About the Value of Art
01/12/2021 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
And about the assumption that anchoring "Fair Pay" in the existing art funding system alone will not be enough to improve the working conditions of artists in a sustainable way.
On what basis should artists be paid? In free-market societies, the answer would be: According to the principle of supply and demand. If artists produce sought-after products and services, then they will earn high revenues or be well compensated. If, however, they produce art that does not interest anyone, then the income that can be earned from it will probably not be very high either.
This is exactly how large parts of the culture industry function. Its task is now largely focused on mediating between production and consumption on the art markets. In accordance with the logic of competitiveness in society, these forms of implementation cause the gap between a few highly paid artists, who are in particularly high demand, and the large remaining part, who somehow try to muddle through with their artistic production. And broad sections of society agree with this logic, which, with the current crisis phenomena across (almost) all sectors, have less and less understanding for why artists should be treated differently from any other professional group that has to insert itself on the highly unequal organized labour markets.
The state as supporter of selected cultural institutions
And yet, at least two reasons can be identified why the market is not everything, especially in the arts sector. In a pragmatic way, the Austrian federal constitution mandates the state to operate a number of cultural institutions to preserve the cultural heritage, regardless of whether there is sufficient demand for them or not. Equipped with such a guarantee of existence, the federal theatres and museums knew that for the longest time they were exempt from the challenges of the cultural markets; as subordinate departments of the federal administration, they were able to doze off in a kind of Sleeping Beauty sleep during the last century, without any recognizable intention to go beyond a small circle of experts with their activities. The employees enjoyed a kind of civil servant status, which permanently protected them from the cyclical fluctuations of the labour market within the framework of a salary scheme regarded as sacrosanct and provided them with a secure income. They knew themselves to be in a striking contrast to all those who worked in private cultural enterprises and as such – often only minimally secured – are still dependent on the rapidly changing economic fluctuations of consumer interests.
This privilege should change with the successive transfer to economic independence since the 2000s. In the future, state cultural institutions also oriented themselves more strongly to market conditions, and visitor figures would then serve as key indicators of success (and thus the level of public commitment). To the same extent, salary ratios began to drift apart in this sector. And soon a few highly paid cultural managers, who were supposed to ensure annually increasing occupancy rates, managed staff at the lower end of which – especially in the field of arts mediation – more and more precariously employed people gathered. At best, this development was mitigated by reasonably strong staff representation. But the fact that the negotiations for a joint collective agreement for the approximately 2600 employees of the federal museums continued for years without success is evidence of their declining influence.
Art that goes beyond market forces
The second specificity is rooted in the nature of art itself. At least in theory of cultural policy, it is not exhausted in its commodity and service character. In this respect, it was able to refer to an anti-capitalist attitude, which derived from the Frankfurt School, from the majority of artists after 1945, who assumed that the market, a stomping ground of a commercialized entertainment industry, had an overall hostile attitude towards art. This has changed considerably in recent years; most artists have abandoned their resentment and embraced market logic as the decisive measure of success. And yet most continue to insist that their output cannot be reduced to arbitrary objects of exchange on markets. In addition to its monetary value, art is to be ascribed a value as a so-called merit based good, whose qualities would go beyond the daily relationship of supply and demand.
Cultural policy as value-oriented market correction
But to ensure these qualities, planned state intervention is needed. In this context, the music sociologist Kurt Blaukopf spoke on this in the 1980s as a state mandate “value-oriented market correction” (Kurt Blaukopf (1982): Musik im Wandel der Gesellschaft. Grundzüge der Musiksoziologie). With this, he put forward the thesis that there is a social interest in art that is not exhausted in the private exchange on the market, in order to derive from this mandate to the state to guarantee its existence as a public good. With the passing of the Federal Art Promotion Act in 1988, this mandate was adopted by a parliamentary majority. Since then, it has legitimized the operation of a differentiated art promotion system that at least partially suspends the laws of the market by privileging individual forms of artistic production over others.
The arts are not alone; education, health or social services are also – at least partially – removed from market forces
Now we know of other areas that – regardless of the primacy of market conditions – have been run traditionally by the state: Education, health and social services are the most important. For all of them, there is a broad common sense that they produce or make possible something that cannot simply be bought or sold and for which the state, as guarantor of the implementation of social interests, must therefore take care. All attempts by the neoliberal mainstream to privatize at least parts of the state-run infrastructure and thus subject it to a commercializable cost-benefit logic have so far done little to change this. The devastating consequences of such governmental child abandonment could be impressively studied in dealing with the consequences of the pandemic, for example, in the examples of Greece, England and also France.
Now, the social values that are ensured in the state-run education or health sector are comparatively easy to argue for. This is so because all citizens have personal experiences with them, some of which are very drastic, and therefore know about their importance from direct experience.
