Make Art! Change the World! Starve!
August 13, 2010 3:08 AM   Subscribe

Make Art! Change the World! Starve!: The Fallacy of Art as Social Justice
posted by divabat (40 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Another artist gnawing his entrails in agony over the injustice of having to compete in the marketplace. The novelty here is that the artist is also pissed about having to pretend to care about social issues to compete for non-market funding. That's pretty funny.
posted by Faze at 4:47 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Faze you should be cheering this on. If you get to the end you see that the author is saying that artists should act more like self-intersted agents in a commercial world and less like cheap or free labour in the service of some social justice cause or other that is coming to their door that day.
posted by Space Coyote at 4:51 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Somehow I doubt Faze read the whole article.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:58 AM on August 13, 2010 [15 favorites]


gnawing his her

"The situation is hardly helped by the fact that artists like me are expected to function without the basics like health care and that, as a freelance writer, I cannot seek unemployment.."

there ya go Faze, happier now?

"pretend to care about social issues" (Faze)

because just not caring at all is clearly better economically huh?
posted by marienbad at 5:02 AM on August 13, 2010


I think that her eventual and merely-implied point is that there should be public funding for the arts. I agree. Her arguments to get there are elliptical, anecdotal, whiny, and crappy. As far as I can tell, it boils down to "artists are undervalued, and because they must compete for funding, must do art about something that someone with money cares about. Also, neoliberalism sucks."

She seems to be presenting this as something that hasn't always been true, which is false. She seems to think that the world should reward her for Being An Artist, even if her work is only meaningful to her, which is false. She seems to think that no artists get paid fairly for their work, even graphic artists, and commercial writers, which is ludicrous.
posted by contrarian at 5:29 AM on August 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


If you want social justice, be a civil servant. Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair.
posted by robself at 5:40 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'll say a few things here.

Firstly, I think there is a place for the arts to address social issues, although it's not to my taste, as a lot of that work strikes me as didactic and uninspiring. But some of that is just an issue of personal taste -- a prefer art that problematizes, rather than lectures. I think drama is best when the characters are misbehaving, rather than being misbehaved to, and the latter is often the case is socially conscious theater. This is not to say that excellent drama cannot be made of political issues, or current events, or whatnot; it certainly can. But, then, and this is also a matter of taste, I don't really want to be lectured to by theater people about how to live my life. Firstly, I already agree with them, and, secondly, I've seen how they live, and I don't think they're in any position to tell anybody else what to do with their lives. Not until they clean up their living room, for chrissakes, and stop living like college students.

As it happens, I think the non-profit system encourages some of the worst offenses. In order to qualify for nonprofit status, you have to demonstrate that you provide some sort of communal good. And so we have wound up with decades worth of small theaters whose missions statements start with words like "to educate the community," "to foster discussion," etc. This sort of mission statement encourages the theater to look for politically minded work, and playwrights, wanting to get produced, will write with that in mind.

This is not necessarily a bad thing -- again, it's a matter of taste, and, if America theaters were primarily pushing science fiction-themed plays, for whatever reason, we'd probably see playwrights writing a lot of those, and about the same number mucking it up. But it does tend to make America theater sometimes seem like the propaganda wing of American liberalism, and, for my tastes, that's a very dull position for theater to have.

There's a larger issue, though, in that I think the non-profit approach to theater has inadvertently been bad for theater. It was intended to remove some of the financial burdens from theater companies, so they could focus on producing new work, or stuff that's a little more outre, or whatever, without having to worry about competing in the marketplace, because that applies its own pressures about what plays must be. Unfortunately, as it happened, this just wound up applying different financial pressures, especially as theaters became institutions. Now companies must spend an inordinate amount of time pleasing their board and their donors in order to make enough money to keep their doors open and their audiences happy -- and don't think there isn't still a free market aspect to this, because half of a theater's income typically still comes from ticket sales. And the truth is that theater companies have become timid about new work, and certainly won't produce work that doesn't align with their mission statement, and won't do work that might alienate their subscription audiences.

Worse still, even when a theater does a new play, it's just one in a season, and has three to five weeks, in general, to find an audience. But new works, and challenging works, often take a while to find its audience. It used to be that companies would back one play, and the focus would be on that play, and it would be given time for word-of-mouth to build. There were flops, of course -- legendary ones. But weirder stuff got through too. I sincerely doubt a Joe Orton could become known nowadays. His work alienated critics and bewildered audiences, until eventually they discovered the groove he was working in and responded. Three weeks would have killed his career. And god knows he wasn't producing liberal propaganda -- his work was an assault on his audience's value system, which is why they initially responded so badly.

This is not to say I think the nonprofit system should be eliminated. But it very badly needs to be reexamined, and there very badly needs to be champions for new works where the focus is on the new work, not on creating a season, or keeping a board of directors happy.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:44 AM on August 13, 2010 [19 favorites]


This is a complex piece. Essentially, "art as social justice" exploits the artists and thereby perpetuates social injustice.
posted by yesster at 5:55 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Good grief. She starts off by examining something having to do with "left neo-liberalism" and "right neo-liberalism", none of which seems (to me) to make much sense other than she is looking for two sides of an axe to grind...

