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Separating art and state

Post #1060 • September 24, 2007, 10:28 AM • 35 Comments

Every now and then, on this blog and elsewhere, I've tossed out the idea that public funds should not go to support contemporary art museums. I think doing so is a kind of corporatism that unfairly benefits collectors, gallerists, and artists whom the museum works with. This morning ArtsJournal linked to a story from the Yale Daily that reports:

"The federal leviathan concerns itself with every nook and cranny of our lives, and the arts have not escaped the tender stifling of its embrace," [David Boaz of the Cato Institute] said. ... He contended that, like religion, individuality is essential to the interpretation of art. Therefore, Boaz said, art deserves to be given the same respect as religion and kept entirely separate from government.

As a student put it,

I don’t think that we should accept the government coming in and telling us what we should care about.

The counterargument:

But Alexander Dominitz '09 of the Tory Party disputed Boaz's claims, saying that art is a key element of culture and requires the support of government to survive.

Is this actually true? Would art not survive without government support? If not, are the arts any better than any other industry with a failed business model?

Discuss.

Comment

1.

opie

September 24, 2007, 11:30 AM

Another one of these "answer yes or no to this big impossibly complex matter that no one understands" questions. Basically I don't think the government should mess with art, but if it does, the motto, like the doctor's, should be "do no harm".

Arts programs are as good as the people running them make them. When the National Endowments first started they did OK but the Peter Principles kicked in and they went to pot. (read Lynne Munson's "Art in an Era of Intolerance").

It really rests on the larger question of what the government should do at all. Some people think a little, some people think a lot. Then the question comes down to where does art fit on this sliding scale and what are the criteria and selection processes. The criteria need to be pretty hard-nosed to keep the politicians happy or the programs will get scrapped. It should be fairly establishment stuff - symphonies and such, things people like and add to the community.

2.

Arthur

September 24, 2007, 12:00 PM

I agree with opie; the whole issue is immensely complex and blanket rules are not necessarily helpful. For that reason, I would be more interested in the anti govenment in contemporary art position if it was coming from a less doctrinarily libertarian position than that represented by the Cato institure. The notion that "individuality" and "government" are inherant opposites is particularly suspect.

That said, I do feel more comfortable with the government funding art that has been around for a while, art that has proven its worth.

3.

catfish

September 24, 2007, 12:13 PM

So Arthur, would you hve the government fund an exibition of, say, Duchamp's urinal? It has stood the test of time, no?

4.

Arthur

September 24, 2007, 12:30 PM

Yes, I would. The idea should be to have big tent, not to conform to the dictates of a specialized interest group (such as that represented by the artblog.net consensus). If a critical mass of people have valued something for say thirty or more years, it should be part of the historical record.

5.

Hovig

September 24, 2007, 12:42 PM

Government has two roles to play here: protect the public and improve their quality of life.

By "protect the public" in this context I actually mean "mitigate risk." They do that by funding things like long-distance communication, or space travel, or cutting edge research, until the private sector is willing and able to do it. Shows like those in the turbine hall at Tate Modern, or in the large exhibition spaces at Mass MoCA might be seen in this light. I don't know how much the government is involved in these cases. Curatorially I don't get the sense they are meddling. Financially I can't say whether or not the public would sponsor these types of things, because I don't know how these organizations are structured or funded, but my inner sense is that the public is plenty interested, and government is not needed here.

By "improve quality of life" I mean something like what Arthur does above. Once art has entered the social record and either pleases the public or illuminates art history, there should be no problem for government to fund it. (One might argue that "protect the public" makes the waters muddy here -- especially when elephants or their by-products are involved -- but that's another story). The question is whether the private sector would be able to take care of these kinds of things. I actually don't think they would. Modern people are results-oriented. Art tends to be a second or third thought in life today.

The avant-garde is a different story because there's excitement there and monied people are interested in funding it. So the private sector is all about mitigating the risk of the new. But for buying a piece of public art for a town square, I don't know if the public can do it without government involvement.

6.

Franklin

September 24, 2007, 2:11 PM

Does anyone want to argue against the assertion that publicly funding museums results in corporatism?

7.

