Hard Times and the Arts

This post was written by Jacob on June 20, 2010
Posted Under: Uncategorized

How many times in the last two weeks have we had some poxy journalist or other tell us that hard times are good for art? How many of them think that the endless queues at Job Centre Plus will be the inspiration for a New New Objectivity movement, or that the broad pretentiousness of the highly commercialised underground art movements of Shoreditch and Whitechapel will eventually gain some authenticity in finally being driven properly underground when there’s no more money to rent studio or gallery space?

Otto Dix takes on the Job Centre Queue.

In the first wave of cuts, last week, we saw the axing of the government funds towards the new BFI Film Centre planned to be built on the South Bank. No doubt in the budget tomorrow we are likely to see further cuts to our country’s artistic institutions. Furthermore, over the course of the last century more and more artists find that the only way they can exist is by taking a salary from universities, and ongoing cuts to the HE sector, particularly aimed at arts and humanities will inevitably have a turbulent effect on Britain’s artistic life.

The fact is that many of the critics who come out with this sort of shit have some awful Romantic notion of some wondering classless artist (both within and without capitalism.) You say art and they think of Chopin or Van Gogh. The reality of artistic production doesn’t come into it. Whilst there are undoubtedly many problems with state-funded art in this country (I mean which fuckwit thought that hundreds of colourful elephants sprinkled throughout London’s streets were either interesting or a good idea?), the state does fund all sorts of useful things that simply wouldn’t be able to exist otherwise: By this I mean large free public galleries, theatre, opera, concerts etc, which simply couldn’t exist without subsidy.

Yes, there are serious aesthetic problems with artistic production, yes, a whole lot of shit ha been produced in times of not a whole lot of aesthetic theorisation in the last 25 years, but it clearly is not a direct result of everyone being well sated and kind of happy that capitalism keeps them going, despite what Damian Hirst might have you believe. Perhaps the realisation of the fragility of capitalism may offer a crack through which some light of the necessity of new aesthetic theorisation may be allowed in, but the relationship of art and the economy is rather more complex than than saying that when capitalism does badly art does well.

Furthermore, if anything this recession will more than likely turn art in the other direction. In an already horribly dog-eat-dog world, a scarcity of liquidity can only spur on an aesthetic of populism. When every avant-garde concert has been ridden from the world to be replaced by some banal collection of popular classics ranging from the chorus of Beethoven 9 to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, when the only ballet that ever gets performed is the god damn Nutcracker, when everything is new has been murdered at the expense of what is familiar, and all the artistic spaces make wonderful fortunes as businesses, will we still be saying that hard times are good for the arts?

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Reader Comments


Aren’t you effectively suggesting that Gresham’s law applies to art as though art were fungible? It’s an interesting thought, and not one I’d dismiss out of hand – although it, in turn, suggests that certain questions regarding the value of art might have some very unexpected answers.

Personally, I think I’d lean in the other direction. Whilst the mode of expression may be affected by the cost of materials and scarcity or otherwise of funding, the art itself is inherently unable to be affected directly by economic conditions under any reasonable definition of what is actually art. That is to say, one who is truly creating art is doing so for reasons, and in a way, that mean he or she will find a way to express the idea they have in whatever medium is available.

Written By Dave on June 20th, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

Dave: From your last paragraph you seem to rule out any possible blurring between art and craft. Whilst I accept that any work of art involves the expression of an idea in some sense or other, to say that art is only art if it takes the form of an abstract idea for which a medium is then sought, rather than, say, ideas emerging slowly during the dedicated pursuit of one or two mediums, rules out of art most of the art that has ever been produced.

Apologies if I have misinterpreted your position.

Written By Michael on June 20th, 2010 @ 7:56 pm


Say rather that the position I put forward rules out blurring, as you suggest. I’m ruminating, rather than ruling anything out myself. Broadly speaking, I entirely agree that what you point out is implied.

This is going to be a little confusing, because we’re now trying to talk about two different concepts using the same word: art as a concept, and things that are considered to be works of art. I think we’d agree that there is much in galleries – calling any space where art is displayed, a gallery – which is not art, and much that is art which is not in galleries.

It’s possible to get tied up in knots trying to define art from the viewer’s perspective, but relatively simple to define it from the creator’s perspective as that which is done to convey or express something for the sake of expressing it. In so doing, we create all kinds of conflicts whereby things we are commonly accustomed to thinking of as art no longer seem so, and things we are not accustomed to thinking of as art become so, but I find that none of those conflicts are actually distasteful in their implications.

