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  Surviving New Labour as an artist
Artistic independence and the pitfalls of state funding

Jan Bowman
posted 11 October 2007

Today in Britain the arts are booming. British art schools take in 4,000-odd new students every year. Gallery attendance is up by nearly 30 million in five years, over 70% of it outside London. The UK government funds countless art museums, grants and programmes around the country. According to the Visual Arts and Galleries Association, the ‘creative industries’ accounted for 7.3% of Gross Value Added in 2004, growing by an average of 5% a year between 1997 and 2004, compared with economic growth generally of only 3%.

Nowadays anything can be art, too. Mark Wallinger’s current recreation at Tate Britain of Brian Haw’s one-man anti-war demo highlighted how rapidly political protest nowadays can be transmuted into just another form of self-expression. When sulky MPs banned the real protest from Parliament Square last May, an exact replica, complete with teddy bears, snapshots and grimy placards, could still make it into a major, state-funded gallery a few months later.

Art galleries and museums have been criticised for dumbing down their exhibitions, most recently with the Kylie show at the V&A, but their defenders argue that anything that encourages the public to go to galleries is a good thing.

If you have talent and determination and live in the first world, there are far more opportunities today to survive by your art than ever before. Although anything nowadays can be art, however, there are nearly as many myths about what the role of artists as there are theories of art. These include the idea that artists need special help; that ‘working in the arts’ has anything to do with making art and being an artist; that black artists are badly under-represented in the arts sector; and that New Labour’s policy on ethnic diversity in the arts is an exception to the criteria the government uses to determine arts funding in general.

What is art?

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.
Karl Marx, Capital Vol.1 1867

Humans are the only creatures in the world with the imagination to create something entirely new. A standard definition of art a century ago went like this:

Art is the arrangement of any material into a design in such a way as to arouse emotion. The last part of the definition explains the aim of art: ‘to arouse emotion’. The middle part of the definition makes it clear that the emotion must be aroused deliberately – the material must be arranged with that end in view: designed ‘in such a way as to arouse emotion’. The first part of the definition explains how the desired emotion is aroused in one’s audience: ‘the arrangement of any material into a design’.
Herbert Maryon, Modern Sculpture, 1933

Human beings are constantly creating, but only a certain kind of creative practice is what can truly be called art. Art is how humanity shares experiences. Directly through our own experience, we can only see life from one perspective. But we live life much more fully and richly through sharing the experiences of others, via images, dance, literature or music. In a sense, art is the soul of human society, the human imagination at play. Humans have always made art and all good art has this in common – it shows us someone else’s vision of reality and helps us feel and experience life through someone else’s mind.

Art is above all human and therefore has to communicate, to elicit a response from the viewer, to capture an audience. All artists need an audience. In a way, art is the smile of the artist; and when you smile at someone, it’s important that they smile back. This is why ‘outsider art’, like children’s paintings, is only art in the narrowest sense, though it can inspire artists. Mentally disturbed people sometimes create powerful, intriguing images, but they do it just for themselves. This is also true of the ‘art’ of children. Neither group consciously creates for an audience.

Good art expresses the spirit of its age and can show us beauty in the most unexpected places. Great artists are able to move total strangers, across many centuries and from thousands of miles away. The best art expresses what is essential about humanity, beautifully, in a way that inspires generations of people. Bad art doesn’t do anything much for anyone.

What are artists for?

He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
St Francis of Assisi

Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.

Painters as they paint may worry, peripherally, whether their product is destined to be appreciated as art or made an object of fun; very likely both will happen. Generally, however, it is more local objectives and categories that regulate the working hand and eye. Much of painting happens somewhere in between the indeterminate triviality of fun and the determining self-importance of art; much of its history results from ad hoc syntheses in tight corners.
Julian Bell, What is Painting? 1999

If you see the world as beautiful and thrilling and mysterious, as I think I do, then you feel quite alive; I like that… I see that part of my job as an artist is to show that art can alleviate despair.
David Hockney

Designers, like artists, aim to create beautiful things, but the objects they create have some use beyond their form. Designers aim first to make something practical, rather than to affect emotion. Not all designers are artists, but all artists are to some extent designers. (On the other hand, ‘crafts’ nowadays are handmade, formally useful objects, such as vases and baskets and decorations; their art is all in their form; in practical terms, for instance, they may be quite useless as pots.)

