[-empyre-] // The State of Art //

Julian Oliver julian at julianoliver.com
Fri Aug 5 04:19:24 EST 2011

(Sorry for any cross-posting. I feel it's relevant to the most recent topic,
here on Empyre. Please bear in mind it's intended for a general audience.)

Hi list. 

I've written a short article on state-support of the arts. It seeks to draw
attention to the problem of cultural dependence on arts funding while
questioning the state as an artistic collaborator or producer more generally.

It follows in the wake of severe cuts to the arts across several European

The full article can be found online here, including emphases, references and




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. 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.

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.”

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

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? 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?


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.

Robert 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.

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.


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 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

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

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).

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.


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 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

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.


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


Julian Oliver

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