What is art for? by Mike Watson

By Mike Watson

In 2011, the year prior to Pio Baldi exiting his position as president of Rome’s MAXXI – the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts – 80 percent of the museum’s expenditure was sourced privately; as vivid an illustration as any that the arts in Italy cannot survive without ticket sales, sponsors and wealthy donors. When I asked Turin’s mayor, Piero Fassino, during last year’s Artissima art fair why arts expenditure had been slashed at the local level – contrary to his pledge in 2011 to maintain funding levels even during the financial crisis – his answer was pragmatic: when he had made his promise (during a press conference for international journalists at the mayor’s office), the intention had been to maintain total funding levels from across private and public sources. This, Fassino argued, had been achieved. 

Though, of course, when a leftwing politician – Fassino is with the centre-left Democratic Party and entered political life with the Communist Party of Italy – promises to maintain funding at a certain level, it is usually taken to mean public funding. Can it be claimed that replacing public funding for the arts with private funding is a straight swap? Surely the net result of decreased state/council funding and increased private funding could have an effect on artistic content, just as the corporatisation of university education is shaping the subjects that are taught within universities.With this in mind, it is worthwhile taking time to question art’s relation to the debate of public vs. private funding. Where should art place itself in relation to a Europe-wide (largely rightwing) governmental consensus that has all but destroyed a deeply entrenched political commitment towards state provision for welfare, education and culture? For while the contemporary art world has enjoyed a heightened dalliance with political issues during the last two to three years, it is remarkably short on initiatives that question the fundamental relationship between art and power. Consequently, for all the apparently genuine sentiments that may have underpinned a seeming commitment to address political issues via the arts in recent years, a simple shift in focus towards concerns such as Minimalism, colour and painting for painting’s sake would expose the shallowness of such intentions quicker than one could shout “Free Pussy Riot!”

This, indeed – if Artissima 2012 is an accurate representation of the market as a whole – seems to be precisely the position we’re in. Minimalism and colour were very present at the main fair this year. Political statements were conspicuous by their absence. ‘Social’ or ‘political’ art, while present in all eras, chimes particularly with a world stricken by economic crisis, appalled by the foreign policy of the UK, the US and its allies, and inspired by the Arab Spring. Yet with no clear end to the economic crisis, the Arab world on the brink and the memory of the Iraq War continuing to haunt, as Iran pursues its nuclear programme, political art has become akin to a shrill and ineffectual steward shouting “Brace!” on an aeroplane that continues a long freefall with no final impact in sight.

Perhaps it is no surprise that we are witnessing a shift in focus. There are arguably two poles that have characterised the debate on art and politics since the Second World War: art as a form of political praxis at one extreme, and art as a purely aesthetic consideration – and containing a political intent in its refusal to engage concretely with society – at the other. Neither argument gains a strong foothold, perhaps because any success that art might have in convincingly entering the political realm either overtly or by its refusal to participate in politics (its aloofness giving it a critical capacity) thereby subjects it to the requirement that it provide convincing political solutions. And they are hard to come by. Looked at like this, the level of overall abstraction in the debate surrounding the political capacity of art transforms it, to all appearances, into a game of sophism, which is harmful for two reasons. 

Firstly, such sophism diverts huge energies and resources that might otherwise engage more concretely in finding political solutions. Secondly, where the artworld does engage concretely with society, it does so mostly uncritically. ‘Take the money and run’ is the prevailing motto in this field, through periods of prosperity and of crisis, whether we drape ourselves in the red flag or not.