BLANK the money and BLANK: Part Two

Posted by: Harry Giles on Apr 17, 2015

BLANK the money and BLANK | Part Two: Private and State Sponsorship

This is part two of a three-part series on the politics of arts funding. Part one introduced the Take the money and run debate, and discussed the problems of boycott and ethical funding policies. Here I'll look at the tensions in our attitudes to private and state sponsorship, and in part three I'll suggest some constructive ways to think about money and the arts.

Something which came up repeatedly at Take the money and run was how special art is. How art liberates us, how art takes us to a better place, how art helps us imagine different worlds. These are all things I'd love to be true, and I think that they succeed in being true sometimes, but I'm sceptical about how the argument is often used: that art is special, and we can't allow commerce to debase it.

Only recently has art become anything other than a plaything of the ruling classes.  The culture that the majority of people enjoyed – folk music, say, or street games, or storytelling, or craft – were considered mere entertainment, or mere artisanry, while the arts – opera, ballet, literature – were bought and paid for as ways for the powerful to feel special. Artists were special creatures too, paid for by patrons, while artisans and entertainers had a lower status as workers or, in worse cases, drop-outs. Art as we understand it is a ruling class creation. What's happened now is that we've opened up the category of art in terms of both participants – we want more people to be artists – and audiences – we want access to great art for everyone.

The result is an arts industry that has contradictions at its heart, that combines vaguely liberal ideologies of mass participation with elitist historical roots. Its artists want to be paid properly as workers, but also want to feel like they float about the drudgery of employment. It tries to make art accessible, but remains vaguely attached to the idea that artworks are a special sort of thing and not what everyone enjoys. It wants funding, but doesn't want to lower itself into the mire of commerce.

We need to avoid assuming that commerce is an inherently bad thing to let into art, and instead ask about the power relations that are involved in different forms of funding. When a sponsor, patron, trust or funding body gives us money, what power are they giving and what power are they taking? What do they get from us, and what do we forget we are giving them? What creative control are they asking for? What social license do they walk away with? How does the art they fund reinforce their power? How might the art they fund undermine their power without them realising it?

A corporate sponsor might artwash, gaining social acceptability through its sponsorship of major institutions, as is the case with BP. A corporate sponsor might ask for creative input on the artwork, turning the art itself into a large scale advert. An arts culture built entirely on corporate sponsorship means that the only art that will get paid for is the art preferred by the rich. But a corporate sponsor might, just sometimes, might be a hands-off source of money, and a corporate sponsor might, just sometimes, not be paying enough attention to what you're actually doing with their cash.

The goal of seeking funding is to get more great art made; ethical arts funding needs to be about making sure that art doesn't end up giving more power to those who would destroy us. But there are also some deeper questions that considering where our money comes from gets us to: if we have ambitions for art to be something other than rich people's toys, how might we make it differently? And what kind of funding might that need to make it happen? Sometimes I think we might be better off destroying the category of art entirely.

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Despite the speed with which artists criticise corporate funding, we're oddly at ease with state funding. And I'm writing in the British context, about a state built on empire, genocide and slavery, a state which continues to be complicit in financial colonialism and aggressively exploitative globalisation. In terms of the ethical record of funders, you can't get much worse than the British state: every pound I take from it is a deeply compromised pound.

One difference between state and corporate funding is the chimera of democracy: the idea that when we take money from the state, we're taking money from an instution we're supposed to have some kind of democratic control of. The idea, the ideal, is that state funding makes great art happen that couldn't happen otherwise, ensures that art gets made for and with diverse populations rather than just to the preferences of the rich, and is distributed in some way according to popular will.  This ideal bears very little relationship to reality.

As an example, the Arts Council of England spends 15 times as much money per head on London organisations as it does outside the capital, and invests disproportionately huge sums in particular in national opera, ballet and literary theatre. Arts funding, even as it is being cut, shores up the institutions of power. Meanwhile, as the UK's apathy vote rises, its major parties refuse to adopt the most popular possible policies in favour of cronyism, and its two party system begins to collapse, it's hardly possible to say that the British state feels particularly good at offering democratic control of resources.

Just as corporate funding has obvious risks, state funding needs to be criticised and problematised. It's not just in totalitarian regimes that state-funded art props up power: we have to ask to what degree the ruling classes decide where the money is spent, and how much control arts councils give them over distribution.  In the UK, as the more independent arts councils are cut, government culture department funding increasingly supports national ideologies – it won't be long, I'm sure, before DCMS requires funded organisations to disseminate “British values”. Campaigns for ethical funding need to also be campaigns for better state funding – not just more money, but money better distributed, with more democratic control over the distribution.

But then again, these campaigns for ethical funding both tend to imagine that states and corporations can be reformed into perfection; that with enough political pressure, we'll get a state capitalist system we can all be happy with. Personally, I think that's nonsense. Personally, I think that the ruling classes can only support ethical funding campaigns as long as the foundation of their power is threatened, and that such campaigns are worth very little, and that more powerful and honest campaigns will bring us into conflicts with the very systems of power we seek to reform. But that said, I'm happy for now to form liberal alliances for transitional reforms – if nothing else, because I refuse to fetishise poverty, and I need to get paid too.

Harry Giles is a performer, poet and general doer of things. www.harrygiles.org

image: “money is destroying art and culture”, from Flickr user acb, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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