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Art Isn’t That Important

 

Working in the arts as I do, it’s common for me to hear people make positive arguments for supporting the arts.  I also have many friends outside the arts; and it’s just as common for me to hear these people decry the very thought supporting them…perhaps more so.  Almost everyone seems to have an opinion on it, educated or not; and as a result it’s a sure fire way to identify comrades and combatants in conversation.  However, it seems to me that the entire conversation is misdirected.  The arts have always been, and should always be, supported to the degree that people care to support them.  End of story.  If that’s the case, then the arts are being supported to the degree to which they deserve it, and deserve no more…and quite possibly less. 

Let me clarify what I mean by support.  There are many ways to support the arts: time, materials, assistance, opportunities to exhibit, introductions to influential institutions and people, promotional and media exposure, word of mouth, and good ol’ fashion moral support, count amongst the methods you can lend your weight to art’s support structure.  Even just showing up at openings, drinking free booze, and being another warm body in the crowd counts as a minimal kind of support…at least you help make it look busy. But then of course, there’s the grandaddy of them all: financial support.  It’s this kind of support that I think arguments for and against support for the arts are directed. 

I’m of the opinion that if you sign up for a career in the arts it comes with a tacit understanding that when it comes to money and how much (or little) you have of it, you are not allowed to complain about it.  It has never been easy to make a living as an artist (as we understand the term contemporarily).  Artists are constantly making things regardless of whether or not they’ve put any thought into how much they think people will like it, have little or no consideration of what the world outside the arts wants or cares about with respect to the kind of art they’ll buy, and in general have concerns and approaches to reality very different from the vast majority of society.  Now, I think these are all good things; but I also think they are all very good reasons why the arts shouldn’t receive any more financial support than they do. And they certainly shouldn’t be getting it from people who don’t care about art.

Coming from someone who makes their livelihood in the arts this might seem strange.  But, I adopt this opinion not because I don’t care about art; I do, deeply.  Rather, I hold this view out of respect for how people choose to spend both their time and money, both of which most people would like to have more of.  People like lots of things: travel, food and drink, movies, recreational sports, etc. Some people like art; but most do not, and absolutely nobody needs it.  We might need to make it (the jury’s still out on this one anthropologically), but that’s a very different animal. As it stands, nobody has figured out exactly why we should care about having or making art at all…and this includes people that do it for a living. Nobody needs to buy or own it.  So if people would rather spend their time and money on something else, why shouldn’t they?  Some people like art a lot, but others don’t give a damn…and why should they? Well, here are some suggestions as why they should not.

Let’s assume that when Joseph Beuys said that “Anyone can be an artist” he meant it; and that the current belief that “in principle anything can be art” is essentially fact. Both of these statements are foundational operating principles in the arts…at least so far as I am familiar with them. What are the consequences of this?  Well, obviously: everyone is an artist, and everything can, in principle, be art.  What’s the problem with that?  Nothing really…but it does imply that art is not in any danger, and artists do not need to be supported…and nor should they be.  If everyone is an artist, then what one person does is just a different kind of the same thing that another person does; and why on earth would I want to support that with my hard earned bills? If anything can be art, well then we’ve got lots of it, and lots of varieties with no end in sight…so again: why does it need my financial support? 

This is a pretty weak argument if you are at all familiar with what art is like from the inside, but better lines of reasoning follow similar paths: why a person would or would not support the arts has less to do with support for art than it does about art itself.  When people say we should give more support to the arts, what I take them to really be saying is that we should give more support to art that they care about.  There’s plenty of art out there, but some people like one kind more than another, and some people try to make their living selling very specific kinds of art. So bias is built into the support equation, and whatever direction that bias leans is generally what the leaner wants supported.  Whether or not anyone else should care about their leanings, let alone support the objects thereof, is another matter entirely. 

Financial support comes in two ways: public and private (I include corporate as being essentially the same as private, as it’s not coming from the government coffers).  As to private financing, I’m all for it.  Whoever wants to throw their personal or corporate dollars at the arts I say: fill your boots…or better yet, mine.  The more the better.  Public funding is another animal altogether though…and it’s this beasty that I have a beef with. 

Public funding requires the public to relinquish the money it needs and wants more of, in the form of tax dollars, and put it towards something that a good chunk of the populace needs and wants way less of.  Not to worry though: your tax dollars are safely in the hands of industry experts that will direct it accordingly and see that public good is actualized via public art that is good for the public.  These experts typically come from educational institutions whose job it is to breed experts.  They may include, but are not limited to, practicing artists, critics, curators, historians, and theorists.  Every once and awhile a gallerist, respected collector or media personality will be sprinkled in for flavour.  Oh, and let’s not forget the government representative of the arts.  This personage differs from the previous types.  Whereas the previously mentioned set might have some claim to the title ‘expert’ in the arts, the person you voted into office that is now your Councilperson of the Arts is most likely little more than a liaison between government and the art community. The likelihood that they are expert in anything that resembles the arts is not something I would stake any significant amount of money upon.   

