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.