Okay, her points about how artists aren't paid enough are good ones. We do undervalue art here in the US. I've known this since the mid-80s when I lived in Germany for a year, and there was a very different approach to how art is valued there. It wasn't seen as the pasttime of fools and dreamers; art was a legitimate pursuit and was encouraged on all levels of society.

(I also think, because of this, the quality of art in general was better there. When its value is downplayed, then the standards of acceptance are lowered because it's not considered a mature form of expression. I've been to more than a few graduate art shows in my day, and based on my time abroad, I don't think much of what I saw would pass muster in Europe. They would likely view it as immature and self-indulgent, not as capital-A Art. But I digress...)

Where the essay breaks down for me is when she gets into her own writing as art and starts to bitch about her circumstances. For starters, does she consider herself a journalist, or an artist? Journalism, at its highest forms, can be an art. I don't doubt that some of the longer investigative pieces in The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly, or any real "dig up the facts and put together the pieces" journalism is a form of art. It takes a great amount of skill and craftsmanship to pull a reader through a soupy sea of facts and have them emerge on the other side well-informed and rounded on the topic, no matter what that may be.

But a quick look at Google shows that she's not really doing that. She's writing mostly opinion pieces (perhaps backed up with research, I didn't dig all that deeply), and seems largely to be concerned with queer issues. Now, I welcome a cogent voice about the struggles and injustices of the GLBT community as much as the next faggot, but most queer writers I know of are practicing more a form of propaganda than journalism. They have a viewpoint they seek to convince their readers of, and work hard to persuade with every line. Sometimes journalism can do the same work as propaganda, but often the two are VERY different things.

All that aside, Nair then goes on to the real meat of her complaint -- that writers aren't paid as much for their work as the people who publish it make from publishing their work. And that they aren't paid until their work is complete. (Nevermind that a lot of book deals, particularly for previously-published authors [of which Nair is one] come with advances from the publisher.)

Now, I don't know a lot, but I know a few things about how people are paid. If you're a contract worker, you don't get paid until the terms of the contract are finished. This is true if you're a plumber, or a dentist, or a landscaper. If you're a jewelry maker, it's worse than that -- you have to lay out your money for silver, gold, stones, and equipment, and then hope your glittery product catches someone's eye and they're willing to pay retail for it... THEN you get paid. And only after your piece has sat on display for months waiting for just the right eye carrying just the right pocketbook wanders past.

Mostly, this essay boils down to a long session of whining about "oh, I have it so hard because my chosen profession doesn't compensate me as I feel it should." Well, there's a lot to be learned about the marketplace, then. You want to be paid more for your writing? Learn to write the kind of books which fill the shelves at airport bookstores. That's where the money is. Writing books on queer topics isn't your path to riches, and you're fooling yourself if you think it ever will be. You feel you should have a regular paycheck instead of being paid by the article / piece / completed work? I can't think of a single place where that happens for writers, perhaps television. I'm sure that the writing teams of sitcoms and the like have salaries. And perhaps newspaper reporters. Everywhere else, from The New Yorker to Hollywood to Broadway to book publishing requires that the work be done before you get paid. And that's not uncommon in the world, actually, no matter what Nair may think. If she really wants a regular paycheck for her work, then she needs to find the blue-collar equivalent for what she does, and I doubt she'll find that very rewarding.

She lumps all this complaining under a mantle of "art for social change", which in and of itself is telling. Most writing isn't performed for social change. It's performed to entertain. Most art which is done for social change isn't done out of some deep societal outrage -- it's done to provide a context for people who are in hopeless circumstances to feel that they have a creative outlet. Nearly every "art for social change" event I've been to has been less about trying to affect any change through the actual artistic expression being exhibited, and much more about the change which is created within those making the art because, for the first time, they have an opportunity to do something which isn't confined to the limited horizons they previously were boxed in by.

tl;dr: writer is upset that she doesn't have enough income, and whines about it because her topic of choice isn't popular enough.
posted by hippybear at 6:07 AM on August 13, 2010 [10 favorites]


She complains that the "system" causes her work to be "undervalued." Lesson number one: the value of a good or service is whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Lesson number two: there is no system. You're on your own. Go to it.
posted by Faze at 6:13 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


As an artist, I feel it would be nice to be paid for my work on a regular basis and enjoy other privileges of the employed. As a business person, I laugh at these stupid, selfish, privileged feelings and tell myself frankly that if I want to make money, I need to do things people are willing to pay me for. If the johns aren't buying blow jobs this week, you bend over or you don't get paid.