Regardless of where the panel of experts comes from, publicly funded art generally has one main goal: make the city in which it is to be funded look more contemporary.  What this means for those that are unfamiliar the term in its art-specificness is this: make it look like the funding city cares about, understands, and supports contemporary art (what contemporary means is anybody’s guess…but I can tell you that to the arts, it excludes all but one definition of the word).  This is one of the ways that a cosmopolitan center (or that which wishes to be viewed as one) signifies to the rest of the world that it has come of age; and it is this type of art that students of contemporary art schools are invariably schooled in, and which upon graduating, will be responsible for championing in one form or another.  This brand of art is generally known as International Conceptualism, but I will tag it (after Dickie) as Institutional Art.  It’s art that is made and supported by educational and appropriately interested governmental institutions, and represented by a panel of experts from the same.  These experts set up the criterion by which the art shall be judged, and ultimately push the big green button that dispenses the cash. 

None of this is problematic; but where the cash comes from is: taxpayers pockets. It’s problematic because the taxpayer never gets a say in what they’ve just funded..that’s left to the experts. Hold no illusions as to the democratic process…you do not get a say in this.  Thankfully, our democratically elected councilperson for the arts has our cultural well being snuggly wrapped up in their blanket of industry expertise.  The experts will typically defend choices for recipients of public funding with academic prose which will confirm that we were correct in trusting this promethean panel all along.  Their decisions will enrich the public culturally; and they, as experts on the matter, are the final word on what should, and should not, count as culturally enriching.

But, art in its institutional form (the kind that gets the most public funding), is not only biased by definition toward institutional concerns, it is also not that important to many people…and nor should it be.  I do not mean by this that I think institutional art is unimportant; quite the opposite. I think it has an important role to play in what I believe art provides toward the enrichment of people’s lives.  But it’s one role among many, and that is only my belief…I do not expect it to be shared.  There are lots of kinds of art, and in general I believe that people will gravitate toward and support the art that they find adds richness and value to their lives.  If art can’t survive without the subsidies, then maybe it shouldn’t survive.  Regardless of this, it certainly shouldn’t be kept on life support by people who don’t care (or even know about) it in most cases, under the guise of enriching their lives. I see a lot of people in the world, leading very good, decent, interesting and full lives; and not caring one wit about art…and their lives don’t seem to need any sort of enriching from the benevolent hands of art.  But still they’re asked to contribute to its funding.  Understandably they don’t care to, and I think they’re justified in feeling this way for very good reasons.

The first has to do with the entrance requirements into the art club.  Short list: none.  In order to become an artist, you need do nothing other than identify yourself as one.  I think this is a good thing, especially since being an artist is apparently something we all are…at least until the cult of Beuys dies out, which is very unlikely this side of the Apocalypse given the current climate. This magic act of an entrance exam gives license to enter the union and create art at the most remedial of levels.  This is a great victory for access and personal freedom, but terrible for generating respect from any other existing profession, and from people in general if they put a little thought into it.  It is important to note, that this bottom rung is lower in terms of job requirements than every other job on the planet.  Not only currently, but that has ever been or ever will be. This doesn’t mean that people in this position will receive funding…they absolutely will not…but it does set a very bad standard by which the rest of the arts are contextualized. And it certainly does not encourage a funding-friendly attitude in a taxpaying public.

This runs parallel to the second really good reason people should feel just fine not supporting public funding for the arts: a completely unidentifiable set of standards by which to tell good from bad.  There are not only no requirements to become an artist, but also no standards by which to identify the fundable versus the non-fundable art.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t standards in the arts.  There are…lots of ‘em; but depending on who you talk to you’ll get a different set.  No coherent and consistent standards in art means no coherent method of evaluating art (sample some contemporary art criticism for a wealth of examples), which in turn means no way of placing value on art, which also means no way of determining good from bad art, which ultimately means no way of deciding between fundable versus non-fundable art; at least not in a way that is going to be very convincing to the group taxpayers that are supposed to foot the bill. 

I’d have no problem supporting public funding…regardless of how frivolous it seemed (and art can definitely be that), so long as it could put forward a convincing argument as to why I should.  Lots of other products and occupations receive funding, both public and private, and the people funding it seem quite happy to do so.  By way of example to underline what I mean, let’s compare art (which certainly has he capacity to be serious, but is often a lot of fun) to games, which by their very definition are meant to be fun (even though they can be taken very seriously).  Lots, if not all, people play games of some sort.  They do so for any number of reasons. Let’s call some of those games sports. In sports some players are better than others; they might even be so good they get paid to play, because people will spend their own money to watch them do this thing really, really well.  The better the person is, the more support they get (i.e. fame, money, etc).  Athletes are supported in this manner, not only by the person/company/team signing the cheques, but also by the public that provides the profit for the person who signs the cheques because they want to see this person play. They are even at times funded by the government on their way to representing their country, province, territory, municipality, etc., and the populace seems more than happy to provide this support.    

