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Cargo Culture

Post #1625 • October 9, 2013, 11:29 PM • 17 Comments

David Thompson's blog has become an indispensable resource for arguments against the public funding of contemporary culture. Not only does he have his ear to the ground for germane stories, his readership is bright and principled. One Sam Duncan just opined, brilliantly:

The Luvvies justify tax subsidy of The Arts by saying, We can't call ourselves a civilized country without opera houses, ballet companies, etc., etc. Well, perhaps not. But can we call ourselves a civilized country when we have to be forced to pay for these things against our will? Does that not then make us an uncivilized country pretending to be civilized, aping true civilization, a sort of cargo-culture? It's not our culture at all, spontaneously emerging through voluntary action, it's someone else's, laid on the top of our real civilization like fancy icing on (as they might have it) mud. Isn't that worse?

This was in response to David himself:

The political uniformity and extraordinary conceits of our own publicly-funded arts establishment have entertained us many, many times. As when the writer Hanif Kureishi told Guardian readers that culture, as represented by him, is “a form of dissent,” while the paper’s theatre critic Michael Billington claimed that a reduction of taxpayer subsidy for loss-making plays is nothing less than “suppression” of that “dissent.” Likewise, when the playwright Jonathan Holmes claimed that he and his peers are “speaking truth to power” – I kid you not – and insisted, based on nothing, that “the sole genuine reason for cuts is censorship of some form” and “the only governments to systematically attack the arts have been the ones that also attacked democracy.” You see, the suggestion that artists might consider earning a living, rather than leeching at the taxpayer’s teat, is apparently indistinguishable from fascist brutality and the end of civilisation. Though when the status quo in London’s dramatic circles is overwhelmingly leftwing, and when publicly subsidised art and theatre tend to favour parties that favour further public subsidy for art and theatre, what “dissent” actually means is somewhat unclear. And reluctant taxpayers please take note: Despite all the years of providing hand-outs, you’re now the oppressor.

David was commenting on this piece by David Marcus:

What conservatives should be saying is that the NEA and the tax exempt status of many arts organizations are hurting the very art forms they purport to support. They are in fact making American art less relevant to American’s lives.

... The fact that theater is about as old as human civilization and has existed under every governmental system known to man (including many which actively tried to suppress it) doesn’t seem to enter into this analysis [that theater cannot survive in the marketplace]. It is simply accepted that government support of the arts creates better, and better attended art. In fact, the perverse market incentives enshrined by federal tax expenditures through deductions for arts giving and direct government support have been accompanied by a decrease in attendance and a crisis in theater. There are three compelling reasons why we need to reexamine the role of government in the arts, and specifically in theater. First and most importantly it is failing. Less and less people go to theater even though the federal dollars keep rolling in. Second, these government dollars are not expanding the base of arts attendees, but rather subsidizing the entertainment of wealthy, white people. Thirdly, government dollars are not content neutral, a cultural ground game is being executed by the progressive Non Profit community to ensure that culture remains the sole preserve of leftist ideology.

This is a bold and new(ish) claim. David Mamet, whom Thompson also mentions, has weighed in on this to the effect that public subsidy has a distorting effect on cultural production, driving it leftward...

[The] question of art is neither “How does it serve the state?” (Stalinist) nor its wily modification into “How does it serve humanity?” but “How does it serve the audience?”

...but the assertion that it is even working against liberal interests is an advance.

Another commenter at David's blog brought up David Byrne's recent ballyhoo for Creative Time, published also in the Guardian. (Why is this topic causing so many Davids to converge?)

The city is a body and a mind—a physical structure as well as a repository of ideas and information. Knowledge and creativity are resources. If the physical (and financial) parts are functional, then the flow of ideas, creativity and information are facilitated. The city is a fountain that never stops: it generates its energy from the human interactions that take place in it. Unfortunately, we’re getting to a point where many of New York’s citizens have been excluded from this equation for too long. The physical part of our city—the body—has been improved immeasurably. I’m a huge supporter of the bike lanes and the bike-share program, the new public plazas, the waterfront parks and the functional public transportation system. But the cultural part of the city—the mind—has been usurped by the top 1 percent. ... Many of the wealthy don't even live here. In the neighborhood where I live (near the art galleries in Chelsea), I can see three large condos from my window that are pretty much empty all the time. What the fuck!?

