those who couldn't sit still at school. Well I certainly got that wrong and rather than giving up work, seems like we're going to be asked to labour for longer than ever in order to repair the shortfall in the nation's coffers.

In such an astringent economic climate, it is simply impossible for any arts body to ask for more public subsidy. But let's go even further in the national audit, why subsidise any art form at all? Possibly the UK's most successful art in commercial terms, is rock music. Yet of all art forms it probably receives the least in handouts. Wasn't it Mrs Thatcher who said the arts must pay their own way? Nonetheless, the taxpayer heavily funds Opera, Ballet, and about half of the National Theatre. Let's see them sink or swim under their own commercial efforts. Let's have the subsidised art galleries duke it out with the purely commercial ones.

But it's not fair I hear you chime. One is not comparing like with like. Bricks and mortar based art forms have far greater overheads than those art forms practised by individuals or small groups. Indeed and t'was ever thus. Within any organised society, art has always been associated with patronage, usually at the Court of the monarchs. By contrast, folk and popular art have always had to pay their own way, singing for your supper in taverns, or where ready-made crowds were gathered such as at executions and fairs, all the way through to the music hall, the jazz club and Tin Pan Alley. Just now the historical linkage with commerce seems to offer popular art the possibility of forging ahead of its laggardly, cost-bloated social superior.

Writers, singers, film and video makers and even certain visual arts can produce their art more readily and cheaply than ever before thanks to technology. But more significantly they can shape their own markets by directly selling to their audience and communicating with them online. The site-specific high arts of course struggle to do this. Virtual world and file sharing may just be shaping up as the prevailing market for the creative arts and if those classical forms mired in stasis cannot compete accordingly, then so be it. This is the pure market.

I'm not saying it's easy to tout your wares in what is a very crowded arts suk, but the means of production and distribution are now with the artists themselves. Most artists who build their careers online, are likely to be underpricing their wares at least initially in order to try and develop a fanbase. This raises questions as to just how do we as a society value our creative artists? If it's left to the market, then apart from the superstars at the top, then not terribly much. But again, QED when throwing that evaluation back on the current high arts we are still funding publicly. What does society see as the arts providing for its citizens? The high arts tend to be elitist, the low arts are seen as no less parochial. All sorts of theories abound as to the value added to the quality of life, an uplifting of the soul, the benefits of the aesthetic, the sublime and the cathartic. Mrs Thatcher didn't even believe in 'society', so where does that leave any of those theories? Love it or hate it, the internet bridges the atomised individual to the social network of the like-minded.

Art is at some level a medium of communication. From the creative imagination of the often absent artist (author, film director, choreographer, composer), to the receptive imagination of the audience. Let all art stand or fall on its ability to communicate thus. The successful pieces will speak to large audiences. The unsuccessful ones will slip beneath the waves. In doing so they will either pay their way or not. But that has to be the precise level playing field. No subsidy for any single art form. Put the onus back on us artists to reach out and find our audiences, communicate and move them. In this case the audience is always right. They vote with their fingers moving across mouse cursors, even if that is to order tickets for a site-specific event, rather than download a film.

So my challenge here is not solely to governments, but partly also to artists of which I count myself one. We are paid what society (the market) deems us worth. Again I'm saying it's far from easy to go out and find your market and then carve it out. But if you regard it as your calling, as a vocation, then you'll do what it takes won't you? No longer can an artist hide from his audience. Now we are all accountable.

To return to some political theory , may I suggest you read the below by Sergei Nechayev (if in your dim and distant youth you haven't already) and replace the word 'revolutionary' with 'artist' and 'revolution' with the word 'art'. Then, just then, we may get some worthwhile artistic production once again, that is neither resting on its subsidised laurels, nor wholly taken with its own delusions of originality. If the public want tradition, nostalgia, sentiment, they'll get traditional, nostagic and sentimental art; if they clamour for new ways of seeing, the market will provide.

"The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

from “The Revolutionary Catechism”

Of course, an artist may not want to ditch his emotions entirely. Renders him far less likely to be able to connect with his fellow man. But the rest I believe holds up. Artists, forge your own value. Society is the market, is the size of your audience. Get talking with them.

- Devils' Advocate rests his case (The devil has all the best tunes)

Is art a vocation in the same way that nursing or teaching is seen as a calling and therefore viewed by governments as legitimately being lower paid because of the practitioners' commitment to their calling? Some other callings such as doctors, are not so shabbily paid. Who makes these judgements? But it is as the devil cites, very hard for arts practitioners to ask for more funding when other 'socially useful' realms are also going cap in hand. So what is an artist worth to their society?


Harry said...

The Devil certainly makes some good points. Thoughtful as always Marc.

I think the problem most of us have with scuttling art funding is that the construction paper they take out of elementary schools won't pay for one damn tank.

Bukowski's Basement said...

Marc... Great series you got going over here.

I dunno ... National Public radio and Public Broadcasting System always sorta left bad tastes in my mouth ...

gave us alot to chew on here.

PS (Sorry I haven't been around much lately. Been in the writing and [movie-watching] cave.)