With rare exceptions, good artists are bad marketers with worse business accumen. Good businesspeople look for opportunities.... like a good artist with no marketing skill (and they are everywhere). They produce, but unless someone is there to gather up all that artwork and truck it to market, it simply rots on the ground. What do you have to pay a fruit orchard? A little sunlight, a little rain, and boom -- next year you get more fruit. All you have to pay an artist is just enough to keep them producing. After all, great art comes from misery and desperation, right? If you keep your artist hungry, they'll produce lots more work because they really want to please you, won't you buy just one piece? It's on sale! I can repaint it in red if you want it to match your couch!

Anyway, artists have always been poor-ish but before the industrial revolution having local artists and artisans able to support themselves was pretty common because there were no factories in China with container ships, interstates, trucks, and Walmarts ready to sell finished products for less than locally obtained raw materials. And, by and large, most people looking for artistic creations are not looking for "unique" writing (greeting cards, hello), music (top-40 radio, hello), performances (tv/movies, hello), shoes, clothes, or anything else. Good enough is good enough, it doesn't matter if Joe Shoemaker down the street didn't make it; it's a shoe, it keeps my feet dry and warm, who cares if it came from China. Who cares if my birthday card has words on it written ten years ago by someone on a caffeine jag who made twenty clever salutations before lunch.

I think, however, there are some positive signs of a sea change in this. Factory reproductions were fifty years ago something everyone wanted: the post-war era, a Buick in every driveway, a Frigidaire in every kitchen, a tract house, shag carpet -- these were symbols of success! Before then, cars were special, a house with a yard was special, your pots were hand-me down, and carpeting -- woah, that's rich. If you have a carpet, you need a vacuum, too, and time to keep that carpet clean!

Factory reproductions today are on an almost ridiculous quest for character and market differentiation. Washing machines with full colour LED light shows that have user-selectable cycle-complete songs! The ready availability of minimum guaranteed functionality has been a part of our culture for so long that everyone assumes a product will do what it says it can do, this is not a question. Now how can a product sell itself when every other product does the same thing?

It must be unique! But there's a limit to how much uniqueness a factory can create. So you get more factories churning out more SKUs, and ultimately you get the final destination for a culture's level of richness: bespoke goods.

And who can make bespoke goods? Artists and artisans. "If it isn't UNIQUE TO ME, it is just factory shit, and who cares!" Etsy is a harbinger here; but not only is it a market for things made on spec, it's also a market for things made to order. Bespoke goods, via the internet.

If artists want to stop being taken advantage of, they must (stop whining and) find marketplaces for their work. The palling of the factory product combined with the rise of the internet along with the rejuvenation of the maker (nee tinker) culture is a confluence of influences that will create a marketplace as big as the planet with an appetite for uniqueness to match, but it is early days yet and successful brokerages between buyer and seller are still scattered like flecks of wildflowers in a rarely mown field.

Creativity and its display is a sexual drive and thus an unstoppable force. We must differentiate ourselves from our neighbours in order to appear more desirable to potential mates. When everyone has a car, having a car isn't sexy anymore. Factory goods aren't sexy anymore, because everyone has them.

And this is how artists must pursue their art. They must stop whining and stop jerking off into kleenex. They must find customers or brokers and they must produce work those customers are willing to buy. We are all whores, exchanging our only resource -- time -- for goods and services we need and desire in order to thrive in our society. And if john wants a handjob, then you give him a handjob and you stop your miserable fucking whining. Or you find something else to do.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:44 AM on August 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


Lesson number one: the value of a good or service is whatever someone is willing to pay for it.

That's an inadequately shallow approach to the idea of value. There are many definitions of value, only some of which have to do with market economics. Also, even monetary value is influenced not only by willingness to pay, but also factors like scarcity, subsidy, emotions, location, opportunity costs, prioritized needs, etc. Willingness to pay is only one measure of value, and not everything that humans value, or need, is reflected accurately in market pricing.
posted by Miko at 7:00 AM on August 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


As far as I can tell, it boils down to "artists are undervalued, and because they must compete for funding, must do art about something that someone with money cares about.

I thought we had the NEA for subsidizing unmarketable art?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:02 AM on August 13, 2010


It should be: Teach people to Make Art! Change the World! Starve!

But that's much harder work - you have to be organized, deal with real people outside your social circle, maybe even write grants, etc. - and also accept that people may decide to make art in a way you don't agree with.

You may still starve but you may sometimes be able see change beyond the limits of your own life.

It's the ownership of the means of production, stupid.
posted by carter at 7:25 AM on August 13, 2010


I thought we had the NEA for subsidizing unmarketable art?

I don't like government waste either, but 43 years of the NEA has cost the country approximately 4 billion dollars in total. That's the same cost as ten days of war in Iraq.

2,236 weeks of arts funding, or ten days of war. Decisions, decisions.
posted by atypicalguy at 7:25 AM on August 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


I pick neither.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:38 AM on August 13, 2010


Miko, let's assume that you're right, that there is value beyond dollars. This is a position I happen to agree with, so it's not an assumption which is hard for me to make.
But where I run into difficulties is that, if we're looking for value beyond dollars, why insist that we compensate that value in dollars?!