Jack

September 24, 2007, 2:57 PM

Franklin, the whole damn system is so out of joint and corrupted that it seems idle to discuss funding issues. You could fiddle around with that till the cows came home, but it would barely make a dent in the real problem(s). As has been noted here many times, what is business as usual in the art world would be quite illegal in almost any other arena. These people are incorrigible, some due to congenital defects and others due to very serious vested interests in maintaining the status quo. The more I think about it, the more I feel like telling the whole lot to fuck off. I'm sick and tired of so much arrant nonsense.

8.

Hovig

September 24, 2007, 2:58 PM

I guess I don't understand the question. You're saying that when a government gives money to a museum, this money ends up benefitting the artists, gallerists and collectors who work with the museum, therefore, the government is essentially putting money in the pockets of people who don't otherwise need it, thus, it is a type of coporatism?

As opposed to what? A vanity gallery where an artist pays out of their own pocket to display their art?

A large privately-sponsored museum which ends up doing the same thing as the government-sponsored model, but using money cleaned by a different Laundr-O-Mat? Is it better because the money came from other individuals voluntarily? I think the only criterion here is the quality of the grant-making decision by those at the museum, who act as intermediaries between the money and the various pockets. I don't see how the source of the money alters that, but I have a feeling I'm missing something obvious.

In fact I'd think that government money would end up being more neutral in that case. If a collector gives money to an institution, the blogosphere falls over itself trying to find as many conflicts of interest as it can.

I guess I need to know what the non-government alternatives are, and the links in the chain which lead from the government hand to the undeserving pockets, as differentiated from the chain between the private hand to the same now-deserving pockets.

9.

opie

September 24, 2007, 5:34 PM

You are getting way too complicated,, Hovig, and it is largely because you, like the rest of us, don't really know what it is all about. I know a little because I was chair of an NEA committee (for a mercifully short time) and was one of the charter members of the International Exhibitions Committee back in the '70s when arts handouts were much more liberal (and often misguided). It really is impossible to generalize.

the people I worked with were high-level arts and government people who meant well and worked hard but the problem was that we were dealing with apples and oranges. What was "good art" and what was good public policy and where the twain should meet and how should all the other factors play out was just a crap shoot.

I remember the kick-off meeting of the IEC in Washington very well. There had been a huge party the night before & at eight in the AM everyone was very woozy. The Venice Bienelle was coming up in a matter of months and somethng desperate had to be done. Richard Oldenberg was the chair and he looked at all of us and said "well, what should we do"

At that moment the door opened and a man came in with a cart, like a food cart, loaded with beautifully outfitted portfolios, and gave us eash one. They were from Leo Castelli, and they contained expertly worked-out plans for the Bienelle - with Leo's artists, of course.

We looked at the material and then looked at each other. Someone said, tentatively, " ...can we actually do this??"

We sat for another few seconds, and then, almost in unison, regretfully said:

...Naaah!

And got down to work.

10.

Franklin

September 24, 2007, 9:29 PM

Arthur, that's not fair to discount it just because the idea is coming from Cato. They may be right.

I do feel more comfortable with the government funding art that has been around for a while, art that has proven its worth.

I do too.

You're saying that when a government gives money to a museum, this money ends up benefitting the artists, gallerists and collectors who work with the museum, therefore, the government is essentially putting money in the pockets of people who don't otherwise need it, thus, it is a type of corporatism?

Hovig, whether they need it or not doesn't matter. Otherwise, yes. If a museum recognizes an artist his sales prices go up. You fund that activity because your tax dollars go to the museum. I'm wondering if this is the government's job. I think of "protect the public" as providing for a police force and a judicial system, and "improve the quality of life" as finding alternative fuel source, not the measly concerns associated with aesthetic risk. I don't believe that the private sector won't underwrite that risk. The fair season in Miami generates enough capital to support a dozen fairs.

A vanity gallery isn't a great proposition, but at least it's not unconstitutional. I'm not so sure a contemporary museum isn't.

A large privately-sponsored museum which ends up doing the same thing as the government-sponsored model, but using money cleaned by a different Laundr-O-Mat?