Matt Welch replied, Why, it's almost as if these goddamned 1 percenters go on year-long world tours or something! Byrne's daughter Malu recounted to the New York Times last year that while my income barely supports my need for food, art materials and rented time in a studio space, I’m one of the lucky ones: I live rent-free, with my dad, David Byrne, at least for the time being. She went on to chronicle the opinions of a circle of creatives who long to escape the relentless financial pressures of New York City.

Her father has an inchoate solution in mind.

Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian? Is that possible? I think it is. It’s still the most stimulating and exciting place in the world to live and work, but it’s in danger of walking away from its greatest strengths. The physical improvements are happening—though much of the crumbling public infrastructure still needs fixing. If the social and economic situation can be addressed, we’re halfway there. It really could be a model of how to make a large, economically sustainable and creatively energetic city. I want to live in THAT city.

To be fair, David Byrne is not calling for public subsidy directly, though he's implying that the reinforcement of the city's intellectual life should come by way of the mechanism that reinforces its infrastructure. If only there was some one-percenter who had a vested interest in maintaining the culture of the city, with the financial means and connections to start a private initiative that would invest in promising creatives and make their material lives a little easier. Let me think... I know, why don't we propose the idea to David Byrne?

There's a wonderful passage from Bastiat:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

I refrain from calling Byrne a socialist, but what goes unsaid here is that our objections are to a prior assumption by believers in state power, namely that because some undertaking is worth doing, that the state ought to be doing it. If Byrne is addressing society in the above quote (and I think he is to some degree, although largely by not making Bastiat's distinction), he is doing so as if it were an aggregate, even an abstraction. This may be the essence of the statist mind: that an abstracted aggregate of other people ought to be devoting their energies to the effort I deem noble. It's from there that the demands flow. The collectivist is not asking you to give up expenditures on your hobby to support his (even if his has been fashioned into a career), he's asking the abstract aggregate to change its trajectory or support the arts or something nebulous and lofty like that. Cargo Culture springs into being when such demands are met.



David Thompson

October 10, 2013, 9:58 AM

The Bastiat quote echoes some of the exchanges I’ve had, where darlings of the Arts Council have assumed, or wanted to believe, that its critics want a world devoid of any cultural activity more elevated than Rude Tube. Because we’re just beastly and mean. And because if the state doesn’t give £70,000 to Greenpeace—in the name of art—then naught but tumbleweed will roll across a denuded cultural landscape. And if the state doesn’t hand £20,000 of taxpayers’ money to East End hookers so they can “self-advocate” – and no, I’m not joking—then an artless darkness will settle forever on the minds of the nation’s young.

When taxpayers dared to grumble about the Nowhere Island art project, in which a pile of random sand and rock was relocated by barge at a cost of half a million pounds, their complaints were dismissed by the leftwing journalist Laurie Penny as “anodyne and inconsequential.” According to Ms. Penny, who took part in the project and enjoyed a two-week holiday at public expense, if we don’t continue bankrolling random dirt relocation, “we have no business speaking of social progress.”

And the people I’ve argued with about this have tended to invoke those nebulous and lofty things you mention, as if their own self-interest played no part in their defensiveness and indignation, even though one of the people I argued with has spent almost thirty years sucking on the public teat and shows no sign of stopping. Because commercially unviable performance art is now part of the welfare state, apparently. It’s what some grown men aspire to do.


Greg Cook

October 15, 2013, 6:42 PM

Why just focus on subsidies for the arts, which are a minor fraction of the stuff our government subsidizes, from highly profitable and for-profit oil companies and financial firms to farming, the defense industry, and the auto industry? Here around Boston, the new, individual real-estate tax breaks that the state gives out to for-profits each year total multiples of what Massachusetts budgets for arts funding. If the U.S. is going to maintain subsidies for for-profit bankers and oil millionaires, then it seems only fair to throw a little pocket change at the arts too.



October 15, 2013, 10:30 PM

Why just focus on subsidies for the arts?