Of course, there is no reason to suggest that art and not-art are two distinct categories. Clearly, something can be somewhat art; arty. As such, there’s no problem with saying that the artist creating for the sake of creating is a true artist, creating something that is purely art, and that others with less pure motives are creating things which are only partially – or even mostly – art.

It would seem that the implied conclusion is that almost every human activity involves at least some art, but, as I said, I’m just noting down some thoughts as they occur to me, rather than attempting to present a pre-conceived notion. That conclusion doesn’t strike me as obviously absurd, but I’m far from completely convinced of its truth.

Written By Dave on June 20th, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

Actually I’m not sure I would agree that there is much in galleries that is not art. This is largely because I don’t regard producing a defenition of art as very important, and find it more productive to say something is crap art than to try and argue that it is not art at all.

In relation to art and craft, if you don’t view art and non art as two distinct catagories, then much of my uneasiness disapears (I agree with you, by the way, but for some reason was assuming that you didn’t). On a practical note, and getting back to Reuben’s original point, I do still think that supporting the arts can best be done through funding specific mediums even if some of the participants in those mediums are not artists and some of those who are would be just as well off in other mediums.

I have also started wondering whether my desire to blur the distinction between art and craft is really just a tactic to make it easier to defend crafts in thier own right, and whether I would do better being more honest and saying that I tend judge what people create both as art and as craft and keep the two seperate. This is somewhat complicated by my interest in art that has ideas relating to craft as its subject, but this is just a confusion in my mind, not an actual contradiction.

Written By Michael on June 21st, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

Sorry, I’ve been putting off replying until I had time for a proper response, but I don’t seem to be getting that time. Let me see if for once I can make a point in as few words as possible, instead of as many.

I think I broadly agree with you about the practical implications of all this. I’d go a step further down the same road, and say that facilitating the creation of art is great, but we don’t need to be funding artists – if that’s a clear distinction. By all means, help people by making spaces, materials, and so-on available, but don’t choose the recipients as part of some jolly club.

Really, I’m not sure the economic conditions make an awful lot of difference to the right way to do things, but they are likely to trigger a re-evaluation of how things are actually done. There’s a strong desire to make better use of whatever funds are available, which I suspect will actually be positive.

There’s a quote from Eisenhower’s farewell address that springs to mind, although it’s not directly related: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.” He was talking about the power of Federal funding to (unintentionally) influence research as people try to produce the work that will get them more funding. I can see the same problems in regards to government funding of the arts, which is what makes me suspect that in fact, far from being more populist as a result of the recession, some of the most populist artists are already those receiving significant government funding.

Written By Dave on June 25th, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

I just read a savage critique of the way the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) has been run in April’s Mute Magazine – http://www.metamute.org/node/13130

At the end it comes to this topic – A meeting to dicuss the ICA’s proposal for a ‘Reading Group’ programme of a far more pared-down nature than the ICA usually offers: ‘the general tone of the meeting was always to see questions of financial crisis as an opportunity for a radicalised programme and an opportunity to get ‘back to basics’.

Reading it this morning made me feel pretty hopeless about this – if artistic institutions are peddling the ‘age of austerity’, that makes it much harder to question it within those fora. The question is, why would arts organisations say this publicly when there surely must be many within them who question the austerity=’back to basics’/better art logic. I guess because their main sponsors – both public and private – are singing this tune too. Tra la.

The article offers this, too: ‘Such ‘hairshirt radicalism’ is common to the confused cultural response to the broader economic crisis. So much of the ‘critical’ art world has spent the last decade decrying the market boom that it now seems to see the recession as a sort of degraded Marxian ‘comeuppance’ for the apparent excesses of western consumer capitalism. Because of the general distaste with which ‘commodity’ art has been held during the boom, it seems those practices which spent the boom decrying the venality of market-driven art, might now be eagerly co-opted as useful filler for institutions no longer able to sustain more costly public programmes. Talk is cheap after all, as are galleries full of tables and chairs, stuff to read and endless discussions to be had about radical projects, conducted by unpaid artists.’

Written By Gloria on July 1st, 2010 @ 10:18 am


It’s worth noting, in the context of that article, that the ICA spends a large part of its resources running what is effectively a convivial arts club in St James for the benefit of members. Go have a drink at the bar some time; nice place, but nothing to do with the ICA’s remit. Heavily subsidised, too.

Basically, it’s an old-boys club to hand out public cash to art-world non-artists. If anyone’s going to tighten their belt, it can be them.

Written By Dave on July 2nd, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

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