Society today has sufficient luxury to have created a global market out of something we call ‘fine’ or ‘pure’ art. Fine artists are paid to ‘be artists’ – to bring their vision out into the world for the rest of us. In principle it means they’re free to create whatever they want and earn enough from it to live on – every artist’s dream.

The invention of photography removed one of art’s original purposes, that of providing an accurate visual record. This, along with the worldwide crisis that culminated in two world wars, forced artists fundamentally to question their role in society – and to see how much they could get away with. The complicated relationship between artists and their patrons has also fostered a mystique by artists (encouraged by friends and critics) about what they do, which wider social trends have only exaggerated.

In 1960 the American critic Clement Greenberg defined abstract art as ‘art that critiques its own form’ and this self-critical, postmodern outlook has influenced all art movements since. Artists have also come to confuse art with politics. Introspection, pointless theorising, escapism and personal fantasy characterise much art of the early 21st century. After all, one of the roles of art is to show society a mirror of itself, and today’s self-obsessed, atomised culture impinges on artists just as much as on the rest of us.

Today the definition of art has broadened to encompass anything that anyone calling themselves an artist says is art. Judith Mottram, research director at Loughborough University School of Art and Design, notes that people who have gone to art school tend to continue to call themselves artists regardless of what they do on leaving. And ‘the difference between artists and illustrators,’ says Silvia Baumgart, art historian and manager of the Association of Illustrators, ‘is that illustrators tend to value their work less than any artist, no matter how far they have developed their career’.

Yet the division between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’ art, or between art and design, is less rigid now than it has been for years. In Japan and elsewhere, illustrators and other designers are increasingly valued as artists. Long before Andy Warhol transformed himself from graphic designer into fine artist, ‘craftsmen’ managed to blur the divide between the brief and their own aesthetic agenda. For some designers today, their status as minor media celebrities means that their personal work can come into demand just because they are the authors.

Many designers today are accomplished artists. They never trained as artists and don’t call themselves that; yet in their best work, they integrate ‘something else’ seamlessly into the most ordinary objects, resulting in stunning creations that transcend their original function. Corbusier’s best buildings are an obvious example. When design is so good that it becomes ‘something else’, that something is art. On the other hand, anything nowadays may be called fine art; the interesting question is whether it was worth doing in the first place. The value of art today has been wildly distorted by the art market; and a lot of what is called ‘fine art’ and today fetches high prices is unlikely to mean much to anyone within a generation or two.

Perhaps it’s high time to reassess this distinction between ‘fine’ artists and everyone else. After all, it’s only relatively recently that artists stopped being seen as useful, productive members of society and got stuck on pedestals, regarded as odd, gifted shamans in some remote ivory castle called ‘the art world’.


In a recent paper criticising diversity policies in the arts, Boxed In, Dyer points out that to choose art as a career is to choose poverty, and she is right that working class people are therefore less likely to opt for fine art at university. The reason it’s not a career to get rich on is not because working in a gallery pays badly, but because ‘fine artist’ is an inherently precarious career choice.

It’s misleading to accuse the British art world of racism in this respect. Dyer’s bleak observation that 95% of all art students are white seems alarming at first. But as one observer noted drily: ‘It is shocking to read that only four percent of people working in the theatre are African Caribbean or Asian, or that only six percent of people working for organisations funded by the Arts Council were from minorities. But when you consider that only six per cent of the UK population is non-white that sounds unexceptional. Are black people really being held back by a lack of positive images in theatres that are in any event attended by a tiny – and enduringly liberal – percentage of the population?’

As Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry noted of Boxed In, ‘Racism undoubtedly exists, but in the nice liberal middle-class world of the arts it probably plays a less significant role than a lot of complainants think it does. Black artists can too easily blame their failure on racism, but we need to filter out other reasons for discrimination before we can label bias as racist. Quite often, what is interpreted as racism is in fact class prejudice. BME [black and minority ethnic] people are disproportionately represented in the working class, who have had fewer educational opportunities and less chance to develop the social and networking skills so necessary in the arts. Alternatively their work might simply be rubbish.’

Bursaries to help young artists get to art school are one thing. Perry and Dyer are right to call for diversity funding to be abandoned; the money should be used to help all talented students from poorer backgrounds, regardless of their colour, to study as artists and curators. But art graduates need to take more responsibility for their future careers.

The luxury of time

If young artists are serious about making art, they need to be prepared to be relatively poor, possibly indefinitely. They may never make much of a living from their art, but if they are serious artists as opposed to hobbyists, they need to try. Art students have to be prepared for possibly years of relative poverty and should expect to take part-time work as their best means of artistic survival on leaving university. Artistic survival, because artists need the luxury of time. Just as society needs a surplus to be able to afford the luxury of art, so artists need the luxury of time in their lives, in order to be artists. It is very hard to either seek out inspiration or to create when your life is entirely dominated by coping with the everyday.

The process of finding inspiration is as vital to an artist’s practice as the creative act itself. If young artists take on full-time jobs straight after graduating, they should realise that this is unlikely to help their art. A job in the art world is no substitute for free time, for an artist. It’s just as difficult to make art while working in an art gallery as in any full-time job where one has to focus with other people on something else all day. Part-time work doesn’t pay well but it gives you time and, so long as you have no dependents, enough to survive on, as the hundreds of bar staff in every major city working on their novels attests.

Besides, if you believe in your work you need to get constructive criticism and outside the art auctions, the market is a crude but effective judge of value. If your art is any good you should expect someone to want it enough to pay for it. As a young artist there are worse ways to survive than as a part-time designer, since working as a designer gives you the opportunity to create and forces your art to engage with the world. However, whether you design flyers, teach, or simply wait on tables for a living, the bottom line for an artist is that you continue to make art for yourself and find an audience for it, whether you get paid for it or not.

Fine art graduates should beware of what may seem a perfect career route – state funding. Too often, art students are encouraged to believe that artists should seek government help and need it to break into commercial galleries; this traps them from the outset in the belief that artists are special cases who deserve state assistance. This is not only misleading, but dangerous for the artist.

The pitfalls of state funding

Ceri runs an arts charity in London. For years she's applied for government grants to fund her work, but not any more. ‘You can't do anything interesting or original,' she says. ‘Everything has so many strings and requirements attached about involving the community or helping people stop smoking or whatever, that there's no room to do anything else.’

Conrad, a filmmaker in Birmingham, agrees. 'Even after you've filled in a million forms to get the money, you then have to spend more time filling out forms to prove you're spending it correctly. I haven't the patience.' His filming partnership is presently on hold because his partner is more interested in the money, ‘and that means nothing we've made so far says anything’.

Artists have always had to work around their patrons’ whims and political agendas. However, New Labour's social agenda is more intrusive than the most autocratic client could ever be. In the 21st century, the British state has unprecedented power to intrude into our personal lives, and does so in subtle and pervasive ways that were never anticipated in the past. We have ASBOs, CCTV, smoking bans, lunchbox inspections, police checks on all adults working with children, mentoring programmes for prospective parents and jail terms for ‘inflammatory’ speech – all in the name of 'supporting the community'.