The situation is quite different when dealing with the “classical” cultural sector. The occasional visits to theatres, concerts or cinemas by a minority of people interested in culture do not make it an essential part of the lives of even regular users. At best, it makes experiences possible that, as a nice-to-have for a select group, going beyond the routines of everyday life in order to give life a special touch in some moments. But for broad majorities of the population, the consumption of what is offered does not arise the suspicion that indispensable values are negotiated on these occasions and that they cannot be compensated for with the help of other offers from the leisure industry. Unless it is a matter of a few outstanding moments in the course of one’s life, when privately paid artists set the mood at weddings or other festive occasions.
Cultural and creative industries as an enabler of new employment
The goal was and still is to generate new cultural markets around the major innovations in media technology, in the hope of creating new employment relationships. The fact that many of these were accompanied by a high degree of insecurity, individualization, pseudo-self-employment, self-exploitation and precariousness was accepted not only by the state but also by traditional employee representatives. To this date, there has been no significant representation of the interests of the many freelancers. All attempts to date to tame these markets, some of which are highly volatile, have largely lagged behind the commercially driven big players, who have long since broken down all national borders, to the disadvantage for both producers (e.g. in the area of copyright) and users (data protection). This is also because awareness of the need for collective representation of interests has never really taken hold among those affected. The tendency to individualize problem-solving competencies, also in the cultural sector, can currently be studied in the lack of willingness to show solidarity in favour of fair copyright law. Critical observers now speak of a “mass deception” in cultural policy.
The art funding system promotes art, not artists
Behind these current developments in cultural policy, the system of state support for the arts, which has been increasingly differentiated since the 1970s, has continued to operate, even if it has not succeeded in legitimizing itself in large parts of the population over the years. According to the current law on promotion of arts, which is a form of self-commitment on the part of the state, the state is obligated to promote art; the actors involved, be they the artists themselves, but also the mediators and, above all, the recipients, are mentioned only so far as they appear to be indispensable for the fulfilment of this task. Against many prejudices, no “artists funding law” was passed in 1988, probably also in order to be able to refer the applicants (and these are exclusively artists) to the discretionary context, which does not assign them an individual right to funding. This is all true for all other actors.
The “freedom of art” as an excuse for the state not to interfere in concrete labour relations
The text is to be read in the context of the anchoring of the “freedom of art”, which was elevated to Austrian constitutional rank a few years earlier in 1982, in order to suggest to artists full autonomy in the orientation of their production conditions, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of organization. This led the long-time head of IG authors Gerhard Ruiss to remark even then that with the adoption of this constitutional amendment, artists had finally acquired the freedom to sleep under the bridge.
The successive expansion of state support for the arts in an elaborate system was strictly based on the assertion that artistic quality could be adequately and credibly determined in the course of administrative action. Whether the selected applicants would be able to make ends meet with the funds granted and ensure – if not fair, then at least adequate – working conditions, remained a question of secondary importance at best in the selection process (in this context, some liked to speak of a “approach of scattering subsidies around”, the application of which was not supposed to give rise to the suspicion that the state was at least jointly responsible for the professional implementation of the funded project in accordance with the applicable labour market standards). Instead, it seemed much easier for those responsible for cultural policy to keep the business running with the help of a number of prizes, awards and grants that had become completely confusing in the meantime, and otherwise to leave the risks of the working conditions with those showered with state praise. After all, it was easy to gain prestige on both sides – at least in the relevant scenes – even if the price was the perpetuation of a “pre-modern” ideal of the artist.
Art production was never so much
Even before Corona, there were a number of circumstances that had put the state arts funding system under increasing pressure. On one hand, it has its own success story. In its 50-year history, it has considerably expanded its circle of target groups. The expansion of the number of potential applicants has not really improved the standing of the arts administration within the state cultural bureaucracy in the long term; rather, it has increasingly restricted the scope for action within the framework of long periods of stagnating budgets. In addition, there has been the unpleasant side effect that the growing difference between distributable funds and the rapidly increasing demand has massively intensified the competitive relationships (along with the accompanying desolidarization) within the artistic community.
This development coincided with a traditionally grown unequal weighting within the art funding system. These institutionally anchored privileged institutions, are equipped as “pragmatized subsidy recipients” with a strong staff representation, which need not to shy away from conflict with the management as well as with the funding bodies. As a rule, they defend well-secured employment relationships, at least in their core areas, and can assume invulnerable security, at least in the medium term. In doing so, it is all too easy for them to find like-minded partners in the field of arts and cultural administration, which is trimmed to divide the complex field of the cultural sector into individual silos that are so easily manageable and seemingly unrelated to one another, even when this no longer corresponds at all to the working realities of many artists, who now regularly commute back and forth between the independent and institutional sectors.
