The State of Art

Introduction


In 2004 Eleonora Aguiari made an art intervention on a larger-than-life statue of Lord Napier on Queens Gate, West London, by wrapping it in 80 rolls of red tape (Lord Napier in Red Tape, left). Transformation of this prominent monument took 4 people, 4 days.

Perhaps an unintended poetic dimension to this work is the vast amount of bureaucratic red tape the artist had to navigate to gain permission to perform her intervention. She had to ask the Victoria and Albert Museum's conservation department, the RCA conservation department, acquire permission from English Heritage (owners of the statue), the City of Westminster council, the councils of boroughs Chelsea and Kensington (whose boundary falls under the statue), the RCA Rector and even the current Lord Napier himself.i

Regardless, this 'authorised intervention' was a resounding success. Being in a very prominent position it was visible by countless commuters and drew a tremendous amount of attention to the monument, one that'd become so much a part of the landscape it struggled for visibility. In this way, the intervention achieved what the artist set out to do: “[...] statuary that symbolizes military past, or imperialism should be covered to make the topics of the past visible.”ii

All said, it's unclear who was the primary actor in this intervention. Certainly we could say that if the state were painting a heritage statue and a member of public complained in protest, it would be difficult for that protest to be heard to effect. Yet if the artist had not asked for permission and her intervention was thwarted, the work would not have seen light and her personal investment in time and red tape would be lost.

Would this intervention, in fact, be better described as a collaboration between the artist and the state?

The long history of artistic intervention has been troubled with court cases and scuffles with authorities, even scuffles between artists themselves. As such this history represents a valuable practice of 'edge detection', delimiting the point at which critical action is not tolerated or readily appropriated. Intervention art always leaves us with a handful of important questions but in the context of Eleanora's piece, they become ever more interesting:

What is the modern relation between the artist and the state? What do we mean by state support in the context of art? Should we always invite and encourage the state as a partner in creative endeavours? Should artists have a role in relation to the state and state interests?

Throw in arts funding and further questions arise... Does public arts funding imply need for a tangible return for tax-payers? 1 If funding is involved then clearly some sort of expected outcome is implied. When we talk of the state investing in art, what is the expected return from that investment?

Art as Investment

Arts funding is widely considered to be a measure of the relative prosperity and cultural health of a given region or nation. It's safe to say a state that invests in the arts, even in areas of diverse experimentation for which a vocabulary may not yet exist, is certainly to be admired. Arts funding is not without its practical rationales however; funding is economically rationalised as an investment with very real capital and social returns.

Richard Florida, the influential American Urban Studies theorist, positions technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men as part of a creative class that he believes provably stimulate economic development in metropolitan areas. Many seem to believe him. His book The Rise of the Creative Class has arguably had a deep impact on policy decisions as relates the arts throughout North America with Florida himself sitting alongside the Director of the National Ballet of Canada and Investment Banker Robert Foster in advising the Creative Capital Initiative, a plan to upgrade Toronto's cultural expenditure. Other cities have followed his advice, so much so one wonders whether artists are strategically positioned as the vanguard of gentrification by providing low-rent incentives for them to move into poor neighbourhoods.

The term Guggenheim Effect (or Bilbao Effect) refers to the economic and cultural transformation of an entire city through the addition of a museum. Frank Gehry's landmark Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1997) has become famous for its deep impact on the economics and image of the city.2

Charters for investing in the arts are not shy of these effects, citing cultural tourism, the stimulation of new markets, revitalization of struggling post-industrial regions, contribution to industrial R&D and projection of a positive, progressive state image as incentives. None of these things are intrinsically bad in themselves but nonetheless they strategically position art and artists within a productive role, one of value to the state as a whole.

Submitting for Funding

It's here that we can run into a sort of chicken-and-egg problem that not only impacts on the primary, critically transformative potential of art itself but sets the frame for a dangerous habit of dependence.

Let us first consider the former problem, that of critical rigour in the arts.

The artist has always been a somewhat fantastic, even romantic figure in public imagination, a character that decidedly positions him or herself outside utility, social responsibility, even civil life. Despite the radical transformations of what we mean by 'art' since the Enlightenment, the popular figure of the artist has (rather curiously) remained relatively consistent.

