These are hard times for Belgian lovers of the arts. Government funding is being reduced, and big names have been left out altogether: La Petite Bande, Zuiderpershuis, Musical van Vlaanderen… Elsewhere in Europe more drastic measures have been taken, with the Netherlands and the UK taking pride of place in the media. The creative community has been vocal in its displeasure, and understandably so. Yet being a culture vulture myself, I’ve become tempted to play devil’s advocate for once and look at why shrinking the budget can be beneficial.
The distant past has seen its fair share of the businessman-artist. Handel downsized his opera business by opting for the more profitable, scenery free oratorio form. Rubens took the role of spy and art dealer on the side. And we have the flamboyant Russian impresario Diaghilev and his penchant for the populist risqué to thank for staging the most radical ballet of the twentieth century: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Today we only have to look at Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons or even our own Wim Delvoye to see that there is big money in art.
These people are of course exceptions. Yet even a cursory look through art history reveals that most of the pantheon of great works has been commissioned by people or institutions that wanted art as a commodity made to order, rather than a form of free expression. L’art pour l’art hasn’t got that much going for it in that regard. Artists either found a generous patron or started giving lessons. If, like Mozart, you were a bit of a spendthrift, you made sure you worked hard. You employed yourself, so you advertised yourself. To put it bluntly: Beethoven’s Fifth was not state subsidized, why should my work be?
Arguably, squalor seems to help. That same Mozart wrote his famed Requiem on his deathbed, Russian composer Shostakovich’s oeuvre could not have existed without Soviet oppression and poor and destitute poets are a staple of literature. So let them suffer. At least we know that worked in the past. Of course not. This populist argument is akin to praising the horrors of war because they gave us Picasso’s Guernica or the striking battle photography of Robert Capa.
And neither have artists become lazy. They remain industrious and highly ambitious. The thing is, art has come across some internal difficulties.
First of all, there are no real boundaries to cross anymore. Everything has been tried before in the traditional media (painting, acoustic music, sculpture etc.), and the only real source of innovation left, is technology.
Secondly, artists today have only become marginally more productive than their 19th century counterparts, yet their wages have risen just the same. This is called the Baumol Effect. Thirdly there exists a schism between high art and low art and on by which rules they should play. Finally, a similar dichotomy is to be found between the spectator arts and participatory or amateur arts. The first two issues are actually not that problematic. A contemporary artist has a lot more to explore just because of the wealth of pre-existing genres, and a bigger possible audience to target and make money off. Even getting the audience to pay for a whole project has become possible thanks to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.
However, the Baumol Effect strikes disciplines with a dwindling audience share the most: not only does interest wane, expense keeps rising. How can one cope with the cost of living in that situation? Inspired efforts are being made, like the Brussels Philharmonic saving tens of thousands of euros by replacing paper scores by tablets, yet technology can only help so much. Perhaps not all art is a fulltime job: composer Philip Glass drove a taxi in his early career, poet T. S. Eliot worked at a bank and author Primo Levi was a chemist. Many more examples abound. This leads nicely to our third problem: why is it that some culture is worth special treatment? And are we giving it the right kind of care?
First off, there has been continual institutional prejudice against commercial, “low” culture. Yet great books, movies, TV series and music all originate there: Franzen’s The Corrections, Coppola’s The Godfather, HBO’s The Wire, The Beatles’ Revolver. Are we too close to their conception to pass a value judgement? People in the Renaissance knew that Leonardo Da Vinci was a living genius, so mankind did not necessarily have that problem in the past. Paradoxically in modern times, for example a lot of early BBC television comedies have been lost by reuse of the tapes storing the only recordings, whilst in that same period footage was diligently archived of classical orchestras performing works that already then had been played to death. Maybe because art has become more collaborative that we’ve become confused. Or perhaps because the individual, popular artist produces less technically complex work: take popular songs, which nearly always have simple chords, structure and rhythms.
Whatever the case, the market mirrors what the public wants and in which proportion. At any given time this means it is extending our cultural heritage, and great art will always be a sizeable part of that – even if we do not consider it as such at the moment, and even if it isn’t the primary component. This lesson applies in both ways: we should respect great art that is also popular, but just as well foster a healthy breeding ground for great art that has less universal appeal.
On a second note, it is dubious whether the artists that cannot survive in the free market, are best served by government subsidy. I’m not talking about simply supporting the arts - which no sensible man could argue against, but direct financial compensation.
Let us take a look at the United States of America, where less than 20% of arts organization’s budgets comes from Uncle Sam. The US has an ace in the hole with their system of charitable tax deductions, and the whole environment of private donations that has grown around it. Europe is taking a page from their book in looking for ways to limit its cultural spending, but should be cautious: many of our cultural institutions have become dependent on subsidy, and instilling a culture of citizen donations will be an arduous task. Our arts organizations are not exaggerating when describing government budget cuts as matters of life or death. At the moment, Americans privately give several times more to culture as a percentage of the GDP than Europeans. Our subsidy system actively discourages this practice, by confronting donors with the fact that any gift they give could cause the government to lower their investment in that particular organisation. At the same time our system is taking away democracy from culture, as the state chooses to support a happy (relatively unchanging) few under the guidance of experts that tell them whether or not this or that ensemble is still fulfilling a relevant role. This is not such of an issue as it is for more meddling, authoritative regimes as China, but it does mean that the state is at least lagging behind on our needs and limiting the diversity of the cultural scene. Ominous conspiracy theories aside, put it whatever which way you want: the goal of art becomes catering to the government. The ideal solution would be a restructuring without the neglect of trust. Trust is crucial: while Dutch historian Geert Mak talks about the disappearance of the “mother’s teat of the state”, he also quotes fellow historian Francis Fukuyama in asserting that social capital takes forever to build, but only moments to destroy. People become angry when their worth is denied, but their pride grows when they’re appreciated in their responsibilities and craftsmanship. The path to success is therefore twofold: a more focused and streamlined form of government support and an emancipation of the artist.
It turns out that the main forms of art that offer a proven benefit to society and thus deserve funding, are the participatory arts or amateur arts: they enhance cognition, social skills, help in treating mental health, make young prisoners more self-confident and build close-knit communities. Yet this is the pernicious fourth problem that is plaguing the arts: participation is eschewed in favour of the spectator arts. A lot of our culture is still like the museums of yesteryear: a stuffy situation where, to quote Quentin Crisp, art comes to be hanged until it is dead.
I propose that the state holds on to its core functions: providing infrastructure, means of communication and arts education. These are things the market can never fully replace, because they are economic externalities: like roads, everyone benefits from their use, but only if we all chip in, can they be maintained. Investing in the community aspect will not only democratize the arts, but also provide an entry into a shared state of mind that the arts are everyone’s responsibility. At the same time the arts education must make sure that all artists can enter on a level playing field, that they have the know-how of an entrepreneur and are not marred by their social background. The gradual weaning of the current dependant ensembles can be facilitated by opting resolutely for project based funding, adding communal participation as an essential requirement. These structural changes are needed not because we need to diminish the budget deficit, or because the arts are a bad investment, but because we need to ensure the arts can remain vibrant and autonomous. Only then can subsidizing the arts become nurturing culture. For the politicians it is only a matter of making the inevitable seem planned.