For this reason and this one only: because this is an art blog. Not only are there bigger leeches on the government hide in the business sector, but as I've written before, "No one is talking seriously about cutting spending unless he is talking about Medicare and related programs, Social Security, various safety net programs, defense, and interest on federal debt in that order." Arts cuts without any of them, which has been attempted in the past, is a partisan joke. That said, you're making a pragmatic claim but not a very moral one. Do other peoples' obtaining money by force justify my doing so?


David Thompson

October 16, 2013, 3:52 AM


Why just focus on subsidies for the arts? If the U.S. is going to maintain subsidies for for-profit bankers and oil millionaires, then it seems only fair to throw a little pocket change at the arts too.

For my part, it’s an area in which I have some interest and a little personal experience, and here in the UK it’s a part of the culture that provides no end of inadvertent comedy. Dirt relocation and subsidised whoring, for instance. And hence my writing about it. I doubt my readers would object to similar criticism being aimed at parasitic hustling and unjust subsidies in other areas of life; indeed many of them have aired criticisms of exactly that kind. Their objection to public subsidy of the arts is usually part of a larger objection to cronyism and ideological lockstep, not an excuse for more of the same in other spheres.

Your position seems much like that of the aforementioned playwright Jonathan Holmes, who said, “Everyone else is subsidised too, so why not the arts?” But despite the regularity with which it’s aired, this is a not the strongest argument to advance, at least not morally or in terms of alleged fairness. Fairness to whom? The state-favoured artist? Or the taxpayers who have to bankroll him, regardless of their own tastes and priorities? The fact that six people already have their hands in my back pocket isn’t the most persuasive reason for inviting in a seventh, eighth and ninth. There is, after all, only so much pocket. Only so much goodwill. And if cronyism is objectionable in business, and it is, why is deemed so virtuous in the world of art?


David Thompson

October 16, 2013, 2:50 PM

... it seems only fair to throw a little pocket change at the arts too.

If we’re going to talk of fairness, it’s important to acknowledge how that “pocket change” is arrived at. It’s a detail that raises questions regarding who has to work to earn it, who deserves that money more, who does the throwing, and who doesn’t get a say in where it’s thrown or why. It seems to me your statement is a bit like saying, “Hey, look. That guy across the street is getting his pocket picked. Let’s see what else he’s got.”

As Peter Whittle noted recently, “When he founded [the Arts Council] in 1946, John Maynard Keynes saw it as a temporary measure. He believed that after a period the arts should stand on their own two feet. What would he think of the empire of bureaucracy and box-ticking that has been created since?” And yet it’s readily assumed, usually by artists, that the public ought to be forced to pay, indefinitely, not only for a great deal of art that isn’t wanted – say, a barge full of dirt or a felt-tip pen hanging from the underside of a chair - but also for a politically uniform bureaucracy, a left-of-centre taste-correcting caste. The function of which is largely to circumvent the public and its preferences. The public, after all, is only picking up the tab.

Our own Arts Council sees fit to employ no fewer than 20 “diversity” staff, has a policy of racial favouritism, gives tens of thousands of pounds of other people’s money to buskers and prostitutes, has managed to spend £50,000 on two office parties, and a further £8,000 on an office drinks party, at which the outgoing Big Cheese announced how outrageous it was for the government to trim the arts budget by a swoon-inducing 2.6%. The benefits of coercive subsidy are pretty obvious, at least if you’re on the Arts Council payroll. The benefits for the taxpayer are somewhat less clear cut.


John Link

October 23, 2013, 10:41 PM

I'm a little late to this party, but it is a perpetually interesting party, so I'll attempt a comment.

I'm not particularly interested in whether government support is necessary to be "civilized" or whether withdrawal of it can constitute "censorship" under certain circumstances or whether enlisting taxing authority to accomplish it impinges on our freedom. What does interest me is whether it does more good than harm, especially for what is generally thought to belong to the visual arts, no matter how much they have become the servants of literary acrobatics. But the mix of good and bad effects over the past several decades has been too vexing for me to form a clear opinion, so I must consider another question, a very speculative one.

