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You are an Artist. You graduated from art college more than two years ago, but opportunities seem to be drying up, or at least are a bit chaotic. Occasionally local things come up, but you fear involvement with ‘community art’ will effect your credibility with the gallery system. You haven’t achieved gallery representation yet and you suspect you never will. And you’re probably right; research shows that two years on your chances are basically nil. You keep a studio, but it isn’t much more than a status symbol, you barely get there two days a week, what with your part-time job. You still call yourself an artist when you meet new people, but you are beginning to believe you have failed.

Zuidervaart sees things differently. He says that an Artist’s gifts have benefited from training in our Institutions. This creates a calling for all Artists to spend at least some of their time in the paid service of Civil Society, even if they have gallery representation. This is also appropriate because the greatest demand for art is located in Civil Society. Zuidervaart’s version makes sense of this situation by exposing the fact that Art in Public is extremely important and a more natural workplace for most contemporary artists coming out of art school; itself a Civil Society Institution. In fact Civil Society always needs more artists and provides opportunities encompassing local and national institutions. Zuidervaart also dismisses the notion that Civil Society is second-best to the private gallery system, it is more likely to be the other way round, even. This claim is a bit of a wake-up call when you consider how market obsessed Art Colleges have become. It is possible to graduate with a Fine Art MA without the slightest idea of the existence of anything outside the Contemporary Art Gallery System, despite the fact that it will deliver so few opportunities to their alumni. Zuidervaart offers a better standard against which to judge if you are an artist, than selling your art. Consumer choice isn’t especially good at ratifying good art. People often love art, even, that they wouldn’t consider taking home. And collecting art is very difficult. People quite rightly prefer public institutions they trust to collect art on their behalf.

Zuidervaart, instead, refers Artists to the concept of Relational Autonomy and asks them to hold their Autonomy in tension with their Social Responsibility. ‘Art in Public’ asks of us, are you capturing the public imagination to create solidarity, not mere sensation? Are you communicating in a way that simultaneously equips the audience to be able to speak?

Is your art turning conformity into solidarity?

At last! A definition of success that looks at your work, rather than your bank balance. It appears a little vague at first, but I think this partly explained by our dependence on economic qualifications, and also because it is a relational measure rather than an individualistic one. But then measurement is all about relativity.

Yet it won’t be an unqualified relief for artists to be measured against their work (in public), rather than the flow of their personal wellspring of genius or their proximity to the summit of the gallery system. An Artist in Public is thrown into a vortex of political and personal relationships. Artists can’t function like this alone, garret-bound; they need the support and mediation of Arts Organisations. You see Zuidervaarts argument suggests artists be paid for public work, not just for being artists. This satisfies the best of the arguments on the left and right in the States, one demanding public spirit, and the other autonomy. Robust Arts Organisations provide colleagues for an artist. They are essential because they:

  1. connect the artists with Civil Society groups and communities.
  2. make public money accountable, but also free from government interference
  3. give the work credibility as a cultural, non-economic, undertaking

Zuidervaart was president of the very impressive Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids. A group begun by artists that included non-artist members. His experience helps him identify what makes for a good Arts Org:

  1. Involve local residents at every stage of the planning
  2. Democracy is messy and time-consuming, but yields the best long-term results
  3. Think globally; Act locally
  4. Artists shouldn’t be left on the margins, but involved in making a compelling vision

But to conclude, here are some of my own observations of assumptions we can make about Arts Organisations. First, we often assume that artists need to get together for mutual support, which may be helpful. But what Zuidervaart reveals is that this is unlikely to be where an artist achieves most. It is more important for Artists to be spread out and active amongst other citizens, where directly or indirectly their art can create solidarity.

We also tend to see Artists as charity cases, and Arts Organisations as a way of helping them. But the truth is that artists usually have the lowest commercial rents going. Often a fifth or tenth of what a design studio would be paying. There are certain aspects of an Artists work that could actually benefit from a dose of market forces. Exhibiting an Artist’s work in your building isn’t going to help them get a gallery unless you have a great touring reputation and a list of art collectors. What you have isn’t a gallery; it’s a room. What would really benefit an Artist is your purpose. A chance to discharge their responsibility as an artist towards Society with you.