If you're doing something which transcends market forces, turning around and demanding that you be awarded the benefits of market forces seems like wanting to have your cake and eat it too, i.e. I shouldn't have to do something that people actually want to pay for, but I should still be paid for it, because it's valuable in other ways.

The problem here is that if we're going to punt the only way in which we can all agree to assign prices to things, i.e. consensual market transactions, we must unavoidably reference ideology.

I don't have any problem with this in principle, as ideology is a good and fine way of ordering your personal value choices. Indeed, ideology can orient and direct community values. But what it can't do is assign numbers to things in ways on which everyone can agree. What the author seems to be doing here is making the fairly standard progressive assumption that all human effort is deserving of compensation sufficient to live a middle-class lifestyle, and if the market won't support that then the state damn well better take up the slack. I just can't get there.

I agree with her that art is devalued and that there's a rather exploitative mindset in the culture with respect to artists. But I can't get around the fact that people treat writers as if their work has little value because they can get people to provide copy for next to nothing. And here's the thing: this is because being an artist comes with non-monetary rewards. Having a byline in print confers a certain amount of prestige. Being part of an artists community gets you in to awesome parties. I've got a friend in New York City who's doing a poetry program, and through her contacts both there and at an upscale restaurant has come to rub shoulders with rock stars, actors, all sorts of glamorous people. She's barely making ends meet, but I, who have a respectable corporate job in BFE, would pay good money to do a lot of the things that she does for free.

Is this the same thing as her having health insurance--which I doubt she does? 'course not! But if we're going to go on about how there's more to value than money, it's hard to argue that she isn't being "compensated" in non-monetary ways. She's made certain choices and I've made others, and unless we're going to insist that the person who makes/dies with the most lifetime income wins, it's hard to say that either of us has it better.

Wait, no it isn't: I'd much rather be where she is and do what she's doing.
posted by valkyryn at 7:42 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think in her mind the NEA counts as "someone with money". Which is, you know, fair enough.
posted by contrarian at 7:43 AM on August 13, 2010


The article lacks concision. I would summarize it as follows:

Social justice should be a function of the state, not the arts. Art as social justice enables the state in its abdication of that responsibility and devalues art into mere, ineffectual message.
posted by xod at 8:09 AM on August 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Actually, I agree with you, valkyryn, about the non-market-based compensations of the artist's life, which is why artists choose it. And my comment was really in response only to Faze's slapdash sound bite about how value only and always equals what someone will pay in cash money under certain conditions.

But even though I take your points as truths, it's also true that in most advanced political systems there's a recognition that when most of the artists in a nation become unable to create or practice art because they need to devote their creative attentions to other jobs which pay the bills, society and political stature suffers as overall artistic achiements, resources, and popular literacy are reduced, putting the citizens of that nation at a relative disadvantage and reducing the economic multiplier effect of art on the larger culture. It's those social requirements, not the intrinsic value of the art itself, that create a justification for subsidizing art making.

There are some interesting nuggets in this essay, though, and Astro Zombie provides an excellent take on them with regard to the world of theatre. In the world of museums, we see much the same thing happened. Art museums have been shaping their programs for the past two decades to follow the mandates of school curricula, because that draws school student groups in large numbers and also qualifies the museum for certain funding streams from both the public and private sectors. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing that, but one effect that happens is that we subvert the values of the art museum - teaching people to be literate about art and to understand art using art-based knowledge (about aesthetics, cultural influences, visual qualities) - to the values of the public educational system, which we can sum up in one word for the last dozen years: literacy (before that it was science). Again, nothing is wrong with literacy, but we're using institutions and knowledge created for one set of purposes to deliver another set of purposes that present conditions deem more socially useful. We end up "teaching [literacy] through art" rather than teaching about art, considering art as its own unique disciplinary system with its own values. Similarly, when I was in history museums, we developed content to address whatever the state history standards emphasized (currently, immigration; before that, cultural diversity). Both excellent topics that really do occur in history, but both emphasized in ways that might not have been the case had the goals of the public education system not been the driver in the development of the historical topics explored.

This essay was a little disorganized and sweeping, in my view, but there is a lot of interesting stuff to be said about the interactions between the arts and humanities and the world of funding - the fluctuating and politically and corporately influenced interests of funders, public and private (and also of the ticket-buying public, make no mistake) determine much of what is available to be experienced in the arts and humanities.
posted by Miko at 8:24 AM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I thought we had the NEA for subsidizing unmarketable art?

Snarky ignorance is so funny! But why bother to look at the list of recent NEA grant recipients when you can snark instead?

(Subsidies are just fine for the oil, beef, corn, and sugar industries, though, right?)
posted by rtha at 8:33 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Once upon a time a fellow named Ron Athey got about $150 worth of NEA money, and you would think a billion dollars had been paid to create a bonfire of puppies and nuns.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:36 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Firstly, I think there is a place for the arts to address social issues, although it's not to my taste, as a lot of that work strikes me as didactic and uninspiring.

Christian rock music is always the canonical case in point here.

