Rather than creating an individualized and select culture of “Support for the Arts” in service to wealth and global marketplace values, we should be relentlessly challenging the institutionalized direct and indirect economic exploitation of artists and Their Immediate Communities.
The effective difference between support for the arts and support for artists universally mirrors precisely the economic difference between the most impoverished and the super-wealthy.
As most aspects of capitalism are found to be ultimately unsustainable so is the relative stability of artists or any group that perceives its existence dedicated to the line-item budget of government largesse. Free universal college and trade-school tuition and healthcare aren’t merely giveaways in a Socialist agenda, it is an address to poverty, a vital investment towards a stable workplace economy and the permanence of indigenous and self-sustaining communities rich in their own defined cultural values.
We live in a world tipped in a precarious balance. If the earth were to wobble off-course or alter its gravitational pull for one moment we’d fall flat on our faces in the dirt. If the average worldwide temperature were to rise permanently 10 or 20 degrees most of the landmasses we live on would soon be underwater. When CO2 emissions exceed the amount that the remaining forests can absorb efficiently, we will have poisoned the air we breathe. When we have sufficiently polluted the water table there’ll be nothing to drink but acid rain. The medical effects of contaminated food supply are already being felt.
We live in a culture of self-destruction and unsustainable consumption in which that what we refer to as “cultured” or culture such as the arts do not reconcile. We create not to grow or to pass along valuable information to subsequent generations, but to market. Values are reduced to their immediate profitable economic viability – a standard to which many artists in current society are fully complicit with no concept for an alternative.
Those multitudes of both large and microscopic cultures within our wholistic natural environment are reconciled with one another intrinsically. The various cultures with the living world outside of humanity are vitally interdependent. Sadly, and tragically, much of human culture believes itself to be dominant and independent of everything else. In the natural world, there is no dominant culture or culture that is independent of any other living organism. Likewise, socially in the human spectrum there is no community that is dominant or independent of any other community. We depend on one another whether we like it or not.
If artists are tasked with any tangible or constructive purpose it is to underscore this; to represent our chosen community in moral and life-sustaining cultural relationships to other communities within our complex growing environment. Creativity is only one aspect of human accomplishment. Preservation is all.
“Billionaires shouldn’t exist.” – Bernie Sanders
Until the 1960’s a painter generally might attempt three or four wall-sized paintings in their lifetime and the limits for a large sculpture were roughly the length of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” or height of his “Balzac”; the sculptor David Smith’s oeuvre comes to mind. And it wasn’t simple modesty on the part of artists that kept the dimensions of artwork from becoming grossly inflated, it was an economic practicality. Unless a patron came forward with the funds to commission a large work prior to its creation most artists simply couldn’t afford the cost of materials, storage and handling.
Since then, however, and particularly at present there appears to be no limit to the space that the average artwork is entitled to consume. Promoted largely by museums, biennales and art fairs in search of greater spectacle and record-breaking attendance numbers from the public, monumentalism in art has taken on the aspect and funding of a minor NASA space project.
Who pays for such ostentation? Answer; you the public in the increased cost of individual ticket sales and attendance fees, in the corporatization of art institutions towards a culture that both reflects and promotes the lifestyle that only a 100 acre estate with a 50 room mansion full of expensive artwork could support, tax laws that favor wealthy collectors and corporations with prominent board members who “donate” to large short-term vanity projects in return for advertisement, and the same laws that permit the same large corporate-driven intuitions to operate tax-free under a “non-profit” umbrella while still largely supporting a record profit-making art market with your tax dollars.
Who are the artists who gain from large museum-size works? The list grows every year after every new exhibition season from a pool of cherry-picked artist celebrities with “factories” of low-paid or volunteer “helpers” and the ability to hedge the costs of large projects towards a return in profit for anyone willing to underwrite their fabrication, insurance fees, installation and ultimate storage or wasteful demolition – and certainly not the average artist living on a less-than-average budget filing the allowed tax loss on the sales against their self-employed business every two or three years.
How to reign this absurd trend and put a final end to it? As the bulk of these incursions on public property can safely be categorized as oversize art-school assignments it might also be safe to conclude that the ‘bigger is better’ phenomenon can and should be abolished as a standard in art school curriculum as frankly, unsustainable, not only in environmental terms, but as the cost in materials, space, and individual manpower is far beyond the scope that all but the wealthiest or wealthiest-connected artists could ever afford economically. As publicly-funded billboards for the moneyed-class in an urban environment that otherwise regulates the size and placement of visual and traffic obstructive commercial promotions, such ‘art in public places’ should be included. And, just as a border wall or the redundant Civil-war general on a pedestal in the public square is seen to be both obsolete and more often offensive, so are many of the monstrosities currently replacing those.
A radical change in politics is here. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposals for a truer democracy, more stringent accountability and a socio-progressive standard in government is only the beginning. Those of us in the arts must likewise find solutions that will secure our cultural heritage and allow it to be shared not only among the entitled and the privileged but equally for and equitably by everyone. Tax-free institutions like museums, universities and arts councils will not be free from responsibility simply on account of their seeming long-enjoyed “liberal” status on blanket social attitudes while ignoring current real-life critical issues such as pay equity, union-busting, financial accountability, contributing to the culturally devastating effects of gentrification in collusion with property developers, their investments in the pharmaceutical, oil, and arms manufacturing industries, management and board representation by the millionaire and billionaire class and collusion with moneyed interests in laundering their wealth to avoid paying taxes.
Recently rolled-out announcements such as short-term token improvements towards “a greater inclusivity” of select representation of artists with regard to blanket gender and racial profiles (that should have been standard policy decades before this) do not substitute for more effective policy-making decisions IN ACTIVE PARTICIPATION WITH those same groups and the general public alike.
These are PUBLIC institutions built TO SERVE THE PUBLIC. They are not semi-private organizations with the discretion and privilege of defining cultural values only if and when it is convenient or profitable for them to do so.
Artists do not serve the institution. The public does not serve the institution. LIKE GOVERNMENT, THE INSTITUTION SERVES YOU. It’s time to hold them accountable or take away their pass.