Which leads to our last observation; we assume that Arts Organisations are organisations about art. Organisations to preserve art or make it happen. These do and should exist, but Arts Orgs often tackle a social agenda but are active through art. UICA is a non-profit organisation that ‘fosters’ art in public. They are a public gallery, workshop and film theatre. But their purpose was cultural regeneration of the downtown area. They didn’t want redevelopment at the expense of residents creating a heartless non-community. They wanted a resurrection. They wanted economic improvements accompanied by meaning and purpose, and artists provided that meaning and purpose.

Art in Public, Lambert Zuidervaart
Edited from a lecture I gave in 2013 recommending this book at a symposium on Sphere Sovereignty. The link above will help you buy this book.

So far Zuidervaart has argued that the Arts are needed, but who should pay for them? And what is the economic argument for doing so? This is what Zuidervaart calls his Public Justice Premise, the second premise of the three found in his book ‘Art In Public’.

Zuidervaart argues that Civil Society should be given the money and space it needs to do its job properly – the resources it needs to produce Solidarity.

The government is only fundamentally satisfied when it knows it has dispensed public justice. For its own fulfilment, the government must discharge its obligation to protect Civil Society from any encroachments on its natural tasks, and provide the resources to undertake them properly. Another example; a judge may demand that prisons be adequately supplied to send people to for punishment and to ensure they don’t appear in front of his bench again. This principle leads to premise number three, the Arts Organisation Premise. Zuidervaart claims that Arts Organisations are the best channel for discharging this government responsibility, which means they deserve some protection from Market Forces and enough money to produce authentic Solidarity.

I like these premises for two reasons. They allow public money to be used for public service without creating a refuge for elitist art at National Lottery player’s expense. Under the current system the arts are paid for by people who neither experience them directly nor can they really afford to pay for them. Their lottery money is capital that could indeed change their lot, if accumulated, but is instead wasted on a fantasy that they might effortlessly escape their lot. The profits subsidise arts that those involved with could afford, but would rather not pay for because they don’t like them that much. But this system continues because it is also true that a system of consumer choice would not improve quality or ‘participation’, and the ghost of something valuable is detectable in the arts. With a consumer choice, if there is a problem you remove yourself and choose a different supplier. But within Civil Society if there is a problem you have to get more, not less, involved.

But most importantly, Zuidervaart has described art as a public good worth paying for, which is my personal litmus test for this topic. Even if art costs money, it is money well spent. Even without attending the arts, all citizens benefit from a climate of freedom. And this is the only book I’ve ever read to argue this persuasively. He dismisses all the efficiency, equity, merit good or market failure arguments, which just try and find an economic excuse for subsidising arts. Despite the good intentions, these excuses just put the arts at the mercy of market values, and remove them from the protection of their own internal logic, like an endangered species put into an economic logic-zoo deprived of its own natural philosophical environment. Instead, Zuidervaart exposes a philosophical reality that we have to protect from urgent demands on the budget or we risk becoming less civilised in real terms.

If you are in doubt as to Civil Society’s importance, in keeping the democratic air we breathe unpolluted, let me refer you to the alternative. In May, a memo from the new Chinese president Xi Jinping was leaked (Taipei Times Wed, May 22, 2013). It referred to “seven evil subjects” to be driven out of Chinese universities. Included was the phrase “civil society”. Today’s debate, which we take for granted, will not be permitted in China. It will, however, be debated at Harvard where Prof Michael Sandel teaches, and it is rumoured Xi Jinping’s daughter Xi Mingze has been studying since 2010.

Edited from a lecture I gave recommending Lambert Zuidervaart’s book ‘Art In Public’ at a seminar on Sphere Sovereignty (June 8th 2013). One more part will follow.

Imagine this scenario. Two children come running into your kitchen, screaming and shouting over each other. The first child is shouting ‘He pushed me! He snatched my scooter!’ And the second one is shouting ‘It’s mine, it’s not his. He shouldn’t be touching my scooter!’ Now on the face of it, these children are totally opposed to each other. They certainly aren’t conscious of any agreement between themselves. But if we take a big picture view, we see things a bit differently. Just one example: they both have a claim for ownership. One says the scooter is his by title, the other by use, so they agree that it is possible they can own a scooter. But these children don’t have jobs, where did they get the money for a scooter? They don’t know how to get to the shop, and even if they did, how would they get there? I think if we suggest that the scooter really belongs to the person who bought it and drove it home we might suddenly reveal some agreement between the two children.