Count me as one of those people who takes issue with the tortured path the author uses to get to her point, but it is a good one: There is an idea threaded through the art world that artists are part and parcel of a movement that is supposed to solve a lot of social problems. And, realistically, that isn't going to happen: art isn't going to spark The Revolution™, art isn't going to solve problems of inequity and growing inequality, art isn't going to promote public harmony, but artists are told that if they're not using their art to solve these problems, then they're doing something wrong. It's not enough to be the great artist who has a believes strongly in a more just society: he has to be an artist whose are is going to make that society more just: similar to the evangelical Christian plumber who can't simply be the best plumber he can be but has to turn his business into a "plumbing ministry" to spread the Gospel through plumbing.

She makes the next very logical point (and the reason her essay is disjoint is because it is a mix of two separate issues): if you actually want to support social justice causes, you actually need to pay for them. And and writing that support you cause is not a "calling" that artists should feel thankful, by dint of their profession, to serve: it's a job that requires a staff to be paid and supported as a condition of their labor.
posted by deanc at 8:51 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


ZenMasterThis : I thought we had the NEA for subsidizing unmarketable art?

rtha : Snarky ignorance is so funny! But why bother to look at the list of recent NEA grant recipients when you can snark instead?

(Subsidies are just fine for the oil, beef, corn, and sugar industries, though, right?)



Indeed. NEA budget over 43 years = $4B. USDA farm subsidies over 14 years = $245B. A little more art and a little less money poured into the greedy maw of agribusiness and excreted as corn syrup would be a pretty good thing in my opinion.
posted by slkinsey at 8:54 AM on August 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


Well then I'm glad we've found some common ground, Miko.

I tend to agree with you that society as a whole suffers--largely in non-financial ways--when artists lack sufficient demand for their works to produce much art. But I also think that state funding is probably a bad way of going about this. First, public funding is going to create controversy in the ways that Astro Zombie mentions. But second, I think that it also leads to a sort of impoverishing as you describe, i.e. when artists need to suckle on the public teat, much art and particularly art institutions need to couch their activities in terms of public goods.

This second point is a problem because, as Judge Walker's recent gay marriage ruling indicates, ideology is increasingly an unacceptable foundation for legislation unless one has empirical justifications as well. So aesthetic value, as such, cannot justify public expenditure on the arts, because there is increasingly no consensus about what that value is, what valence it has, and whether its merit is sufficient to overcome other social goals like public decency.* But "increasing literacy" or some other dubious educational metric can. This is bad.

But I'm also interested in the tension between patrons and artists. I think a lot of good art comes out of the negotiations between artists who want to make the art they want to make, and patrons who want work that says x or fits in space y or doesn't offend z. So instead of direct subsidies, I'd be more inclined to use tax expenditures to incentivize private citizens to pay for more art.

*Everyone, even those who say they don't, wants public decency. They just don't agree about what "decency" means.
posted by valkyryn at 9:04 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


similar to the evangelical Christian plumber who can't simply be the best plumber he can be but has to turn his business into a "plumbing ministry" to spread the Gospel through plumbing.

It's worth pointing out that there is a significant backlash against this sort of thinking within the Christian community, particularly in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed Protestant circles, who tend to view 1) aesthetic beauty as a goal worthy of pursuit independent of any didactic value, and 2) all work, regardless of its nature, as inherently glorifying to God. So rather than being encouraged to "make Christian art" or "do Christian plumbing," artists and plumbers are encouraged to be Christian artists/plumbers, which means doing the best possible/art plumbing that they can.

This is far from the dominant position in American Christianity, and it has little foothold in mainstream evangelicalism--which goes a long way towards explaining the dearth of good evangelical art--but some of the people persuaded by it, e.g. Sufjan Stevens, are getting some attention.
posted by valkyryn at 9:08 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


But even though I take your points as truths, it's also true that in most advanced political systems there's a recognition that when most of the artists in a nation become unable to create or practice art because they need to devote their creative attentions to other jobs which pay the bills, society and political stature suffers as overall artistic achiements, resources, and popular literacy are reduced, putting the citizens of that nation at a relative disadvantage and reducing the economic multiplier effect of art on the larger culture. It's those social requirements, not the intrinsic value of the art itself, that create a justification for subsidizing art making.

But is this statement really borne out by empirical evidence? I'm not well up on twentieth-century history, but I'd be surprised if the idea of a publicly administered, government-funded, non-propaganda-centered art ministry dates back much past the 1930s (art funded by individuals through networks of patronage is not at all the same thing, even when monarchs or heads of state participate in those networks). And it'd be very difficult to argue that all the world's great art, or even the majority of the world's great art, or even more than (generously!) 10% of the world's great art, has been created since then.

