Friday 19 December 2008

Nonsense, reborn

Cultural Olympiad Blog - part two

As an article rightly noted in the New Statesman last week, the arts – most especially music – have historically survived on a fair amount of patronage and philanthropy; with much of today’s classical canon having survived by striking a fine balance between artistic integrity and the need to make money. But while things turned out well when it came to Mozart (who was a spectacular populist), the tension between integrity and money raises uncomfortable questions in the face of the recessionary trends and tightened public purse strings that confront the art world as we go into 2009. But calls from ministers and policy wonks for a ‘new renaissance’ seem superficially to solve the problem, since they aim to bankroll only artists that have something clear, original and new to say with their art.

The highly-cultured Franco-German arts elite of the past, with their ties to Church, Monarchy and Old Money, and their monopoly on public culture, were very different from the busybody state culture ministers, celebrity business entrepreneurs, and other patrons who offer up their coffers in the modern day. Whatever ‘integrity’ and ‘making money’ meant, and how far they were artistic goals, in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, we can be sure that under contemporary late capitalism, with its ambivalence towards modernity and attraction towards the cynical side of the coin, the relationship between artists and those who fund their work is – and should be – strikingly different.

The obsession with understanding the present moment through the prism of the past is most prevalent when it comes to the arts, however, where it often looks like commentators and ministers are suffering from a bout of historical and cultural amnesia. If the public isn’t being lectured about the importance of imbibing the Great Art of Yore by attending more galleries, museums and art events – as if such things are a matter of incorrigible fact and a one-way process – then worse, we’re being told to avoid things that look a bit traditional (colonial, elitist) and patronisingly embrace something ‘different’ (black, brown, young) instead. Interestingly, arts minister Andy Burnham has recently called for public money to be part-used to create a film industry that makes more American-style blockbusters, in order to stimulate the arts economy, or perhaps the economy in general (The Dark Knight sales were soaring during the first month of the credit crunch, with some interviewees claiming they preferred to spend their spare tenners on seeing the film rather than on food or bills, because, bizarrely, it cheered them up). The idea of ‘cultural capital’ is coming back into fashion and taking on a more explicitly economic meaning, and focus on the ‘creative industries’ to spearhead productive development fuels the mood that culture can not just create more jobs and happiness, but that it is a sort of public duty to vote and pay for the artistic endeavour put on display. Despite the red herring of social engineering, it seems a large part of thinking and debate about the arts is turning to its finance - and further away from the art itself.

But all of this leaves for a slightly predictable though misshapen elephant in the room: Politics. The Renaissance, like other upheavals in this history of art – the Enlightenment period or the turn of the twentieth century – was part of a broader movement that incorporated often violent social and intellectual changes at the time, which gave and magnified meaning to the work produced by musicians, painters, poets, choreographers and writers. Many developments in Western art history were reactive to the perceived orthodoxy and power structures of the day, often the state and its governing policies. Nevertheless, it is a much-discussed and complex phenomenon that art has flourished under totalitarian regimes – from Shostakovich’s Russian formalism under Stalin to the poetry and plays of the Maoist period. And if structural comparisons must be made, the call for a new renaissance from today’s ministers has more in common with policies towards a Cultural Revolution than any event in European history, though of course, nobody is advocating burning any books, seizing any national assets or killing any intellectuals.

Calls for more art watching, more spending on art, or a new art renaissance, however, have little to do with the relationship between arts, funders and politics as they have been historically understood; instead, they seem to redefine art and its social role as being a new sort of politics and mode of social engagement. But a large part of art, other than the self-consciously avant and painfully new, is often nostalgia; not so much the creation of a living legacy but the preservation of a comfortable old one. Listening to the songs of the recent X-Factor series, most seemed chosen for their popular purchase and meanings, and the idea that Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ - a song about love’s labours lost and the inability of the artist to articulate his vision – might doubly top the charts this Christmas, would be utterly depressing but for the thought that the tune and religious refrain also have appeal because they are readily recognisable.

The philanthropists of the past were often the gatekeepers of elite culture and values; and those calling for a new renaissance today are little different. Artists have and frequently will have to forge a relationship on some grounds with private or public backers if they want their work to be appreciated, though whether they are brave and ingenious enough to create a new sort of art – or a new sort of politics – is less to do with whether they can preserve their integrity, important though that is, and at root much more an issue to do with their (and everybody else’s) ideas than their funding.

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