A similar type of argument exists in the USA and the UK over government arts funding. The American National Endowment for the Arts, and Arts Council England, both face arguments over their budgets. In America, the Left wingers argue that autonomous artists are essential for free speech. No consumer will pay to hear their critical voice, so they need government funding. The Right wingers reply that these artists are not impartial; they are misanthropic degenerates who deliberately try and offend the public and undermine the values that they rely on. And if you are going to spend public money on art it should be for art that the public likes. Now, neither of these positions are completely without merit. In the UK things are less clearly defined, but we have, on one side, the artistic elite who claim that if the refined arts are going to survive they need economic protection, and others on that side argue that art is a vital x-factor for redevelopment of cities and, given the small amount invested by the government, we make a massive profit as a country from the arts. We can call this the ‘culture is our biggest export’ argument. On the other hand you have a lot of people who claim that art diverts money needed by more necessary budgets. We can call that the ‘how many incubators could that have paid for’ argument. It is an idealistic argument; you’ll notice that nobody ever asks how many abortions a piece of art would have paid for.

These arts fuding factions disagree as violently as the kids with scooters did in our scenario, so if we take a step back, what do we see? Well, Lambert Zuidervaart in his book Art In Public suggests that if we examine all their competing economic justifications, we see

“A binary political-economic system where government funding pump-primes an art world dominated by corporate business interests.”

This means that these factions all assume that the Artworld is a kind of market or industry that needs government stimulation to encourage investors, such as museum sponsors. So the Unilever series of commissions in the Tate Modern is normal for the contemporary art system. Or the large art collections of major banks are normal. So the only useful questions one can ask become about how much money the government spends or how much access sponsors can get. And where is the artist in all this? Well he seems to be an edgy individual, a celebrity floating in space, who lives on cigarettes dipped in red bull. You’ll notice that there is a lot of confusion about boundaries in this debate. Zuidervaart points out that the most striking omission from all of this are the mainstream museum activities, academic institutions, libraries, arts trusts and charities, religious groups, and so on. The non-economic institutions that are variously called Civil Society, the Third Sector, or Non-Profit Organisations. Zuidervaart settles on the name Civil Society to describe these Institutions for which financial gain is not the main ambition. So let’s look at what happens when Zuidervaart includes Civil Society in the argument. This also introduces the first of three premises that Zuidervaart defines, which justify government arts funding; the Societal Need Premise. (In subsequent posts I’ll describe his “Public Justice Premise” and “Arts Organisation Premise”).

Societal Need Premise:

Let’s imagine this time that you have three children. They are going away to stay with relatives, and are travelling alone on the train, so you need to give them rules that will get them there safely and help them settle in with the relatives.

The first I’ll introduce is Verity, the middle child. She is very honest and fair-minded, so you tell the others that when they have discussed everything together, Verity will make the final decision. And it is Verity who will make sure everyone has what they need.

The second I want to introduce is Adam, the youngest. He is in charge of the purse. Adam is a natural choice because he is very gifted with money. He gets good value for money, keeps a good account, and isn’t afraid to use money. With holiday time and hapless relatives at their disposal, they will almost certainly come home with more money than they left with.

The third child is the oldest; Sophie. When people first meet her they sometimes think she’s a bit of a daydreamer, but although she isn’t very decisive, in reality she is actually very perceptive, and is very good at remembering what it was they were doing when they get distracted. She is even very perceptive about herself. The kids always enjoy each other’s company if Sophie is there.

These three kids represent the three macrostructures of our democratic Society, as Zuidervaart describes them. Verity represents the government, and her priority is Public Justice. Adam represents the Economy, or Markets, and his priority is Resourcefulness. Sophie represents Civil Society and her priority is Solidarity. Our judgements about these three parts of our Society should be based upon how well they attain their own priorities. The government seeks public justice, the economy seeks resourcefulness, and civil society seeks solidarity.

We can see that these three parts of our society are not subordinate to each other. Verity needs money to ensure justice. Adam needs the other two, because without consumers, there is no business. Adam and Sophie benefit from the freedom Verity protects. Without Sophie, the other two lose their perspective and their purpose and become argumentative and frustrated.