Plenty of quality art has a practical, decorative and/or entertainment component, and there will always be funding around for that, government or no government. Plenty more art, even the highly impractical sort, gets made by amateurs in the grip of the natural human impulse to create. I guess if you define True Art in the high-culture sense as something created by a professional and giving no pleasure to anybody (instructing, but not delighting, as it were) then you might run into problems with a shortage of art-- but in that case, should anybody really care?
posted by Bardolph at 9:27 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a commercial artist and I make a decent living doing it. It's not impossible, it's just kind of hard, and you need to be in the right place with the right skill set.

I will say, however, that I've been approached by non-profit, "social change" organizations for my services many times, and their attitude is uniformly "our cause is so worthy, you should feel honored to have the chance to contribute your artwork to help out!" Also the nearly inevitable "you'll get great exposure!"

First, as my friend Rich says, people *die* of exposure. Second, *you* may be a non-profit organization, but *I* am not.
posted by zoogleplex at 9:28 AM on August 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


art funded by individuals through networks of patronage is not at all the same thing, even when monarchs or heads of state participate in those networks

How is it not at all the same thing?

I tend to agree with you that society as a whole suffers--largely in non-financial ways

I think there is a distinct financial dimension to the negative effects of lack of art. The impact of arts on the value of real estate, for instance, is notable, and clear enough, if hard to isolate. There is also the multiplier effect. The Arts & Economic Prosperity study, in which my hometown participated, is compelling on this point.
posted by Miko at 10:27 AM on August 13, 2010


(Subsidies are just fine for the oil, beef, corn, and sugar industries, though, right?)

Um ... no.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:30 AM on August 13, 2010


The tragedy of the sort of Social Justice Mission Statement-oriented didactic art that subordinates its aesthetic goals to being what Astro Zombie describes as the "propaganda wing of American liberalism", is that in addition to failing as art, most of it is equally unsuccesful as propaganda, since it never reaches or appeals to an audience who don't already believe the values it seeks to impart. It doesn't even rise to the level it seeks of propaganda: its true role is simply reinforcement of in-group solidarity. If it were better art it might be more effective propaganda.

To take up deanc's example of Christian rock it's really the same situation there: people don't become evangelicals because they listen to Christian rock, they listen to Christian rock because they're evangelicals. Why else would anybody listen to that shit?
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:34 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Popping my metafilter cherry with this post, so before I start hemming and hawing I just want to say that it's a pleasure to be here hemming and hawing.

As an artist in NY working closely with galleries, artists, and museums I feel there are some grotesque misconceptions being thrown around in here (though my hat goes off to rtha for re-snarking). I'm going to start off from the very beginning:

Astro Zombie: In order to qualify for nonprofit status, you have to demonstrate that you provide some sort of communal good. And so we have wound up with decades worth of small theaters whose missions statements start with words like "to educate the community," "to foster discussion," etc.

Yes, the tax exemptions for 501c3 corporations necessitate "communal good" or at least a charitable purpose. but that's why they're exempt from taxes. This is not the reason that organizing documents look like brain jelly - it's completely possible to write articles that are avant and nifty but what we're really talking about is a kind of organization that makes possible tax-free contributions. It's not the gun's fault.

I'm going to skip ahead right to the end, now, because this comment just made my head spin:
Miko: Art museums have been shaping their programs for the past two decades to follow the mandates of school curricula, because that draws school student groups in large numbers and also qualifies the museum for certain funding streams from both the public and private sectors.

So, when you say art museums, what art museums are you talking about?
Also, do you have any kind of idea what kind of collection it takes to put together a good teaching gallery? If localized departments of education have enough sway to direct the acquisitions process - say requiring museums to acquisition works from the 18th century... wait, how does that power relationship function?! Are you saying that the financial initiatives from school trips have sway over the board's acquisitions? Is this the reason that museums make fewer contemporary acquisitions? I think what you're really saying is that exhibition programming is swayed by a desire to appeal to various groups in seeking varying types of funding. Okay, that can be either good or bad, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the aim of the art museum is subverted by appealing to these groups as this kind of procedure shouldn't marginalize the entirety of the museum's exhibition program.

Furthermore, one of the main problems with art education is that there are certain precepts which allow us to understand works: "art-based knowledge (about aesthetics, cultural influences, visual qualities)" - this is so very broad that I feel it applies to both contemporary works and to historical works - but this kind of knowledge is not enough to prepare the museum visitor to deal with works in the contemporary gallery. The contemporary art market is producing works which necessitate an extreme amount of cultural literacy. I would go as far to say that the "contemporary art market" is nearly entirely insular. It's references are aesthetic, cultural, internal, self-referential, and art historical. The goal of a really good contemporary art museum isn't any longer to prepare the individual for entering the contempoary art gallery, but to establish historical significance (aka drive up value). I think the reason that policies have changed so radically since the 70s is that the art market itself has radically changed since the 70s. With 70s came a deluge of conceptual works that defied collection, challenged installation and the institutions theirselves or were born with inherent vice (unarchival works that intentionally decay)— the job of a museum educator, conservator and curator were radically upended. Further, the conceptual difficulty that these works present requires an intense amount of asthetic and cultural literacy to "appreciate" - making the job of the museum educator even more difficult: we're not just making art any more, we're making self-referential art about art about art.