Would the outcome have been any different if government funds had stayed out of it? I suppose probably not. And therefore, and even more speculatively, I suppose it would be just as well if government withdrew in the future. Not because of "liberty" or "fairness to taxpayers" but because it does not matter. Art is in a certain situation, like a mule that won't budge, and offering it a handful of oats won't change a thing.


David Thompson

October 24, 2013, 11:07 AM


What does interest me is whether it does more good than harm, especially for what is generally thought to belong to the visual arts, no matter how much they have become the servants of literary acrobatics.

If you isolate makers of art from their customers, their patrons, and from the consequences of their own inadequacy – which is what our Arts Council does – the result will be distortions, the aforementioned cargo culture. What we in the UK get isn’t a realistic expression of what the public finds interesting or attractive. Neither is it, I think, a reflection of artistic possibilities. Instead we get what a narrow social group thinks the public ought to like, whether it does or not. If artists and pseudo-artists get paid anyway, in advance, why should the artist try to make something beautiful, which is difficult, or try to please the public, or maybe even see their own aesthetic shortcomings and do something else? Without direct customer feedback, where’s the corrective mechanism for discouraging tat?

Likewise, there’s no credible corrective mechanism for the Arts Council’s own profligacy and incompetence. An obvious example being the remarkably unpopular West Bromwich arts centre, boldly named The Public, which two years after opening had failed to attract a single paying customer. The venue, which promised to “make the arts more accessible,” had not only repelled the locals it was supposed to attract, but also managed to consume almost £60 million of public money. Typical of its offerings was a “five year live art project” by Michael Pinchbeck, in which Mr Pinchbeck “packed a car with the belongings of his brother and drove to Liverpool where his brother died in 1998.” After the car full of rammle had been “toured” around the country, much to the indifference of passers-by, the vehicle was crushed and its fragments displayed to an empty gallery. An absurd press release was the sole, rather slim, visual enticement. The West Bromwich arts centre nevertheless announced the project with great optimism: “Admission will be on a first-come-first-served basis.”

Would the outcome have been any different if government funds had stayed out of it? I suppose probably not.

I doubt it’s a coincidence that the Arts Council’s funding list leans so heavily towards the conceptual and/or inanely political - by which I mean the fatuous, wordy and predictably leftwing - thereby departing quite markedly from the tastes of the general public. And of course there’s no consequence for this, no price to pay, as would normally be the case, in terms of ticket sales and attendance. Which is why those “literary acrobatics” and “challenging” piles of drek figure so heavily in art funded by coercion. The Arts Council already has our wallet so why should they or their protégés care whether anyone turns up or finds what’s on offer remotely interesting? The only ones paying a price are the bored or alienated members of the public. The ones who hear lots of guff about “our” collective culture, while wondering why they’re paying for a table covered in fag ends and a car full of junk.

And so you can find any number of expensive, heavily publicised conceptual noodling sessions that were attended, if at all, by a handful of people, mostly friends of the artist. Along with promotional videos, paid for by the public, in which artists speak of their “practice” and their “critiques” of this and that, all studiously academic with lots of theory-heavy chest-puffing. Videos that in many cases have been viewed by maybe five or six people. Faced with such casual self-indulgence, it’s hard not to feel a little insulted. The assumption seems to be You’ll Get What You’re Given And Like It, Bitches™ – a belief that any old bollocks will do. And in terms of public funding, apparently it does. But there are only so many times you can walk around a gallery laughing at the mismatch between the obligatory cerebral pretension and piles of ugly, hackneyed tat. At some point it stops being quite so funny.


John Link

October 28, 2013, 9:05 PM

David, you make a very persuasive case except for the fact there are many well-heeled customers for very strange art works, though clearly not for the specific examples you cite. If you want multi-million dollar "pictures," look at Lucio Fontana and his slits, $100K plus used chewing gum smears can be had from Dan Golen, or if an exact copy of a 30-0-6 bullet in gold is your cup of tea, Chris Burden can supply the product wrapped in the rhetoric of art for $35K. These prices can't exist if there is a disconnect between the artists and their audience. I'm no expert in art economics, but my guess is the world has never spent as much for objects denoted as art as it does now. I'm pissed that it has not included me in this great outpouring of funds, but that is another story. The fact that I and most other artists have been excluded does not diminish the size of the thing, nor the fervor of those who support whatever it dishes out.