But Zuidervaart emphasises that even while they need each other, they inevitably encroach upon each other’s territory and undermine each other. Adam thinks he can do Sophie’s job much more quickly and efficiently, and he is willing to do it for the right price. Sometimes he doesn’t want to give Verity her share of his profits, after all, she relies on a cumbersome voting system, when consumer decisions are much more rapid indications of what people really want. These are both examples of what Professor Michael Sandel calls our shift from having a market economy to being a market society, where the ultimate values are market values, and everything must mirror the speed and productivity of the market economy (What Money Can’t Buy).

So these kids rely on Sophie to constantly remind all three of them of their priorities. As they bicker in the train station she re-introduces solidarity by capturing their imaginations and describing where they could be and the wonderful time they will have there. She reminds Verity to pursue Justice rather than popularity, Adam to pursue resourcefulness instead of pure profit, and herself to pursue Solidarity, even when she herself hankers after power or plenty.

But this is where we find the chief weakness of Zuidervaart’s book. He wants Sophie to redirect Adam to ‘Resourcefulness’, but Adam thinks the purpose of the Economy is to seek ‘Profit’. They are liable to bicker. Zuidervaart admits to a lack of economic expertise, and points us to Bob Goudzewaard and Harry de Lange’s book Beyond Poverty and Affluence to fill the gap. What Zuidervaart’s short-cut misses out is the way that our consumption accelerates the process of providing for more people with less wastage, in an industrial cycle. In short, pursuing profit inevitably leads to pursing efficiency; but pursuing efficiency alone can very easily restrict prosperity to the richest countries. There is a reason for pursuing profit that benefits everyone indirectly, which is why we no longer have British famines. However it is true that pursuing profit will also increase pollution if laws are inadequate or badly enforced. So my question for Zuidervaart is this: why bother to constrain the economy’s territory if you are then going to constrain its purpose? Yes, Capitalism without limits must be redirected to Resourcefulness. But regulated Capitalism is free to pursue profit. That’s the whole point of limits. Normal behaviour on the rugby pitch is frowned upon in the aisles at Sainsbury’s. However, inequality and exploitation are fair targets for criticism. But I would suggest they are also indicative of very poorly executed Capitalism.

The reason I’m identifying this is that it calls the whole idea into question. How are Arts Organisations supposed to redirect our Society if artists don’t understand other people’s business? We see lots of examples of this over the years, of artists who have grasped their obligation to speak, but not done so from an informed position. I saw one artist make a project attacking the pollution caused by Capitalism where the example she used was from a natural disaster that occurred under Gorbachev. Yet the answer is quite simple. Although our society will have to rely on commonplace assumptions minute by minute, these are challenged or supported by professionals who use reason, science, or imagination to change these assumptions over time. This is part of a process of turning conformity into solidarity. These professionals, including scientists and artists, must research what it is they want to talk about exhaustively. Not just confirming their opinions, but challenging them. They can then innovate productively. But on everything we haven’t researched we must have a professional vow of silence. No matter how stupid it makes us look, or how obvious a thing seems to everyone else, if we haven’t gone and looked, we can’t speak.

So, with this qualification, I think Zuidervaart’s depiction of simultaneous need and conflict between the government, economy and civil society rings true. And it forms the basis for Zuidervaart’s ‘Societal Need Premise’; that our Society needs robust Arts Organisations within our Civil Society that will redirect our institutions to their priorities. They provide the imaginative communication that succeeds in helping us examine ourselves and remember where we are going. However, Artists must take this responsibility seriously.

Zuidervaart is arguing here that by nature, what he calls “Art in Public” belongs in Civil Society. It is Sophie’s territory. Solidarity is the best fit for the purpose of the Arts in our Democratic Society, because they help people discover meaning and purpose. But it is not just that they redirect society on our behalf. Instead, as the arts are practised in public they renew our ability to take part in Society. For example, when a Shakespeare play is studied in a school, the pupils aren’t just taught by rote to remember the plots of the plays so they can pass an exam and get a well paid job. No, the teacher asks them to also look at their own life in the light of what happens to Romeo and Juliet. And in the process of doing so, they become able to articulate themselves generally, so they are now able to form views and describe them without resorting to violence. The arts are like one of those road-building vehicles, with the same tracks as tanks. They bring their own path with them, falling infinitely in front of them, and they leave a polished road behind for others to use.

Edited from a lecture I gave recommending Lambert Zuidervaart’s book ‘Art In Public’ at a seminar on Sphere Sovereignty (June 8th 2013). Two more parts will follow.