Something else that has dramatically effected museum acquisitions is that frequently, such acquisitions are only made once the works/artist has proved to be a solid commodity. There is a lot of risk and speculation imbedded in contemporary art works, but traditionally (since the early part of last century) museums have acquired much more slowly than individual collectors or other private agencies. Late collecting has obvious downsides but it also marginalizes the risk.

The comments I find objectionable have the tendency to point at a kind of middle ground, or to a kind of generalized position of public compromise - and condemn it. While this can be a terrible negative if there are not awesome things balancing out the equation - for the most part non-profits support insanely bland stuff and insanely awesome stuff, they straddle both sides of the spectrum (from mass-public to super avant). It's difficult to categorize the business relationships within art because the system itself refuses a direct profit correlation, and it's even harder to make blanket statements about tax shelters. I think it's dangerous to assume that non-profit institutions are harmed because of mediocrity or compromise as this ultimately has a popularizing effect, which at the end of the day - is still good for art.
posted by armisme at 11:03 AM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think she makes an interesting point about the neoliberalism of the left vs. the neoliberalism of the right on the issue of workplace diversity. Or more accurately, she references a very interesting point and it's great to see it being made, but trying to apply that insight to art funding has some significant flaws.

For her, artists are exploited when they can't act as pure individuals, when their work is subordinated to either the requirements of the common good (in the case of the neoliberalism of the left) or to the demands of the market (in the case of the neoliberalism of the right). But this is a pretty shallow definition of exploitation, equivalent to resisting capitalism because work sucks. Any anti-capitalist utopia would need people to be useful, productive and efficient, just as capitalism does, the only difference is that the benefits of capitalist productivity are privatized where it would be common in a communist utopia. In her mind, any violation of "art for art's sake" ideal is neoliberalism, but in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction written in the 30s, Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin equated that ideal with fascism. Isn't that becoming even more true today, when you can upload whatever you like on to YouTube without any gatekeeper making you write a grant proposal or tell you how to be more marketable. Unlimited artistic freedom is the basis for large parts of today's economy - the more variety, the better capitalism can exploit the long tail.

The real "neoliberalism of the left" lies in the fact that many of these art foundations are funded by the Rockerfellers, Carnegies, Mellons, Fords, J.P. Morgan Chase's of the world, who brutally crush workers striking for better wages in the morning, then in the afternoon write a check to an art foundation to fund an artist to draw attention to inequality and injustice. Now this even happens simultaneously: a mural celebrating diversity and community will be commissioned to go on the walls of a new gated community mostly for whites, while it gentrifies the neighborhood, raising the cost of living for the existing minority residents. Or an ecosystem is wiped out to make way for a new housing development, but a park will be installed promoting respect for nature and awareness of endangered species.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:29 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, do you have any kind of idea what kind of collection it takes to put together a good teaching gallery? If

Um....yes.
posted by Miko at 11:43 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


Are you saying that the financial initiatives from school trips have sway over the board's acquisitions?

OK. The board doesn't usually make acquisitions, though in many cases they may have final approval over a slate of acquisitions. Generally, curators propose acquistions, and the proposals are then vetted by an acquistions team or collections committee or the like, made up of curators, conservators, registrars, and executive staff within the museum. That group applies the criteria for acquistion which have been developed under a strategic plan and are usually spelled out quite clearly.

Those criteria do vary widely based on the mission of the museum, but are not arbitrary, and are not free from influence from a variety of sectors. One of those sectors can be called the funding environment. Museums rely on a diversified revenue stream that includes earned revenue (ticket sales, cafe, all dependent on the zeitgeist and public interest), grants from government programs and from public and private foundations, corporate support, direct individual private donation, and assets/investments. Depending on the funding mix of a given museum at a given historical time, one or more of these factors can play a big part in the decision-making about what direction the museum's mission - and then the strategic plan and the activities that fall from it - takes.

Given that missions change on a few-decades-at-a-time cycle, and strategic plans morph every 5-10 years, the funding environment - and the cultural change it is connected with - influences museums from the mission level down. At the level of acquistions - which is only one part, and an increasingly smaller part, of the activities of most museums - the primary effect is to determine how much funding is available for an active program of acquistion. If funders are interested in social utility - ie, programs - the funding for acquisition is going to have to drop.

As far as the relationship with schools - my museum has about 20,000 students a year visiting. This generates only about $160,000 in direct revenue. But what is less well known is that this kind of visitation - the service it represents - generates another few million in revenue given from public and private source to support that service indirectly. Those millions support educators, endow the continued existence of programs, fund purchases, and influence the content of the changing exhibition program. The same is true for foundation and corporate funding. Most foundation and corporate support goes to highly visible elements of museum activity - changing exhibitions and public programming. They want something to put a logo on, and are usually pushing an ideological agenda that the foundation or corporation supports.

