Benjamin Fallon defines the need for public structures (and times) for art. Public funding, the History of present economics, public structures, the market, art councils, welfare state, sovereignty, the balance between public and private, the relationship between art and commodity…
Public funding for the arts in Europe emerged at a specific historical juncture. After the horrors of WWII the public mood was towards pulling together and rebuilding. John Maynard Keynes, the economist behind the ideas underpinning this reconstruction and establishment of the welfare state, died in 1946, but his influence did not. He endorsed a mixed economy of public and private interests to be bolstered by the state during times of depression and to be stepping back during more stable periods. Keynes was an avid supporter of the arts throughout his life and latterly married a Russian émigré ballet dancer. His endorsement extended to championing of the formation of the Arts Council, which he chaired until his premature death. Initially his support for the arts was directed towards the more ‘refined’ areas of ballet and opera but as his influence spread so did the remit of the Arts Council, which began to fund the work of artists whose practices were more experimental in nature and would not easily find support through commercial mechanisms. This was, of course, not an entirely neutral process, inherently linked to the ongoing Cold War, and was, like the Welfare State, a means for capitalism to demonstrate that it could care for people alongside perpetuating a narrow idea of freedom.
At the same time as this reconstruction was taking place a counter movement was building in the Swiss Pre-Alps at Mont Pelerin. Here a group of thinkers and politicians gathered around the thought of Friedrich August Hayek, similarly responding to the war but with an alternative view. They were influenced by the famous idea of the ‘Road to Serfdom’ on which we were surely bound if we followed any ideas based on politics rather than the economic, which was to be left free to balance itself through its ‘self-regulating’ flows. Seen as ridiculous at the time, the Mont Pelerin Society were a fringe group. However 30 short years later their ideas took root through their adoption by the Chicago Boys, a group of economists spearheaded by Milton Friedman, and employed during their bloody experiments in the Southern Cone. This eventually was to become our pervasive realism throughout the post-historical 90s, after the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’ when capitalism arguably lost its impetus for self-promotion after the supposed victory of ‘liberal democracy’. This restructuring of the economic and the political would have deep implications on how we as a public interact, producing a field of atomised individuals with an unassailable sovereignty and ultimately dissolving the basis for the social and obfuscating any real asymmetrical distribution of resources and power.
After the crisis in 2008 we encountered vague claims that a return to Keynesian economics might be a good idea, however these never really manifested in anything other than discussion in the liberal media. What we have seen instead is a strengthening of a bloodied but not beaten system, where now there operates an acceptance of the structural failings of capitalism coupled with a resignation that this is the only possible mode of organisation. We have bought the line on austerity with its final privatisation of the remnants of the welfare state. Part of this dismantling has of course been the attack on funding for the arts with institutions having their operational budgets slashed and being impelled to operate ‘more efficiently’. This has mostly been met with attempts to meet the opposition on their own terms, with institutions arguing for the money they bring to the country through tourism etc. rather than through an attempt to articulate a different set of values that they could bring. This is arguably symptomatic of the shift to neo-liberalism and its highly effective assault on the discursive sphere and values other than exchange, labelling them as idealist and presenting exchange as natural and non-transcendent.
Despite art’s proclaimed autonomy, supposedly bound to its own internal logics, these shifts have always played out in the way that art is produced and made public, and their intimate entanglement. I would like to briefly turn to Scotland, where I grew up and lived until recently, to think through how some of these issues operate on the ground. Scotland is revered internationally for its art scene through Hans Ulrich Obrist’s famous designation of Glasgow’s miraculous character, the idea that a somewhat peripheral location might be able to do the kinds of things that cosmopolitan centres do being seemingly magical. What I would argue is rather that Scotland typifies the wider rebalancing of public and private, with public institutions often seemingly in thrall to the market system and interested in those artistic practices that align with a neat mode of commodity exchange rather than those that might be geared around articulating a different set of values. There has been a significant rise in the number of artist-run spaces, which seem to clearly illustrate how this way of thinking trickles down. Artist-run spaces have a long and important lineage in Scotland and were historically a site for politicised work and a vision of a different mode of artistic practice, importantly often taking a negative position. They were also one of the main drivers of the ‘Glasgow Miracle’. More often now we find artist run spaces acting as simple showrooms for practices bound to simple linear trajectories of career with these shows acting as a training ground before gallery representation.
This does not come from a position of thinking that artistic practice should be shielded from the real world but rather an understanding that objects and processes can hold multiple ontologies and are not going to be exhausted by their relation as a commodity. What we have seen is a rebalancing of the method of commodification when the market becomes the initial goal, rather than a secondary, tertiary or non-consideration. It is here that an important step of development is missing. What is at stake is the possibility for art to break from its position as pure commodity, as the perpetuation of these modes of production and display become hegemonic they close down the possibility for art to attempt to move away from market logics and the implicit genius figure of the lone artist. This is especially visible in relation to the question of education of young artists. When all they see around them is this form of practice, it can be increasingly difficult to think art differently. In art schools this then becomes the prevailing mode of practice, normalised through increasingly standardised modes of assessment. Of course this needs to be read alongside other shifts in education, especially the barriers to entry being established in the UK, the high levels of personal debt which people are now leaving college with, and the restructuring of the unemployment benefit which would previously allowed for a different sense of time away from the pressures of work. It is here that we encounter on the ground the reality of Jameson’s observation about postmodernity: that we find, contrary to the promises of endless choice and diversity, an increasingly homogenous space. This could be understood through the crisis of political imagination we find ourselves in post-2008 in which we currently seem to be unable to think different possible worlds whilst still desiring them.
It is the public that is arguably constitutive of politics, something which has been successfully obscured by the drift into neoliberalism and potentially aided by a shift in discussion from questions of the public to the currently voguish focus on the commons. The commons, whilst not to be ignored, for me must be read alongside the idea of the public, for it is in the abstraction of the public that we find the potential for scale and with it the ability to push for ideas beyond the localism of the commons in which invested actors are required to work in the sustenance of a shared resource. It is in the public that potentially productive conflicts can arise and that anonymous encounters can take place in which one is faced with difference, rather than the affirmation of entrenched ideas in special interest groups. I was recently fortunate enough to see the Black Audio Film Collective’s ‘Handsworth Songs’ again, accompanied by a conversation with John Akomfrah. Having seen it previously and every time being struck by how intelligent it is on the level of both form and content it brings into focus what an artistic practice can do. It was commissioned by the fourth non-satellite broadcast channel in the UK, Channel 4, and their remit to support experimental practices and to give voice to those voices largely ignored by the other broadcasters. Channel 4 was established on the basis of public service provision whilst being run by a private body. This has not been the case since 1993 with the formation of the Channel 4 Television Corporation and a shift in both remit and style. The development of Channel 4 as a vehicle for experimental programming was an incredibly important move as it points towards an anonymous audience, by which I mean not a knowing audience of peers but one which might be surprised to find something new. The subject of the film is the riots that broke out in the UK in 1985 and in form it presents a driftwork of temporally disjointed segments brought together to complicate the fixed notions of identity that were especially prevalent to a second generation of British immigrants, not quite being at home in the UK but also not having a home to return to. Most importantly, at its centre was an ambiguity, yet not an indeterminacy, a characteristic less likely to emerge from something produced according to market conditions.
A work such as ‘Handsworth Songs’ of course does not emerge purely from the commission of Channel 4 and is rather the result of a set of institutions that allow for not just access to materials but time and space to meet peers and develop oneself. This development is categorically different to the entrepreneurial self-improvement prevalent today, rather than a hustle to sell ones wares and immediately commodify it is rather to attempt at understanding which requires an ungrounding of knowledge. As a film it retains a sense of contemporaneity, and it saw a resurgence in interest during and after the 2011 riots with obvious links to be made. This time, however, it was largely shown in galleries and art spaces. Comparatively, very little in the way of culture emerged from the 2010 riots save for a few memorable grime tracks. This contrast between 1985 and 2010 points to an important structural question on the role of the institution in supporting the kinds of practice that can help us to make sense of our times. It is of course important to understand that Keynesianism emerged with good reason at a specific historical juncture, however it is also important to understand that it brought with it a great deal of urgent and necessary development that we are now seeing assaulted. This is now our task, to reinvigorate the idea of the public and to take back the existing institutions, and to build the new enabling structures that might be able to once more create complex culture.