These kind of prices suggest the opposite of a corrective mechanism of discouragement. A lot of people—with money—like what is going on and are providing direct feedback, with their checkbooks.


David Thompson

October 29, 2013, 3:37 PM

John, I’m not familiar with the high-spending art market you describe and can’t comment on it in any detail. It’s something that once or twice a year makes the novelty slot of the news for maybe 20 seconds. I’d guess, though, that it’s not exactly representative of the general audience for art, or potential audience, as supposedly catered to by the Arts Council and similar bodies, which claim to act on our behalf – i.e., thee, me and that nice Mrs. Wilson down the road. I’d imagine that the people who spend small fortunes on rhetoric-heavy drek as an investment or badge of status have little in common with popular appetites and the average, occasional gallery visitor, let alone the average taxpayer. Aren’t we talking about very different audiences with different motives?

Set against the population being taxed to bankroll the flummery mentioned earlier (and much more besides), the collectors you refer to are, I’d guess, a tiny and atypical minority, one whose concerns are, for most of us, somewhat remote. What well-heeled collectors – or suckers—spend their own money is none of my business. What the Arts Council spends my money on, supposedly in my name and while supposedly doing me a favour, is. And so I think my point remains. The typical visitor of a gallery—outside of maybe half a dozen in London—would be unlikely to volunteer their own cash in exchange for the tat I’ve described, and which nonetheless occupies a great many galleries across the country, regardless of whether anyone turns up. The art I’ve described is there, and something like it will be there next year and the year after that, largely because it is paid for with money taken by force from people who, on the whole, wouldn’t choose it or take it home.


John Link

October 29, 2013, 10:53 PM

I doubt that we disagree about much. But you really should become acquainted with the high-spenders because they are the force in charge of what trickles down to everyone else. It does not matter that we are annoyed by their droppings. We must deal with them. They are not required to deal with us.

These leaders of the art world went and are going in a strange direction that can be summed up as the triumph of Marcel Duchamp. (I am a "lumper" and realize there could be all sort of qualifications to this statement, but it makes the point I want to make.) The governments of the various "free" countries practice what all governments practice - the extraction of private funds without regard to the desires of its citizens. In the case of visual art, democratic governments have seldom, if ever, been leaders, but rather followers of what has been going over, especially with respect to the "types" of art they support. At best, their support is an inch deep and a mile wide. At worst, it is as you maintain. Lynne Munson wrote a good book in 2000 detailing the history of the NEA in the USA that describes this much better than I can. But I will say she notes a very brief period, at the NEA's onset, when it managed to get ahead of the curve, rather than take up the rear. Interestingly, she shows that during that time it also operated at its most autocratic, depending on elitist judgments rendered by a very few in the know individuals, rather than any broad constituency. From my point of view, they happened to get it right now and then. There was nothing intrinsic to the process that made it "correct" because the expert but academic elitists who followed the early ones could not maintain their record. The period of effective funding was brief according to Munson, and I agree. Democratic governments and art just don't mix unless the desired outcome is political rather than aesthetic. Even then, nothing is assured.

Ultimately art is for everybody, but its leadership has always been up to an elite few. You correctly point out the movers and shakers are a minority now. I maintain they always have been. Further, they have been associated with money, education, and power. What bothers me is that the governments (power) no longer support the good stuff and the private systems and their money have been hijacked by a literary ideology (Duchamp) that is easy to explain but produces little of visual importance. Yet the free market has certainly spoken in favor of the dreck I don't like any more than you do. It is the largest market for art in the history of the human race. It may not reflect majority opinion, but art is not determined in the voting booth. Unfortunately, it does appear to be determined by the amount of certain checks associated with a change in its ownership. Someday that may change, but after 50 years of watching it succeed, I am reluctant to pin any hopes on it.