I don't think of the money getting any cleaner. My issue isn't money going to the undeserving, but whether the government should decide who is deserving.

I guess I need to know what the non-government alternatives are.

The music industry cranks along completely via non-governmental alternatives. I was thinking about this in regards to the RIAA, which is trying to salvage its failed business model by pressuring government to extend enormous powers regarding its intellectual property. At one point they sued an MP3 site for a figure that was greater than the GNP of Russia. We generally think that the companies that comprise the RIAA should instead learn to adapt. How much different or worse is a contemporary art museum, particularly when the claim on its behalf is that art won't survive without government support?

11.

Hovig

September 25, 2007, 5:55 AM

But I still don't understand whether the money would be allocated differently when the government or private sector does the funding. I can see corporatism and favoratism both ways, not because the money is coming from one place or the other, but because the same people are making the decisions in either case.

Opie's example above shows two things. First, that the artworld still makes the decisions, no matter where the money comes from, and second, that it's possible that the government actually rejects corporate requests. As to the Miami art fairs and their relationship to the market, and the idea that somehow corporatism would be reduced or eliminated, I don't see it.

As to the music market, everyone has a car stereo and an iPod, but almost no one attends museums in the absence of a blockbuster. Worse, any time a museum has an exhibition that even whiffs of public popularity, the first reaction of the brighter lights of art blogosphere is to heave their thesaurus at the show in extreme condemnation.

Western Civ went through an unusual period in history where kings and emperors funded art for non-aesthetic reasons. Aesthetics improved because talent went where the money was. Imagine Mozart a scrivener. I will never believe that a person who spends his entire day putting peasants, merchants or supplicants in their inferior place is going to understand the finer points of aesthetic distinction between one artistic output and another. A hedge-fund manager today would have been a Medici yesterday. A Schwarzenegger today would have been a Charlemagne back then.

Suddenly in the age of democracy, heaven's pennies dried up, and the public wonders why everything sounds like Britney Spears and looks like Jack Vettriano. Because that's exactly what it looked like before. Fine art is an artificial construct, and we fool ourselves into thinking the age of enlightened European despots was a permanent and inevitable way of human existence.

12.

Marc Country

September 25, 2007, 6:45 AM

I'm sorry, but the "artblog.net" consensus on Duchamp's urinal is far closer to representing the majority opinion of the public at large than the appreciative clucking of the art-world... there's your "special interest group" for ya... the folks that look at a biffy and ooh and aah...

13.

JL

September 25, 2007, 6:47 AM

Eh, while I understand that the good old NEA, art and politics, debate is one that students at Yale and elsewhere can't get enough of, when it comes to government support of museums it's something of a red herring. The more important government agency is the IMLS, which funds all sorts of unsexy but vital projects like storage renovation, conservation, cataloging, record digitization, archives, and much more. These kinds of tasks really are critical to the health of museums and the collections they care for and can be difficult to raise private funds to complete (few people or businesses want the naming rights to your loading dock.) The concern about "corporatism" in this context doesn't seem to me to be here or there; I don't think I could tell the difference between a corporatist HVAC system and a wild, rugged libertarian one.

Of course one could still have, as I imagine the fellow from CATO would, a principled opposition to funding of this kind. I tend to see it as the sort of investment in preserving human heritage that's worthy of a nation's interest and attention. We have enough public squalor as it is, no need to work at making the world an even crappier place.

14.

cordova

September 25, 2007, 6:59 AM

Although the commentary here is expectantly bitter, some good points have been made by Opie who seems to have first hand experiences with church and "state" government policies. Jack may prefer Isreal over the US for his art making.

15.

Franklin

September 25, 2007, 7:26 AM

I'll save him the trouble: Jack doesn't make art, and I have no idea what Israel has to do with anything, unless Israel = bad place for you, in which case, see this.

I don't think I could tell the difference between a corporatist HVAC system and a wild, rugged libertarian one.

Well said. Frankly, even on my most libertarian-leaning days I can't get worked up about the libraries. May they flourish and multiply. And like I said above, public expenditures to preserve older works bother me less. I still wonder whether the bleeding-edge institutions constitute an "investment in preserving human heritage." I'm looking around my studio thinking, is this stuff human heritage? Obviously I hope it will be one day, but why should the state decide that over every other artist in town?