The increasing precariousness of the independent sector
This is quite different from the independent sector, where precarious, often even self-exploitative working conditions have become the dominant working norm in recent years, which state cultural policy was only too happy to overlook. It almost seemed as if state cultural policy had largely abandoned this area in order to concentrate entirely on the parts of the cultural sector that stimulate international tourism. At best, it tried to transfer more and more applications from individual applicants to the state level, not to solve the problem, but to push it away. Well-intentioned comments were often limited to the advice not to start a “debate out of envy” with demands for redistribution. The independent sector should simply join in the call for more public funds; in the given case, a few crumbs would then also fall for their representatives.
At the latest with the publication of the last study on the social situation of artists in 2018, cultural policy must have been aware of the disastrous working conditions. But all attempts by the interest groups to successively improve working conditions were met with stubborn governmental disinterest at the time.
This could only change with the outbreak of the pandemic, when state cultural policy quickly reached the end of its possibilities to manage the highly differentiated field of artistic activities in an authoritarian manner. In the search for survival strategies and the necessary support measures, the state art administration opened up, at least partially, to the actors in the field. This set in motion one or two dialogues that were soon to make the topic of “fair pay,” which IG Kultur had launched in vain long before, a central subject of negotiation. The Austrian Cultural Council also took advantage of this mood and published a “Fair Pay Reader” that brings together the current working conditions and the resulting demands from the various sectors.
Fair working conditions – state eligibility criteria
A few days ago, the Federal Chancellery organized an international symposium on “Fairness in Art and Culture” for this purpose. Even though the programming met with criticism in parts of the independent scene as a presumed token event and IG Kultur’s Fairness Manifesto had to be presented outside the event rooms, changes in cultural policy were on the horizon that could permanently change working conditions in the independent sector.
After all, the current Secretary of State for the Arts and Culture, Andrea Mayer, announced her intention to make fair working conditions a decision criteria for funding in the future. She has thus taken a decisive turn, which in the future will give her, as a funding agency, the right – “freedom of art” or not – to exert at least indirect influence on working conditions in the independent sector as well, in order to ensure fair working conditions.
At least one of the speakers at the symposium addressed a central challenge to cultural policy that has so far been swept under the rug. It simply consists in the fact that fair payment of the actors involved costs considerably more money, and in the event that no extraordinary budget increases are provided for, it will have to come to a further intensification of the competitive relationships or, in order to mitigate them, to the formulation of priorities in terms of cultural policy or content. “Fair Pay” thus becomes an instrument for cultural policy that should not be underestimated and that can be used to counteract a further steady increase in the number of applicants for funding.
The province of Salzburg has reacted quickly and increased its funding out of turn. The Department of Culture of the City of Vienna is also trying to meet the demand for “fair pay” by increasing its funding budget. And the State Secretary for the Arts and Culture, Andrea Mayer, has also succeeded in achieving a significant increase in her budget for 2022 and reserving funds for the “Fair Pay” process.
Fair pay cannot be achieved without a new conception of cultural policy
The most interesting contribution to the discussion at the symposium was made by the Dutch theatre scholar Marijke Hoogenboom. On the one hand, she pointed out a series of similar processes that led to the adoption of binding “Fair Practice Codes” in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and also in the Netherlands. If she has her way, Austria will not have to reinvent the wheel.
She described the “Fair Pay” process in the Netherlands in particular in more detail and warned against being too narrow-minded, limiting herself to anchoring one or the other eligibility criteria. From her point of view, a development lasting almost ten years – after which the independent scene already seemed to be completely devastated thanks to a neoliberal cultural policy – would have strengthened the collective insight of all participants that a sustainable improvement of the working conditions of artists cannot be met without a comprehensive new conception of cultural policy. In the search for solidary forms of action, the rampant fragmentation was to be counteracted, as was the traditional role behaviour as supplicants vis-à-vis a more or less benevolent art administration.
Along central values such as solidarity, diversity, transparency, sustainability, and trust, a new awareness of the value of artistic work, which cannot be legitimized exclusively by the market economy and which – because it is relevant for society as a whole – points beyond the traditional producer and consumer relationships, emerged only very gradually within the framework of diverse negotiation processes. It is about nothing more and nothing less than the renewal of an understanding of values that assigns art as a merit good a relevance in shaping social coexistence that convincingly legitimizes future cultural policy action not only for those directly affected. Recent developments within the art scene, which no longer focus on individual self-realization but on collective action in the service of society, could guide action in this regard.
It is timely that a few days after the Fairness Symposium, a first public meeting was held to develop a new art and culture strategy for Austria. The experiences Hoogenboom brought to the table make it clear that one cannot be without the other.
Photo: Fair Pay Manifesto ©IG Kultur