New Labour's political outlook, reflected in its arts agenda, is rooted in a chronic insecurity about the public's alienation from the political process, and a nervousness of what we might get up to, unsupervised. The role of artists, according to this mindset, is to help government 'connect' and 'engage' with (or in other words, infiltrate) the lives of ordinary people. John Holden, government adviser and author of a recent Demos report on the arts, explained the idea in a speech earlier this year. At a seminar of invited artists and 'arts practitioners' organised by an arts quango and coyly asking 'Can Policy be Artist-Led?' he explained that 'the world has changed... governments have difficulty trying to engage with the public. They're very good at engaging with business, with big organisations, but they're very bad at engaging with individuals.'

Labour's entire arts policy is designed to address this problem. As such, every single person who works in the state-funded arts sector, from little local authority graphics teams to the curators of major public galleries, is expected to fit their work around Labour's agenda of integrating the 'socially excluded'. Art works on us as individuals, touching our deepest feelings. So it makes perfect sense for New Labour to judge an artist purely on their ability to help the government worm its way into the lives of the general public. For example, New Labour has logically assumed that black people will be better able to help it do this with the 'black community', and ethnic diversity schemes reflect this.

The question of whether the state should fund artists is irrelevant. The state will do what it wants. The interesting question is: what should artists do? Were we living in a society where the arts were under attack and artists starved in garrets, there might be a case for artists to claw as much as they can out of the state. Today, there is no justification for it financially; even less from the viewpoint of artistic survival.

A comparison between the work of designers and artists is useful here. A designer only gets state support because the fundamental value of their work can be judged objectively. With fine artists this is impossible, since art deals with individual feelings and emotions and its direct value is unquantifiable. The state can only judge artists' work in terms of how it fits in with government agendas. This is like trying to measure how blue something is with a ruler. (Demos, however, has had a try.)

The result is a growing entanglement of 'artists' and 'arts practitioners' who owe their careers entirely to the state and who survive by ticking the right boxes in return for accommodating to the government's requirements. For all Tessa Jowell's fine words about the unique, transcendent value of art, New Labour will accept an awful lot of irrelevant rubbish from artists, so long as it ‘engages’ sufficient members of the public, from nursery-age upwards, on issues like smoking, drinking, child abuse, internet porn, recycling, or any other current government obsession. Because of this complicated and compromising arrangement, thoughtful art graduates should beware of applying for government funds to do their art. Indeed, perhaps the time is long overdue, as Josie Appleton suggests in her essay Who Owns Public Art?, to restart the habit of public subscription. As she says, 'this would mean artists appealing to the public to support their work, rather than just pressing the right buttons at the Arts Council'.

Artists elsewhere in the world manage to survive without handouts from Big Brother. Individual patrons and commissioners still exist - with their own foibles and fetishes, admittedly, but without the same scope for using artists as propaganda tools. Natalie, a French artist in central England, has found she can survive even in such a select market as stained glass, with determination. 'I started off doing straightforward commissions for people who told me exactly what they wanted, and eventually I began to get more and more ones where I could do the kind of work I want to do,’ she explains. Young illustrators who want to be artists - free to make what they want and get paid for it - should remember that all they need at the outset is for someone to pay them to make pictures. Likewise, fine art graduates should welcome the opportunity to creatively design for the real world, as an integral part of their artistic practice. It may be harder to make great art in a society where nervous, mistrustful governments encourage intolerance and self-censorship. But it is certainly still possible to make good art and to do it without special help.

Today a growing number of British artists kickstart their careers while they wait tables or do boring admin in a bank, by entering competitions, performing at festivals, going to openings and self-publishing their work in limited editions. They sell their work in design shops such as London's Magma, submit it to magazines such as Nude, or stick it on You Tube. Jamie Reid, David Shrigley, Banksy and others got a start to wealth and fame by bypassing the funding system altogether and just putting their work out to be seen. This proactive strategy is surely a more positive career path for tomorrow's artists than writing government funding applications - plus, it's far less boring and immeasurably more creative than filling in forms.

Jan Bowman is an artist and illustrator.


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