16.

JL

September 25, 2007, 7:49 AM

Obviously I hope it will be one day, but why should the state decide that over every other artist in town?

In terms of the stuff I'm talking about, it doesn't--it simply aids the institutions that do make such decisions in terms of infrastructure and the like, leaving them to do the business of collecting and displaying art. Even a lot of NEA stuff works in a similar way, with money going to organizations that then make decisions about what artists to spend it on through residencies or what-have-you. Some of what gets funded is crap, some is worthy but boring stuff, some gets steered to community arts groups and education, some goes to stuff I'm interested in. The fact that some of the government's money may go to things I or any one person finds unworthy isn't to the point (otherwise I say cut off Cheney's salary now.) Of course, one can still (as I said before) maintain a principled position against government funding for the arts. I personally think that eliminating it would constitute another step in making this a less attractive country. And while the idea that art wouldn't survive without the small stream of public funding it receives is of course absurd, I don't think our problem is that the art world is insufficiently market-driven.

17.

Arthur

September 25, 2007, 7:59 AM

there's your "special interest group" for ya... the folks that look at a biffy and ooh and aah...

My idea was to have a "big tent" with different interest groups, not to just let in art that pleases the public at large (whatever that might mean). Yes, Duchamp fans are marginal to the culture at large, both in terms of numbers and in terms of influence. I would imagine that the same holds for fans of someone like Olitski. I supsect most Americans would find such work boring or obscure or no more than decorative--certainly many would. Franklin has written of the Balkanization of the artworld. If this the case, than special interests are all we've got.

I don't understand how anyone could feel so certain of thmselves that they feel that history should be written solely from their point of view.

18.

opie

September 25, 2007, 8:14 AM

Not sure what you mean by "letting interest groups in" Arthur. the job of our elected and appointed representatives is to serve the pujblic as well as they can as they see it under the circumstances, not provide room for "interest groups". Of course it is a political process and interest groups will be heard, just like any lobby.

19.

Franklin

September 25, 2007, 8:27 AM

I personally think that eliminating it would constitute another step in making this a less attractive country.

Something I've noticed about libertarian ideas is that without the framework, they're just buzzkill. Cutting off arts funding by itself would stink. Cutting off arts funding in a scenario in which we also cut off funding to military misadventures in the Middle East, spying on Americans, secret detention centers, and the so-called War on Drugs starts to look pretty good. You get the sense that once resources were not being misallocated across the board, we would figure out individually and via like-minded individuals how to make the country more attractive. Like any idea, one could execute it badly, but if you look at the list in the last sentence, you'll notice that the current model has some pretty serious problems.

20.

Arthur

September 25, 2007, 8:33 AM

Opie, there is no such thing as a generic member of the public. My interests are inevitably going to be different from yours. If we limited support of the arts to those favored by some hypothetical typical American, we would be leaving important stuff out (yes, both Olitski and Duchamp and probably the Old Masters too).

21.

Marc Country

September 25, 2007, 8:33 AM

Good point Franklin... if nine billion dollars got shipped to the NEA and vanished, questions wouldn't just be asked... they'd damn well be answered, or heads would roll.

22.

opie

September 25, 2007, 9:03 AM

I dunno, Marc. If they got 9 billion dollars I might even get some. So, I'm all for it.

Arthur, my point is hair-splitting in a way but also conforms to actual practice. My experience with government agencies was limited to the endowments and there was never much consideration for a hypothetical "Average Anerican" but for the contribution which would be made within the guidelines of the charge given the group. The extremes were usually generated by the assembled committees of "experts", who were on hand to provide "fairness", and the government people then had to go figure out how to balance what were often bad judgements with political reality and common sense. In this way we got Mapplethorp exhibits which were cancelled amid cries of "censorship" and Senator Jesse Helms gleefully condemning it all for consideralble political advantage to himself, which was a waste of time and money fcor everyone, including Mr. Average American.

23.

JL

September 25, 2007, 9:35 AM

Something I've noticed about libertarian ideas is that without the framework, they're just buzzkill.