I speculate that, since most advanced governments have become so democratic, they have lost their ability to influence the course of art. It is now up to what used to be called the robber barons, and they are doing quite a poor job of it as well. They are setting a pace neither of us like. Munson, who rose to Deputy Director of the NEH under Bush the Younger and had ambitions to direct the NEA, has repositioned herself as leader of a group that is pushing art and art history as part of the core curriculum in K-12 education. Her agenda is based on tried and true art history. If one is young enough to wait, that may be a good strategy. No matter how old one is, it may be the only strategy with a reasonable chance of success.


David Thompson

November 1, 2013, 6:09 PM

But you really should become acquainted with the high-spenders because they are the force in charge of what trickles down to everyone else. It does not matter that we are annoyed by their droppings. We must deal with them.

I’m not sure what you mean by “deal with.” As I said, I’ve no great interest in what other people buy with their own money. It isn’t my business. Likewise, if an artist wants to aim for the high-spend circuit for theory-heavy tat, then fine. I’d just prefer they didn’t bill me in the process, forcibly, and expect me to enable them, while a bloated state bureaucracy, also funded by coercion, claims it’s all being done to “challenge” my tiny mental world. Without the proving ground and development cash provided by the Arts Council, which enthuses about such things much more than the public, I wonder how many peddlers of tat would be obliged find something else to do, perhaps quite abruptly.

I speculate that, since most advanced governments have become so democratic, they have lost their ability to influence the course of art. It is now up to what used to be called the robber barons, and they are doing quite a poor job of it as well.

I’m not at all sure that it’s the job of the state to “influence the course of art.” It sounds a little presumptuous. The Arts Council is the British state’s attempt to do precisely that and it’s hardly democratic. We, the taxpayers, have no say at all in how our money is spent. Hence the colossal self-indulgence mentioned earlier and the comedic mismatch with audiences. Maybe we should get the state out of artistic production and filtering and see what happens? The robber barons, as you put it, will do their thing, the general public theirs. Maybe artists will find patrons who volunteer their money, large sums and small, and find their place in the market. As opposed to the current situation here, in which the supply of artists dwarfs the actual demand and where the supposed patrons – taxpayers – are being billed for a product they all too often don’t want and didn’t ask for.

I’m enjoying this, by the way. Thanks for taking the time.


John Link

November 3, 2013, 7:27 PM

There are many instances of governments in the past which provided patronage for worthwhile art. Certainly there are reasons to object, the pyramids come to mind as one of the most compelling. Many other cases are less bothersome—say, Gothic cathedrals, early French Academy painting, and so on. But autocracy and its apparently intrinsic unfairness cannot be separated from many excellent results. The centers of power responsible for patronage that worked did not acquire their resources by their own industry, any more than centers that provide patronage that did not work.

I've said it before: art is for the people. But I would never leave it up to the taste of "the people" or "taxpayers" to get it done. Go ahead and ignore those who control the situation if you like. That's what I do most of the time myself. But not all of it.


David Thompson

November 5, 2013, 3:13 AM

I’ve said it before: art is for the people. But I would never leave it up to the taste of “the people” or “taxpayers” to get it done.

Heh. It’s an attitude I’ve found to be quite common, though it’s rarely stated so frankly. But isn’t it a bit like saying, “I want to make whatever I make and I should be paid for making it regardless of whether or not there’s any demand for what I do”? Or, “The people who have to pay for what I do shouldn’t get a say in whether it’s any good”? Or, “But I’m fabulous, goddammit.” You see the problem?

Go ahead and ignore those who control the situation if you like. That’s what I do most of the time myself. But not all of it.

From where I stand, it looks like quite a few artists also want to control the situation, by which I mean other people’s money. Say, by expecting payment regardless of whether there’s a buyer for whatever it is they do.

As I said in the post linked above, if there are too many artists (or would-be artists) chasing too little demand, and if very few can hope to make even a basic living as artists, then why use even more public money to entice more people into such a perilous and unpromising line of work? As a standalone thing, supposedly aloof from commercial culture, art no longer has a monopoly on aesthetic provision. In fact, based on visits to my local modish galleries, one might assume that art had all but abandoned that function. Luckily, mere commerce generates lovely things too.



