The relocation of the public sphere in art

Read J.J. Charlesworth's column, from the October 2013 issue

By J.J. Charlesworth

By accident, I’ve got something else to do during Frieze Art Fair weekend this year. Most years, my Frieze Saturdays and Sundays are spent strolling around the fair nursing a hangover, bumping into friends and colleagues, who tend to want to tell me about their hangovers. Often I head for the Frieze talks, because it’s a good place to sit down. And the lighting is dimmer.

This time round, however, I’m speaking at ‘Battle of Ideas’, a weekend-long event organised by the energetic and politically hard-to-pin-down think tank the Institute of Ideas. Two days of debate on just about every issue you can think of, from the economy and politics to science, culture and society, ‘Battle...’ is 350 speakers and 2,000 members of the public, all arguing about things that matter. Not an event to attend with a substantial hangover.

Not, anyway, when I’m arguing about the relative merits of the private collector, and the rising power of private patronage over the art that the rest of us get to see; questions that, in the current economic and cultural climate, are more fraught than ever. What with the shift away from state spending on the arts, contrasting starkly with the apparently unrelenting boom at the very top end of the art market and the recession-proof good fortunes of the ultrarich ‘1%’, the question of who, exactly, art is for has become a big problem. 

Whether it’s the influence of big corporate sponsors or of private collectors, artworld people are now on the defensive, faced with a widespread mood of resentment that sees art being ‘tainted’ by the interests of those who patronise it. While activists attack the involvement of sponsors like BP and Bloomberg for using sponsorship to divert attention from their more controversial business and political activities, wider public disgust for bankers and financiers has quickly rubbed off on the more visible face of the artworld, as many wonder what is so altruistic about philanthropy that serves only to celebrate the benefactor, while everyone else puts up with austerity. Patronage become patronising.

 the conditions that defined the production of art since the 1960s are melting away

The culture of conspicuous consumption that has become characteristic of today’s artworld, and the rolling back of the space of state-funded provision, points us to a very new situation for art’s culture and economy, in which the conditions that defined the production of art since the 1960s are finally melting away. Art now appears even more beholden to private interests. There is, some would argue, no possibility of being ‘outside the system’.

But seeing the situation as if it were only a question of private-versus-state patronage – where only state provision could provide an alternative to the market, the ‘outside’ to the system – is really more a lament for past certainties than it is an analysis of where we go from here. Because as one form of nonmarket space (public funding) is dwindling, others forms are expanding – most significantly the global biennial economy – overlapping, but not identical with the commercial artworld, with its own resources, agendas and priorities.

The interplay of different publics, different economies, different institutions, is changing fast. The old dichotomy of state and individual patronage is falling away. And while the top end of the art market may be booming, as the avatar of ‘conspicuous consumption’, as the elite pastime of those who flaunt their wealth in the very act of hiding it away, it’s fast becoming an anachronistic irrelevance. 

Other spaces of influence are emerging. Art education (international, networked, poststudio) is becoming a major force. In the uk, new art schools are setting up outside of the orthodox educational sector: here in London, the painter’s magazine Turps Banana is launching its first, yearlong studio programme this autumn (fees: £6k as against, for example, £9k at the Royal College or £7k at Goldsmiths), while the Barbican Centre is supporting the launch of Open School East, a fee-free study programme modelled on the Whitney’s ISP. It’s free – but then it’s supported by Deutsche Bank.

But as the old consensus wanes, the public sphere of art isn’t disappearing: it’s relocating, redistributing. There’s always private money involved – but then there always was. And the point is not so much where the money comes from, but where it goes, the uses it’s put to, the kind of art it creates, which means that the tension between art’s public and its patronage remains in play.

If we want art to be something other than the spectacle of the 1%, we should pay attention to the evolution of this new, post-welfare-state public sphere. So I’ll be speaking at ‘Battle of Ideas’. And they’re not paying me, because I’m paying them. Which is to say that if the Institute is an independent voice in public discourse in Britain, it’s only because I, and many others, support it. With money I make, because of this independent art magazine, from you... and the 1%.

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue.