Another Non-word of the Year: ArtandCulture
05/02/2021 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
On a Specific Form of Laziness in the Art Business
People should not have wool pulled over their eyes. In times of fake news, this demand seems at least relativized. But it has been elevated to a principle by a slang that has been rampant for some time, especially in the cultural sector. Its representatives don’t spend much time on the question of which type of wool to use, and in what form. Who cares, no one is interested in exact data anyway. The engagement with art is just not an exact science and the spirit moves wherever it wants.
Now, one could argue that in times of need, any means seems to be justified. More and more artists feel that their existence is threatened, and not just since the start of the pandemic. So they try to convince the public how important their work is, using any and all kinds of arguments. Some of them are not afraid to use racist stereotypes, demonstrated in this quote by the highly praised maestro Mariss Jansons, once again circulating in the Tagesspiegel, which asserts that “without art, man would become an ape.
This deeply discriminatory rhetoric amounts to elevating one’s own artistic activity as determinative of culture as a whole (and thus denying humanity to all those who do not appreciate it). But the question of what art’s contribution to culture looks like in concrete terms no longer even needs to be answered in a milieu of self-importance. It somehow has to understand itself. A word monstrosity called artandculture has emerged for this purpose. In it, both terms are supposed to reinforce each other, without anyone being able or willing to express any doubts about what is being said. Art is important, culture is important, so artandculture must be even more important. The bombast of the rhetorical expression can then save one the trouble of thinking about the helplessness it hides about the struggle for social recognition.
So once again: Art is not equal to culture
I have already critically dealt with this form of conceptual hypostasis in 2015. Such a hypostasis seems to me to be symptomatic for the refusal to think about the question – can politics be culture? – in parts of the scene (when asked, I often get the answer: “That goes without saying” or “People know very well what is meant by that”). I therefore compiled an anthology in the hope that it would provide a little more clarity between these two terms. I wanted to bring together arguments that prove that the definition of art and culture should not be understood as largely synonymous, but on the contrary as antagonistic. This, however, requires us first and foremost to decide what we want to talk about: art or culture.
The exuberance of attributing one’s own meaning under the umbrella of artandculture is apparently so seductive that any need for differentiation seems to take care of itself. Instead of talking about concerts, theater, cabaret, streaming, YouTube, fashion, architecture, folk dance, or feuilleton, we now only talk about art and culture. This conjures up an inescapable systemic relevance, at least for the spokespeople, who justify a moral claim on politics and society to secure their livelihoods. On closer inspection, the use made of this phrase by those who have taken refuge under its umbrella boils down to the fact that someone is supposed to ensure that everything stays the way it used to be. But if the reactions of the audiences of such appeals are anything to go by, the opposite is happening. They intuitively feel the disregard that is shown to them with such gibberish. More and more people are rubbing their eyes and thinking: What are they actually talking about? And what does that have to do with me?
Consequently, my assumption is that the unreflective use of the incantation artandculture has the opposite effect of its intention. With the inability (or unwillingness) to call a spade a spade in the art business and instead shroud themselves in this nebulous term, the speakers at best confirm the impression of their irrelevance: Corresponding to the reaction of those who are meant to be under some moral obligation: “They don’t even know what they want to say; consequently, it can’t be important.”
This expresses a growing process of alienation that increasingly pushes artists, and with them the entire art business, to the margins of society. The many initiatives that are responding to this situation by redesigning cultural policy have recognized this and want to counteract it. A prerequisite for this is, of course, to bring some order to the essential definitions of terms.
The intangibility of art
This is certainly most difficult when it comes to the dazzling concept of art. After all, it is one of the basic prerequisites of a conception of modern art – originating in the spirit of the European Enlightenment – to refuse any constrictive definition. Even for me, “art is a format that transcends any format”; as such, it represents the unpredictable, the unfathomable, and thus human life itself, which successfully refuses any attempts at predefinition in ever new ways.
In the next few days, an article of mine on the future of the art business will appear in the Wiener Zeitung. The editor in charge made the suggestion to replace my text with “Art has to change in order to find a way out of the crisis”. I had to reply: Art doesn’t have to do anything! Who am I to tell art what it should do. Especially since I expect it to grant me new experiences of the world, which I can’t yet even imagine.
Which brings us to the heart of artistic autonomy, which categorically refuses any outside ascription. So we have to settle for an attempt to describe art as individual, though at best also collective working methods for the production, mediation and reception of artistic phenomena, which find their first meaning in themselves.
The question of who makes art and can therefore call themselves an artist could fill entire libraries. The answer does not become easier when the boundaries between professional and amateur have recently become increasingly fluid. In general, we want to assume that all those who are involved in artistic processes have in common the claim of sovereignty of their own creative power.
Now it must be said that art does not take place in a vacuum. No matter how great the will to not let one’s own artistic impetus be determined by external factors, we cannot avoid the fact that art is embedded in the respective social (power) relations, which even those working in the arts must necessarily deal with. All the more decisive is the ability of the actors to put themselves at a critical distance from these external conditions, to question them and not to become absorbed in their necessities.
Yes, social or governmental conditions play a role in art–their effect can both promote and hinder. In essence, however, they do not decide – and this is decisive – whether art takes place or not (the fact that art could not be completely prevented even in authoritarian and anti-art regimes, whose social effects often even represent a special motivation, even if it is of resistance, speaks for this thesis).
As important as support by the state can be in individual cases, the careers of outstanding artists in particular make it clear that they are only guided by external forces to a very limited extent, but are also prepared, in an emergency, to “go through walls” against all odds. From this I conclude that artists per se do not need special state protection, or at least they should not expect the state to provide the foundations for their lives and work. Rather, they see themselves as part of civil society, to whose further development they want to make a contribution. Their own artistic drive is the most important foundation for them to create the basis for realization that is needed to produce their art.
The state sets art policy measures – and has no idea what they achieve (actually, it doesn’t even want to know)
Since the 1970s, the state has intervened along an evolved administrative structure, albeit with highly varying degrees of emphasis (distribution of subsidies, creation of incentives, setting of symbolic policies, enabling representation, promotion of young artists and the general public, or artistic education, etc.). Despite the implementation of a wide variety of relevant measures, it has largely refrained from evaluating the resulting effects and from using the results for future decision-making (this is evidenced, among other things, by the non-existence of significant cultural policy research in Austria).
The quantitative successes are undisputed; the art scene has expanded considerably. At the same time, the associated qualitative bases of evaluation, at least with regard to aesthetic criteria, have begun to change: In view of the pluralization of lifeworlds, the art business, like the art administration, is no longer in a position to provide or justify quality standards that are comprehensible to all. Accordingly, politically desired focal points are no longer necessary. Success on the art market has become all the more important, a circumstance that has essentially led to a shift from artistic process orientation to product orientation (eventization).
A broad field of art has emerged with the most diverse types of actors, who are driven by equally diverse motivations (in addition to the immediate acquisition of income, above all the standing on the market, in the scene, in criticism, in the media, with the audience, or simply through self-realization), which partly overlap.
An empirically comprehensible analysis of the effects of government measures on motivation, implementation conditions, formal and substantive orientation, or the defensive or anticipatory power of external developments (technology, internationalization, etc.) on the respective beneficiaries (but also non-beneficiaries) is still lacking.
Art policy as a guarantor of market interests
Now, the art field is not just an arbitrary and unrelated collection of individual artist personalities, who must struggle with external, partly supportive, partly inhibiting circumstances, without giving up their artistic sovereignty. In order not to be left alone, the artists in particular, but recently also increasingly the mediators, strive for a collective articulation of interests to provide structure. The recipients, who are usually perceived as an anonymous or elusive quantity, have a more difficult time of it (the reasons for this probably lie in the fact that – contrary to the literal meaning of audience – they are no longer perceived as a representation of a socio-politically active public). Together with the factual assertiveness of art institutions, they create the conditions for an interest-driven art policy.
The main task of their representatives is to try to improve the conditions of the individual groups of actors within the art field. In Austria, negotiation processes in this regard are highly personalized and informalized. Compared to the loud voices of the representatives of large art institutions, most of the interest groups in the independent sector are weak and lack coordination among themselves (such a state of affairs makes transparent, evidence-based decision-making difficult. Instead, the big players practice maintaining an authoritarian understanding of “divide et impera,” in which the loudest voices in the largest institutions regularly win).
Over the last 50 years, the state has been successfully obliged by the art establishment to open up an umbrella of support (“cultural mandate of the state”). Until now, it has largely followed the logic of the established art business, including the preservation of its institutions, which had to be protected at almost any price (even to the detriment of all non-institutionalized initiatives) with the help of legal regulations, operating guarantees or training initiatives in their proven constitution. During the dominance of “pragmatized subsidy recipients,” new developments remained marginal. Thus, the so-called free sector, because it was not institutionalized or only rudimentarily institutionalized, was largely excluded from communication with state agencies.
Large parts of a younger generation of artists have meanwhile come to terms with their enforced “distance from the state” – they no longer believe in the blessings of state art policy. Exceptions such as the incumbent city councilor for culture Veronika Kaup-Hasler with her will to once again improve the livelihoods of the independent sector (“Fair Pay”) confirm this long history of state support for social inequality.
Today, art production is also confronted with a comprehensive social transformation process (health, demographics, labor market, mediatization and digitalization, internationalization,…). The resulting consequences have so far remained largely unreflective in the art scene and, in the face of massive forces of inertia, have not yet led to the emergence of new art policy interests. State measures, too, are exhausted – intensified by the consequences of the pandemic – in the attempt to simply continue or to restore the old normal as soon as possible.
As a traditionally reactive system, the state is not very flexible when it comes to anticipating further developments in the field of art operations in the context of an overdue realignment of art-specific measures. And yet there is much to suggest that the pandemic will have to lead to an all-round renewal of even the state-subsidized and thus seemingly unassailable operation for the preservation of cultural heritage (new settings and formats, new forms of interaction with the audience, outreach (audience orientation), mediatization and digitalization of production, mediation and reception, etc.).
To this end, new incentive systems are emerging in the hope of bringing new non-state actors (patrons, foundations, sponsors, donors, crowd funding,….) on board. These actors combine their support with a wide variety of their own interests. However, systematic studies are lacking in this context as well.
In the relationship between the art business and the state indicated here, the logic of the art business is not abandoned (autonomy: the latter itself knows best what is good for it) – the task is to improve the conditions for all those involved via the path of interest representations. At best, new models of cooperation and coordination between the art administration and the art business (or their representatives) should keep the business running.
Cultural Policy I: Relevance of the Art Business in Society
If one were to follow the sociologist Niklas Luhmann in his study “The Art of Society,” then the description of the self-contained social system “art” as part of a society based on the division of labor could come to an end here. And with it the demands on an art policy whose mission is to ensure the existence of this system.
However, to the extent that the field of art claims to have an impact on society as a whole, we leave the limitations of art policy and enter the still largely unsecured terrain of cultural policy as social policy. In doing so, the claim of the actors is not to limit themselves to their “aesthetic core business” in the institutions intended for this purpose, but to exert influence on what is often called “culture” and probably means the living and working conditions of as many people as possible. As such, it also wants to contribute to national identity, location attractiveness, regional development, economic prosperity, improvement of educational opportunities, inclusion or exclusion of immigrants, or as a decisive factor in creating life satisfaction (and much more).
It is the claim to achieve social effects beyond the field of art that makes the art business a cultural business. In doing so, it does not want to exhaust itself in the perception of its self-referential interests, but wants to experience relevance in the world, whether it is interested in art or not. Its representatives want to have a say and co-determine the collective constitution as a whole.