November 5, 2013, 9:48 AM

I think you two may be speaking past each other. John, if I understand you correctly, you're saying that there's something inherently anti-democratic about art and that autocracy has often been good for it, but you're not endorsing autocracy. Your concern is the question of how good art gets made, and you're concluding persuasively that neither government nor society is doing an especially good job of it at the moment. David, in contrast, you don't have a dog in that fight. Your concern is the deleterious effects of coercive government policy, of which arts funding is an often comical example but by no means the only one. You're content otherwise to find visual delectation where you may.

John's statement that art is for the people, but he would never leave it up to the taste of the people to get it done, was an observation about taste, not funding. I think John is agnostic about funding, and David is agnostic about taste.

My concern is that we have an essentially corporatist art market, with the nonprofits and public granting agencies providing an imprimatur of Importance to Society upon certain artists and their work. That imprimatur drives up the price for the work and garners interest from (monetarily) higher echelons of collectors. Justifications behind such art are almost guaranteed to be social or political rather than visual. This ends up skewing taste away from the best of what is possible in art, so the two concerns relate in that respect.

Reiterated greetings to David Thompson's readers.


David Thompson

November 5, 2013, 3:13 AM

As you say,

My concern is that we have an essentially corporatist art market, with the non-profits and public granting agencies providing an imprimatur of Importance to Society upon certain artists and their work. That imprimatur drives up the price for the work and garners interest from (monetarily) higher echelons of collectors.

This is where we overlap. As I said, the high-spend market for theory-heavy hokum isn’t something I know much about. But it seems to me that the pseudo-intellectual status for such things, their institutional footing, and therefore to a large extent their place in the market, would be much harder to sustain if it weren’t being reinforced at our expense by the Arts Council and similar bodies, which tend to favour conceptual flummery much more than the public does. That imprimatur is a license for hokum and a kind of cronyism.

I think John is agnostic about funding, and David is agnostic about taste.




November 6, 2013, 8:41 AM

Brian Micklethwait: The greatest art seems to happen when high art and low art combine, in the form of something that is superficially entertaining and stirring and popular, and also as profound as profundity seekers might want it to be. Arts subsidies harm art by dividing it into less good entertainment art, paid for by punters, and less good high art, paid for with subsidies. Arts subsidies in Britain are now being cut somewhat. The result will be somewhat better art.

Also, greetings Samizdata readers.


John Link

November 11, 2013, 5:59 PM

I assumed this discussion would not go any further. Once again I learn not to assume anything.

David, please don't try to put strange words in my mouth. "A bit like saying" what? You know I didn't say those things. What I said is much more straightforward than your substitutions. I see the problem, alright. It is called setting up a straw man.

If the state pays artists to work—something it has done for eons—then it is just another buyer. Artists who have received such payments have found patronage that is as valid as any that comes from any other source. If that is what Franklin means by I'm agnostic about funding, then I am, though I think the term "agnostic" means uncertain rather than indifferent. I certainly am not indifferent with respect to taste. Nor am I uncertain. Some of it is better than others, and the better it is the harder it is to find and the fewer there are who possess it.

Nonprofit and public granting agencies provide "imprimaturs" in the sense of confirming dogma. They are behind the curve—academicized—and follow established trends after the dealer-museum-media network has established them. Admittedly, thanks to the inevitable reactions of "the offended" the trappings of avant-gardism can be associated with some of their awards, but it has been a century since Duchamp exhibited his urinal. It was kind of funny then, actually. So was his MONA LISA. But what is now being derived from Duchamp falls short as humor and is only avant-garde because so many millions agree that it is. But clearly the redeeming social imperative behind public funding for this oh-so-serious perversion of Duchampian wit is non-visual and "skews" taste away from its only useful object, as Franklin says. The conceptual "results" are not all that surprising.

But what is a little surprising is when the system spits up someone like David Hockney. He isn't a Duchampian, rejecting painting, visualness, and so on. He accepts tradition in a sophisticated manner. But now he is a great up-to-date innovator anyway, "exploring" the iPad and iPhone with an outpouring of his always mediocre but modernly flatish "finger paintings" on these new devices. He has talent. He has done so little with it, yet millions love the work. Go figure.


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