Art Funding and Politics

From the 2nd to the 30th of November 2011, NeMe founders Helene Black and Yiannis Colakides moderated the thematic discussion in the -empyre- list Art Funding and Politics. Many thanks to Timothy Murray and Renate Ferro who invited us to moderate this discussion.

Invited discussants were: Denise Robinson (UK), Iannis Zannos (GR) and Bill Balaskas (UK) and contributions were made from Julian Oliver, Simon Taylor, Rachel O’Reilly, Renate Ferro, Isak Berbic, Andreas Maria Jacobs, Wangbaoju, Johannes Birringer, Caroline Woolard, Geert Lovink, Simon Biggs, Marco Mancuso, Sherry Miller and GH Hovagimyan. The discussion is archived on the -empyre- November and December 2011 archives.

-empyre- facilitates critical perspectives on contemporary cross – disciplinary issues, practices and events in networked media by inviting guests – key new media artists, curators, theorists, producers and others to participate in thematic discussions.

Introduction to the discussion

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?

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