This is noticeably different from art.  Who decides to support sports?  People that care…a whole lot of people.  The more people that care the more support that sport gets.  And I think it is a fairly easy point to make that the material success you realize when you excel in sport is measured against identifiable and quantifiable standards.  Not so with art.  Who decides to support funding for the arts? People that care…but a comparatively small number of people that care about very specific things, making decisions for the funding populace.  But, to excel in art is to….well, that’s anybody’s guess at the moment.  And it’s anybody’s guess as to why we should fund it.

This leads to the last problem with supporting the arts, and this is especially pertinent since it has to do most specifically with the funded kind.  It makes people feel stupid.  I have come to the conclusion that this is done intentionally in most cases.  It’s not done intentionally in the sense that it’s goal is to make people who are unfamiliar with art feel stupid, rather it intentionally doesn’t care whether or not people feel stupid when viewing it.  Institutional art makes no effort to engage with the general public on terms that the general public will understand, even though what it is trying to communicate in most cases could be easily communicated if the effort was put forth.   It does this very often by clouding itself in obscure text and language that inevitably accompanies most contemporary art in an effort to ‘contextualize’ the work.  This contextualization however, often further confuses the viewing public because it is loaded with industry specific jargon.  This jargon sounds very fancy but more often than not says nothing.  It may, in a worst case scenario, literally mean nothing.  At best, it often takes a very simple concept and wraps it in confusing and complicated language in order to make it seem more profound than it actually is.

Much contemporary art, in order to hide the man behind the curtain, is made intentionally impenetrable in order to hide its general vacuity.  That’s not to say that it can’t be genuinely difficult, or that it shouldn’t be, but it does mean that much of what poses to be difficult to understand and laden with complexity is anything but. What is said in 3000 words of polysyllabic pseudo-theory, superficial historical and theoretical cross-referencing, and unintelligible prose is very often trying desperately to mimic the actual complexity of scientific jargon in order to graft some of science’s respectability onto the art in question.  The fact that if this garble was phrased differently it could easily be summarized in a couple sentences your dog could understand, only makes this issue more irritating. However, this would result in something appeared way less impressive, and that dear friends, does not make for good returns at the public funding box office.

The main job of this verbal smoke and mirror show, is to make people unfamiliar with art and its inner workings feel like outsiders. It is also conveniently a great way for people on the inside to keep their jobs.  The pseudo-scientific smokescreen makes themselves and the wares they peddle seem more important than they actually are; and this is great for a clientele that wants to feel the same way. Aristocrats didn’t die, they just moved; and aristocrats love selling, and buying expensive, obscure, important-sounding stuff to accentuate their aristocratic-ness. As good as this type of art is for the aristocratic class, it’s terrible for the rest of the tax paying populace.  If aristocrats of art want to support it, let them, to their hearts content.  Hats off to both them and those they are patrons of…but they should do it with their own money…not with that of those that don’t care.

What benefit does art that people don’t care about, don’t understand, don’t care to understand, and makes them feel stupid, bring to people’s lives?  I would argue very little. Beyond those who already seek it out and seem to enjoy it, or those that are introduced to, or stumble across it, it would seem to me that people don’t seek certain kinds of art out because they don’t care about it.  I don’t buy the argument that people don’t support art, or buy art, simply because they don’t know any better or are unaware/uneducated about it.  At some point in people’s purchasing/supporting existences I would hazard a guess that a majority of people have seen a bit of institutional art…maybe even in person. One would think that if even this limited exposure had tinkled some interest bell in theirs heads, or souls, or wherever it’s stored, that it would have been pursued and they would be out there supporting the hell out of it as we speak. 

But if they don’t, they probably weren’t. People don’t support what they don’t want; and they don’t want it because it doesn’t matter to them.  The people that support art care about it.  Good for them.  That’s their football. But, people also like movies a lot, and dinners at fancy restaurants, and concerts, etc.  These seem to have no problem generating support; why should art be any different? To say that art needs more support because people don’t care enough about it and it won’t survive without that support is to miss the point: maybe it shouldn’t survive if it can’t generate its own support.

The arts undermines itself.  It wishes to allow absolute access to its ranks, engage with zero identifiable standards, enjoy complete autonomy from the rest of reality and a tacitly held title of cultural superiority, and it wants the people it doesn’t attempt to meet halfway give them money for support.  You can’t have it both ways folks.  Make stuff more people want, try to identify some clear standards as to why you think it’s important for them to want it, and maybe give a shit about your audience, or, be happy with the support you get.

I am absolutely not saying that art is not, or should not, be important to you.  It absolutely should be.  But, if it’s important to you, go out and support it.  Buy it. Collect it. Promote it.  Be a patron of it.  All of these things and more I think you should do.  But I’m not you, and you might not care.  So, what you absolutely should not do, and have no reason to unless you really want to, is support and fund art you do not like or care about.  Then how might a person decide what to fund and not?  Here’s a way I like a lot: imagine all the art that has ever been or ever will be made.  Put it in a warehouse.  Now, light the warehouse on fire; then go in and try and save the art.  See what you come out with. Take that and fund it.

February 18, 2015. Vancouver.