I understand that you sympathize with the libertarian perspective, so please don't be offended when I say that the thing I've noticed about their ideas is that they tend to be crazy or ideological cover. Eliminating arts funding, I'll grant, doesn't fit entirely within either category (as the agencies which provide haven't always existed we surely could survive without them once more, and the ideological cover provided by having arts funding that can be counted on to periodically produce grist for some overblown controversy is probably more valuable still.) But not being predisposed against an active role for government, I still think that on balance arts funding is worth having and that in a small but real way we'd be diminished as a country without it. And that pretty good deal you think you're being offered ("Cutting off arts funding in a scenario in which we also cut off funding to military misadventures in the Middle East, spying on Americans, secret detention centers, and the so-called War on Drugs")? Don't be surprised if they only ever make good on the first item. From what one hears the folks at CATO are sincere true believers, but in the eyes of the other members of the political coalition to which they belong, they're useful idiots.

24.

Franklin

September 25, 2007, 9:53 AM

...in the eyes of the other members of the political coalition to which they belong, they're useful idiots.

In the eyes of those mofos, we're a nation of useful idiots. Your point about the realpolitik is well taken, though. As a writer I can take up an idealist approach so some extent, and maybe it's my job to do so. I can't make the rubber hit the road anyway when it comes to policy so I might as well deal in ideas.

25.

Jack

September 25, 2007, 10:00 AM

The primary issue is not the source of the money but who ultimately actually spends it, how and why. When that takes us to the same crowd that is at the very heart of the current art establishment and art scene, they are the problem, regardless of where the money originated, once the money is in their hands and they can use it as they see fit.

26.

Robert

September 25, 2007, 2:22 PM

We should be more wary of turning to politics, or history, or money for that matter when discussing the place of art. These things are largely static in the virtual sense of being, being engrained in the institutions that they (we) have created around them out of necessity. These things are systems of organization, is art merely a system of organization. I should hope not. Art should not necessitate such things.

Art (after DuChamp- and i would like to take a moment to disagree with whom ever said that DuChamp’s influence on art is quite limited) as a critique of these institutions, and a critique of itself. It is a critique, not just of the idea of the institution as it exists in a physical sense, it extends far into our abstract notions of what truth is.

This discussion is full of many "truths" and few questions, so what is this? An exploration of ideas, or a flexing of the ego? I move that we begin anew with a discussion of who art serves and/or should serve to begin with, only from here can we begin to understand what role government should ideally play in the world of art.

27.

ahab

September 25, 2007, 3:43 PM

#26: ...what is this? An exploration of ideas, or a flexing of the ego?

"Something something the log out of your own eye something something speck or something like that."

28.

Franklin

September 25, 2007, 3:44 PM

Although the idea of art as a critique carries a lot of weight in certain circles, this isn't one of them. My own approach is that art can be made to do anything but only does one thing inherently: to serve as a repository for visual quality. If you still think we have enough shared premises to proceed, by all means do.

29.

Franklin

September 25, 2007, 3:46 PM

#28 respectfully directed at Robert, natch.

30.

ahab

September 25, 2007, 4:07 PM

Apologies, Robert - I've had to make some adjustments to my disrespect filter.

31.

Robert

September 26, 2007, 1:53 PM

Haha! Look, I mean, no one is asking any questions, these are all just broad assertions! Will no one consider my point? That's not a discussion, it's internet alpha dog. You can hump soneone elses leg, I will leave you, "art blog," and your expert analysis of the world... it's a shame.

32.

opie

September 26, 2007, 3:27 PM

You are the one on the high horse, Robert.

Lighten up.

33.

Franklin

September 26, 2007, 3:43 PM

Does that mean we don't have enough shared premises then? Oh well.

Robert, consider that perhaps the conversation doesn't restart around a new discussion simply because you move that it does so. By all means, make your assertion, or ask your question.

34.

ahab

September 26, 2007, 5:44 PM

Weird how people will say they want to start a conversation and in the next breath short-circuit it. I recant my hasty apology.

35.

informio

September 27, 2007, 1:02 AM

I think art should be supported by the state as it is reflection of who we are.

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