For all of these reasons, the museum is receiving and deploying millions and millions of dollars, dollars that come with a specific agenda, that the museum of 50 years ago would not have received. That means changes in infrastructure. Education and exhibition departments grow, and changing exhibitions cycle much more quickly. More resources are donated to those programs than to growing collections (this is also largely because collections aren't just a cost but an ongoing financial drain, and have to be carefully built, controlled, and weeded). Social utility is trumpeted in museum literature and grant applications and paraded before donors. As strategy is developed, everyone is mindful of school curricula (China is big right now, and India and Korea, we're all preparing for more dealing with those), social concerns and areas of crisis that will be the focus of charitable giving in the next couple of decades, etc. Because we have to be ready to make the case that we have something to offer in those areas.

(I personally feel this is all a good thing, as it helps prevent museums from returning to the gentleman's restricted cabinet of curiosity past, and I am all for repurposing private funds to provide access to art and learning for the public. But I wanted to talk about because I don't think most people are aware of how much current social and financial conditions make a difference to what kind of museum they encounter and what kinds of programs are put on there)

Okay, that can be either good or bad, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the aim of the art museum is subverted by appealing to these groups as this kind of procedure shouldn't marginalize the entirety of the museum's exhibition program.

There's definitely an argument that it shouldn't. But it does influence it. "Marginalize it?" I'm not sure it marginalizes exhibition programs, but it definitely gives them a much different scope, shape, and cadence than would exist if funding were not an issue. For instance, museums coasting on their endowment, few though they are, are free to develop strategy based on mission goals and key staff/donor preferences alone.
posted by Miko at 12:05 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


Are you saying that the financial initiatives from school trips have sway over the board's acquisitions?

I have heard, maybe on MeFi, maybe elsewhere, that one complaint artists have when raising money for the arts is that the donors are constantly concern about how this will promote "education in the arts." So sponsoring a play or an opera has strings attached about how that particularly play or opera will promote educating students about play-writing or acting or whatever. And that might be a good thing, or it might not be the point and create a distraction for everyone involved.
posted by deanc at 12:11 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've already written my version of this screed which was up at the poets.org discussion forums now defunct (btw, anyone know anything about it being down for maintenance?)

Some jumbled thoughts on the subject today. Does anyone genuinely believe that market forces are best for organizing every human action? What about art? Perhaps the problem is not enough of our actions are monetized, perhaps valkyryn's art friend ought to be able to assign a cash value to her social connections and experiences then sell them for some food or healthcare. To me, it is obvious that modern capitalism has done more to enlarge our appetites and desires recalling us to our animal natures than anything since the rise of civilizations besides war.

So much the better parts of history has been the struggle to rise above beasts, and art, along with rationality, science, etc, has been one of the better handrails to pull ourselves up.

Artist bellyaches over starving, news at...etc but seriously, as a whole Art, more than any other word-conveying-action has, historically, been the best holdout for civilized discontent before we turn toward savagery and bloodshed. Letting market forces consume it, one of the few things left for it to consume, gives pause to any lover of man.

I could go on(I take Heidegger's question concerning technology seriously, as well as Ted Kaczynski's manifesto) but I can tell I am formulating my thoughts into words very clearly.
posted by Shit Parade at 12:58 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


AlsoMike,
Your point about foundation funding is well-taken. The NPO world in the USA suffers from two additional problems:
1) cannot contribute to political campaigns legally
2) is heavily restricted via both law and practice from serving as an independent source of capital

These are both by design. As you point out, the foundations are more or less ameliorative, vice revolutionary. Since NPOs cannot directly back specific candidates, this makes it difficult for them to directly affect the election process. The second flaw is not as obvious, but more serious. NGOs often deliver direct services into the community. However, this does not provide a financial base which can facilitate the rise of new centers of power separate from the existing FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate). Political movements must be able to deliver goods to their members -- all the rhetoric of rights does not put food on the table.

I suspect that NPOs could serve as independent sources of capital for the building of a genuine opposition politics in the US. Howard Hughes managed to move his entire business enterprise into a ''non profit" status, under the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation. The problem is more one of mentality than anything else.

An old friend in the NPO space characterized them as "beggars" because of the dependence on foundation grant money. Until the political left owns its own means of productions, I think that characterization is essentially accurate.
posted by wuwei at 1:53 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Miko- sorry to be a prat, and no, I wasn't aware about additional funds from visitation. By "marginalizing" what I mean to say is that hopeully, despite concessions, museums will still have the occasional chance to produce exhibitons which exceed expectaions.

There was a recent article about the Brooklyn Museum of Art and it's efforts to court popular taste. Here is the director's reply and this is the original article. These both seem relevant.
posted by armisme at 4:31 PM on August 13, 2010


, museums will still have the occasional chance to produce exhibitons which exceed expectaions.

Well sure, always. But that necessarily happens within the constraints of funding, politics, current events, etc., and what that looks like changes as condition change.

The Brooklyn Museum is a really interesting case study in experimentation, and one of my favorite museums to track.
posted by Miko at 8:15 PM on August 13, 2010


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