While often attributed to poverty 3 and anti-social behaviour, the figure of the artist is afforded respect as one that has has the courage and insight to ask deep and troubling questions about who we are and how we live. It is this self appointed role as a stranger of the state and civil society that frames the value of the artist, even before their work is made public. Just as Diogenes The Cynic was valued in his time, we figure artists as those that reserve the right to refute, deny and reverse-engineer civil society and the state that provides for it, to ascend these obligations and expose their assumptive logics.

With such a legacy, one still very alive in rhetoric around art and artists today, the state can make a troubling patron of the arts..

The funding call (typically known as a Call for Proposals) invites applicants to provide a body of text describing their ideas, perhaps with sketches and images of their respective submission. Many artists are familiar with this process, one often resulting in rejection by jury appointed to filter applications. Here the state is ineluctably positioned as not just facilitator but as a curator of artistic intent; providing for the possibility of the work itself within a pre-existant agenda. Furthermore, under the ontology of the artist as an entity within and cared for by the state, arts funding also doubles as an important recognition, that society in general values the creator's work. That value is equivocal to cultural importance, that the artist's work is a deep contribution to the given culture and how it understands itself. This is a very desirable thing for artists indeed, one that captures the attention of a great many practicing today..

What I wish to argue here is not for an end to that thing we call arts funding, for fear of negative effects on critical, creative practices more generally. Far from it. Rather, I wish to draw attention to what I see as a less-than-critical relationship, even dependence, on state funding itself. Arts funding has been a boon for a great many artists, including myself, who have found themselves able to adapt existing works to fit the brief or even create whole new works in a commission like frame. State funding has seen older ideas of mine being realised where otherwise they may very likely have fallen aside. Complex works (technical complexity is almost a characteristic of works of media-art) require plenty of time to research while high material costs often make bringing such ideas to light without funding difficult, sometimes impossible.

Suffice to say, a few of the works I have made would not have been possible without state support, given my own economic condition at the time.

However, it needs to be said a great many artists practising in Europe today increasingly appear unable to conceive of making work at all without state funding (or outside of an institution that has), even if they already have money themselves. Rather, the state is the de facto desired partner in production. The Netherlands, Britain and most of Scandinavia especially are countries with a strong history of state support for the arts; development of a work of new media in these countries in particular often comes with an expectation of state support.

Deeply engrained in the European arts scene more generally is the ever pressing topic of money, or resources as it is often (and euphemistically) put. When these resources come from the state they bring with them conditions that by their very nature configure the state as an accomplice or collaborator in the production of the work..

It is thus unreasonable to expect that an artist will submit work that challenges the state and its civil, political and legal givens, lest of all that the state will support work that does.

While not keenly expressed as such, a culture of compliance is seeded, sewn within a dominant paradigm of economic sense. As such Art, as touted for its fearless rigour and critical cunning, as a vital cornerstone of a healthy, self-reflexive society, is made weak. The state becomes patron, censor and curator of the arts all at once.

Now to our second problem, of dependence.

In June 2011 Zijlstra, the Dutch minister for culture, announced a 200 million Euro cut to infrastructural funding in the arts sector. It may be the death knell for a great many organizations and initiatives throughout the Netherlands, some of which are considered to be canonical to the international media-arts scene (V2_, Sonic Acts, Mediamatic, NIMK, STEIM, to name a few). 4

Many organizations under the axe where born directly out of arts funding and have benefited from persistent support from the Dutch state since their inception. With regular exhibition and workshop programs, theatre, concerts, mini-festivals, book publishing and public seminars, they are a seemingly inseparable part of contemporary Dutch culture. Opposition to the cuts have been vocal and strong, with petitions, protests and numerous letters from the Netherlands and beyond sent to Zijlstra's office.

Most revealing however has been utter surprise at news of the cuts; that such a thing is seemingly unimaginable points to a root expectation that the state must support the arts, especially rigorous and experimental areas such as the media arts.

It's this expectation I'd like to question, going so far as to suggest that given contemporary economic conditions, harbouring such expectations is, in fact, dangerous.

The modern European state is taking on a form increasingly similar to those of the New World: a geographically-abstracted Capital enterprise whose executives we vote into power from time to time. With post-crisis economic rationalism the call of the day, the State-as-enterprise wants competitive capital growth, first and foremost. With exploding populations stressing infrastructure in an aggressive marketplace, broad support of the arts may not appear to be in State interest, may simply not make any sort of capital sense.

