Art's Faustian pact with commerce means it's no good carping about cuts
Date: 17 Sep 2010 | | Views: 2301
Public sympathy over visual arts funding cuts will be limited after the art world's brazen vaunting of connections with big money
The campaign against arts cuts is gearing up, and the techniques are tried and trusted ones. If you want to get a high-profile message across, sign up some celebrity artists. That accounts for the starry cast, including Damien Hirst, that has joined a campaign against coalition attacks on arts funding.
There is, however, trouble ahead. A poll by the organisers of the Threadneedle prize, which was reported by the BBC, found that two-thirds of its sample "agree with arts funding change"; only 16% of those questioned believed the public should be the main funder of visual art. A fifth felt visual art should get no state funds at all, while 66% said the majority of visual art funding should come from corporate sponsorship and private donations.
The Threadneedle prize is held at the Mall Galleries, London's home from home for talentless watercolourists and old-fashioned portrait painters, and its ideological slant should probably have been made clearer by the BBC – but the poll rings true. The majority of voters have so far backed cuts across the board, in theory, before the details are clear. The coalition got across its view of the deficit and the urgency of severe measures well; only now, as the real pain gets closer, are cracks appearing. If people are not yet on the streets to protest cuts in welfare, why would they be agitated about the fate of art?
Nor is the cultural place of art and artists established in the New Labour years something that the campaigners can rely on. There would seem to be an obvious problem in using Damien Hirst's name to protest against the cuts. Once, the thing everyone knew about Hirst was that he pickled sharks. Nowadays, the thing everyone knows is that he is immensely rich. He made money hand over fist even as the market hit the buffers. He is Mr Money. Who, outside the art world, is going to see him as a plausible voice against arts cuts?
Sadly, the success of Britain's artists is a major reason many people will support cuts to visual art funding. If there is one thing the public believes about art it is that artists make piles of money. (The full mantra goes: for putting rubbish in galleries.) And it's no use the art community complaining about this image when it has spent the last few years extravagantly vaunting connections with big money. Museums have deferred to commerce more fulsomely in the last decade than ever seemed imaginable. It seems incredible that Tate led the way in gearing London's entire autumn art calendar to the Frieze art fair, an event that resonantly insists on the glory of the big, beautiful art market. It's no use complaining that people think art can fend for itself, when you've fallen over yourselves to praise Frieze and the commercial ethos it stands for.
Now, we face a new cultural age, and frankly it would be healthier for visual art if it was seen as a poor relation, a feeble charity case. The public might then understand that museums rely absolutely on public funding to sustain their immense civilising benefits. But the art world has done a bloody good job convincing everyone that it sleeps with celebrities on beds of hundred pound notes. Museums should never have succumbed to the money culture. In reality, they are as essential and unglamorous as buses.