[-empyre-] Art Funding and Politics

NeMe nemeorg at gmail.com
Wed Nov 2 16:36:47 EST 2011

The politics of arts funding was never really a major concern for us,
until recently. The drastic cuts throughout the EU member countries
have situated us against the pervasive political rhetoric which
clearly infringes upon the idea of cultural capital (P. Bourdieu) in
favour of economic capital.  The excessively harsh funding cuts to
culture reflect a global trend on behalf of governments, that many of
us agree, are short-sighted. We all agree that the condition of the
world economy is indeed precarious but the question must be asked on
why the arts is one of the first victims (along with women's
charities, support for the poor and education). Why do governments and
especially western governments consider the arts, such an easy target
for their vapid attempts to reform and restore a failing economy?

For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the arts in
general and new media in particular with the acceptance that it is
impossible to isolate this subject area without contextualising within
the framework of politics.

During the twentieth century art was usurped as an important tool for
the propaganda wars between east and west and the (un)holy trinity of
arts/ funding /politics was elevated into a position of symbolic
weaponry in the ideology battles. Since the fall of the Berlin wall in
1989 the arts have enjoyed an almost unregulated freedom of form,
content, expression and growth. This is no longer the case. Perhaps,
entrenching staid political and ideological distinctions in a time of
flux is the action of insecure governance which willingly disengages
support from the arts that are perceived to have the authority and
potential to participate from within whilst maintaining autonomy and
freedom to question and challenge political power.

So, to focus on the subject of our ensuing discussion, why are the
arts considered expendable?  Why do governments, by choice, want to
further entrench their people into a condition Tessa Jowell, the
British politician, described as 'poverty of aspiration'. This
question also implies another.  What are subjective criteria and value
judgements made by government employees on which non-government
organisation/institution/individual deserves severe or total funding
cuts?  What are the political and social subtexts that underpin these
selective decisions? Is it that the arts empower us with the promise
of potential, the power to dream of an unrealised social and racial
equality, and do the arts, beyond other social factors and
disciplines, have the power to develop a more wholesome and proactive,
politicised individual? Or on a more utilitarian level, could it be
that the dominant global economic neo-liberal agenda does not
accommodate the arts sector as a venture for serious investment during
bear market times?

Conversely, and this is an important area for discussion, does this
withdrawal of financial support release the arts and education sectors
so that they may reform into a stronger and uncompromised social and
political voice with no obligation to impose self-censorship in order
to attract possible funders?  To what degree will these funding cuts
illicit a global propensity to fight back and thus greatly fortify the
movement towards a genuine re-politicisation of culture?
(http://blog.frieze.com/dutch-cuts/ )

Those of us who have organised arts events accept that it is almost
impossible to do so without some funding as too much 'in-kind
sponsorship', as free labour, is tantamount to exploitation of our
friends and colleagues, or at least, this is how we see it. So how do
individuals, non-government organisations, institutions and others
redefine themselves and recontextualise their contributions in order
to attract private or public funding. In order to accommodate this
changing role of the arts,  John Holden states it is imperative that
we "abandon these old ideas about culture as a set of oppositional
binaries of high/low, refined/debased, and elitist/popular,"

To a great degree new media has already achieved this. Art made for
the internet can now reach a far larger audience any art ever could.
Nonetheless, new media art is a major victim of the European funding
cuts. Why?  Also, does new media define itself as the controversial
avant-garde force generating the changing definition and role of the
arts? The plethora of net images, youtube videos, personal blogs etc,
admittedly not always good (with many much much worse than good) have
undoubtedly transformed the context of culture and eliminated all
commonly understood categories of the arts. The power of global
communication with the possibility of unlimited viewer participation
is a expansive transformation as well as a great seduction,
challenging head on any modernist concept of the arts as being defined
by a historically based consensus of aesthetic principles and
elements. (Of course, here, we are not questioning the power of media
and communication contributing to the surge of united political and
social change that is sweeping the world right now, but this is
another subject.)

So is this how we will now understand and re-define the arts?  A wide
ranging reformist shared experience, powerful enough to inform and
enrich communities of individuals  whilst simultaneously emancipating
us from government's enforcement of what and which arts constitute
cultural value. And where does funding fit into this?

The question of how do the arts reposition themselves in a world which
is increasingly focused on an uneasy financial market, is an important
one. We see the trend developing, through necessity, where
institutions and arts organisations are creating new collaborations
often with their equivalents from new or potential EU member countries
where a reasonable funding remains to be tapped due mainly to the EU's
cultural policy of promoting intercultural thematic projects. This,
however, does not ensue that many of these projects will necessarily
contribute beyond mainstream easily digested but professionally
presented projects encapsulating the ornament of intercultural
democratisation. Nor does it mean that many of these fiscally driven
and contrived collaborations embody a real agency to transform our
experience to a degree beyond the assurance of their physical
realisation made possible via the application of EU bureaucracy and
cultural patrimony. But they do mean that the funded proposals fall
comfortably within the EU's clearly orchestrated and imposed
definition of cultural value.

We conclude by stating that our observations and questions are posed
to introduce the topic for November. We are hoping that our questions
do not only illicit answer type responses but also, and more
importantly, encourage more pertinent questions to be asked and thus
generate a lively and germane discussion.

Helene Black & Yiannis Colakides

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