More so, the executives that the democratic majority put in power bring with them their own strategies and interests, each of which may or may not later reflect the terms under which they were voted in. In short, it's always going to be a gamble..

As such, depending on the state to support Media Arts organizations and experimental practice in other fields, is not wise. These areas in particular will need to be more dexterous than this.

Cultural projects that are believed to not: stimulate new markets, generate cultural tourism, revitalise a struggling post-industrial town (Newcastle, Linz, Karlsruhe), contribute to industrial R&D, project an image that fits State branding will increasingly be dropped.

It's here where a lab that hosts workshops on noise and experimental music, software and bio-art, physical computing or mixed reality may not appear a sensible investment when appearing in Times New Roman under the red pen. It doesn't matter how intrinsically important these disciplines and their representative institutions may be within the broader human project: it appears some European countries are following the New World and rationalizing away from support of the arts, perhaps ultimately preferring privatisation of the so-called Arts Sector altogether.

As a result of sudden and startling changes in economic representation of the arts as seen in the Netherlands, whole chapters of Dutch media-arts history face a harsh winter of austerity and vast efforts in restructuring, assuming they survive at all. Meanwhile the tax-payer's conscious or unconscious investment in these fields (resulting in projects and vast, specialist bodies of knowledge) will likely go unarchived, even lost altogether; a shell of documentation on websites alone.

Strategies

There are no easy, singular solutions to these dilemmas. Rather, a combination of several contiguous funding strategies may be the wisest direction.

Here are a few, relating most particularly to funding non-profit art institutions than artists alone:

Crowd-funding.
Crowd funding has been used by artists to acquire financial support to develop as yet unmade artwork for centuries, with systems of Charity and Patronage being most notable. The Threshold Pledge System is a kind of crowd-funding that Mozart himself used for the three concertos K413-415.

Typically the artist seeking crowd funding publicly pledges to make a particular work once a set amount of funding is reached, often within a defined period of time. If this amount is not reached, all the money is given back. Software platforms have been developed in recent years to facilitate this more easily over the Internet, The successful Kickstarter being the most notable example.

One common criticism with this model is that the idea to be supported (and or the artist him/herself) must not only be popular but must be put out in the open for the model to work at all. Some artists fear this risks the possibility of other artists 'stealing' their ideas.

Regardless, this system could be just as readily applied to a media-arts institution looking to develop a large project as an artist working alone on a small project.

Production facility.
This is a model already used by several experimental and media-arts organizations throughout the world. By designating a certain portion of their skill-base, equipment and other resources to the paid production of third-party projects, funding is brought in that can be used to support the core agendas of the institution as a whole. HANGAR in Barcelona is a good example of this model in practice. Naturally in the case of the independent artist, this would manifest as the application of their given skills for commercial work, something not always desirable for many artists, hence them rather seeking light-footed philanthropists or relationships with art dealers where their work is directly positioned as a capital commodity.

Public education platforms.
Rather than depending on the state to support free public education programs within given or approved topics, the arts organization might host quality workshops on a regular basis, selling tickets as required. Free seminars targeting a diverse public should argue as to why supporting experimental arts and research practices is a good idea in the first place. If voters cannot see tangible value in supporting diverse experimentation, complaints directed at elected politicians that under-represent the respective field make little sense, in the long term.

Conclusion

It's my hope that out of the gloom of austerity -one cutting deep into the European arts sector at the time of writing- will come a positive shift: a commitment to the exploration and implementation of strategies that loosen dependence upon the State and thus reducing infrastructural vulnerability in the long term.

More so, I suspect such new directions might spur a more courageous and rigorous critical disposition within experimental arts practices more generally, one not shy to offend, lest of all the hands that feed.

Julian Oliver

July 2011


2 An economically positivist account of the Bilbao Effect http://www.forbes.com/2002/02/20/0220conn.html
Whilst it has created thousands of new jobs (largely in the tourist industry) it is important to note it has also doubled property values,
displaced immigrant populations and raised the cost of living in the area overall (See Esteban's El Efecto Guggenheim, Editorial Anagrama 2007).

3 Rather humorously 'Khudozhnik', the word for artist in Russian, also means 'skinny' or 'unwell'.

4 The media-arts is a good case example of a burgeoning field of practice not considered central to contemporary art history and so is
arguably more vulnerable during times of austerity.