The representatives of such a cultural-political claim, which has an effect beyond the immediate art event, are guided by an all-around positive understanding of what they propagate under culture. This form of idealization is blind to the Janus-faced nature of any closer attempt to define culture. For culture, in terms of its content, is neither good nor bad per se. Talking about it as a social goal, however, only makes sense if this can be made visible in some form. This is difficult at a time when ideologically comprehensible social concepts have become rare. According to the motto: “We don’t know where we’re going, but we’ll get there sooner” (Helmut Qualtinger), most observers see the attempts of the art world to make a significant contribution to this as largely empty attempts at branding. What remains is an affirmative claim to be able to somehow change society for the better with the help of what they offer, without being able to specify once again how they imagine social coexistence in the eye of the manifold social, economic, and thus also cultural struggles. This is all the more true since the related evaluations are not to be interpreted aesthetically, but politically.
A cultural policy that claims to point beyond the field of art policy is currently in dire straits. After all, it would have to be in a position to name desirable social developments in order to invite the art business to participate in their concrete realization.
But because this is increasingly difficult to achieve politically, the art business tends toward a manic-depressive basic attitude, to which cultural policy is largely helpless. As an increasingly endangered subsystem itself, the art establishment’s claim to represent a “better politics” is for the most part a fatal overreach. All the greater is its need to hold “bad politics” responsible for the poor state of the art establishment and, beyond that, of society as a whole.
The only remaining way to avoid further marginalization seems to me to be learning to cooperate with actors from other political fields or to link up with a genuine political project (which are not in vogue at the moment, except in the right-wing camp). A trans-sectoral cultural policy that transcends the narrow boundaries of responsibility could make a significant contribution here.
Cultural Policy II: Politics of Cultures
And then there is another, almost forgotten dimension of cultural policy: in addition to the attempts to make the art business a significant factor in further social development, ideas of a culture that can do without art altogether (or rather, sees itself threatened by art) have recently gained in importance once again. We are talking about the perversions of the discussion around a “broad concept of culture” which have existed since the 1970s. Originally, a cultural policy based on this concept was supposed to enable all people, regardless of their social position, to recognize themselves as cultural beings, whether or not they make use of what the art world has to offer. Culture as a representation of “how people live and work” was put forward above all by left-wing forces as an emancipatory claim to enable all people to participate in social life sooner or later. An elitist, exclusionary art industry was seen as a hindrance to this.
In the absence of a political subject that would once again be capable of conveying a convincing sociopolitical perspective, cultural-political claims in this regard have lost their way. Instead, an impressive misappropriation of the original cultural policy intentions has occurred. Today, a broad concept of culture is primarily put forward by right-wing populists who, by insisting on a cultural distinctiveness, refuse to accept any form of the other. As such, it feeds above all the current interculturality and migration discourse along partly arbitrarily drawn ethnic-cultural borders. Despite all the invocations, the culture industry plays only a very subordinate role in this. Integrative measures in the areas of the labor market, education, health, housing policy or voting rights are much more important. In such a setting, culture is all too readily used as a political tool to conceal social contradictions (social inequality).
Today, the art business is facing a fundamental transformation process. The pandemic acts as a magnifying glass for structural problems that the sector has been dragging along unaddressed for many years. It is more than understandable that the sector is now trying with all its might to get back into the game. But trying to do so again with a largely meaningless vocabulary just serves to reinforce the impression of the sector’s increasing irrelevance.
At the moment, initiatives are forming everywhere that are calling for a new art and cultural policy and are willing to participate in the conception. The next round of the European symposium on current questions of cultural policy at the University of Applied Arts, scheduled for May 20 of this year, will also be dedicated to this concern. To take the trouble once again to define important vocabulary, or to use a contemporary specification of terms that have been used all too sloppily in the meantime, could form an important prerequisite for this.
Picture: Kulturpolitisches Manifest ©Michael Wimmer