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value washing the arts:

on the quantification and


instrumentalisation of art

ceci nest pas lart de volution sociale


23 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 4 4 _ 1 2 015

Nat Muller

We have heard it all before: art for social wants to be eligible for public funding. We should keep in mind here that de Bottons
change, intercultural dialogue, conflict Doing something is never really defined curatorship was probably meant more as
resolution through art, resistance art, but can be broadly interpreted as doing good a publicity stunt than anything else. Get a
revolutionary art, participatory art, the social for society and thus can be quantitatively celebrity in your museum and it is bound to
turn, the political turn, the educational turn. measured. In other words, art is made useful attract lots of media attention and generate
Attitudes towards arts and culture have and functional and its prerogative of autonomy (new) audiences. It is an excellent example
changed along with the drastic global political and of doing absolutely nothing in terms of of how ideas about the consumption of art,
and economical changes of the past decade. immediately useful material outcomes is marketing and public spendingdangerously
We have witnessed amongst others the end effectively annulled. go hand in hand. On the funding end of the
and aftermath of the Cold War, 9/11 and a Examples are legion, and perhaps spectrum we find initiatives such as The Art
global economic crisis caused by what some one of the most evangelising and misguided of Impact, a seven million euro fund initiated
may term hyper-capitalist greed. In an age ones is pop philosophers Alain de Bottons by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture
of quantification and maximisation of profits idea of art as therapyart will help you cure and Science in late 2014 in collaboration with
everything needs to be accountable to everything from love sickness to dissatisfaction the Netherlands largest cultural funds. A slick
computation. Art too. in your professional life. On his website he video on the projects website announces the
This brings me to the thorny question claims, if art is to enjoy its privileges, it has funds objectives and a video message of
of the value of art. Quantifying art financially, to be able to demonstrate its relevance in Jet Bussemakers, the Netherlands current
though at times arbitrary, is the easy part. understandable ways to the widest possible Minister of Education, Culture and Science,
In her excellent book on the contemporary audience.2 Part of this undoubtedly implies, reinforces the fact that this is basically a policy
art market Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art if art wants to continue to receive public instrument. The issue with this fund starts
Market in the 21st Century Georgina Adam money it better prove its usefulness. Claims with its very name, The Art of Impact.
writes that, [b]etween 2004 and 2012 [the like de Bottons completely miss the point about It desperately wants to do something that
contemporary art] market grew by five hundred art and perpetuate a populist neo-liberal idea has (measurable) effect and states that it
and sixty-four per cent in valuefar eclipsing about public spending, namely that hard earned wants to stimulate projects with a clear social
the previous traditional heavyweight category tax money should only be spent on something impact. The examples given on the website
of Impressionist and Modern art.1 Later on with wide appeal and consensus. Moreover, it are textbook, from a collaboration between
in the book she makes a connection between forces art in a very narrow straitjacket that is artists and scientists to research into ways
luxury consumer goods and contemporary art. soothing, sanitized, pleasing, sugarcoated and fungi can function as insulation material, to
Indeed, for the one percent contemporary art most of all functional. Out go the practices that playwrights developing plays for communities
has become a lifestyle choice: flaunting a disturb, complicate, rub, resist, are difficult in disenfranchised neighbourhoods. Despite
Louis Vuitton bag, wearing Prada and owning and produce affect and meaning on a variety the inclusion of projects by excellent and
a work of the snazziest artiste du jour go hand- of levels, whether conceptually or aesthetically. visionary organisations such as the Studio
in-hand. The newly established, and much De Bottons idea of art is, apart from being for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM)
criticised Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris reductive and conservative, decidedly boring. and the art and new technology platform
is a case in point. However, this has not stopped Amsterdams Mediamatic, it becomes clear that the actual
However, in times in which the prestigious Rijksmuseum from appointing intent of the fund is to spur on organisations,
marketability of art is being played out de Botton as its guest curator to convert the companies and policy makers to use artists more
extremely aggressively and in which art fairs institution into a self-help manual. Reviews to attain their goals.5 Indeed, the main questions
have more funds at their disposal to commission in the Dutch and British press were scathing.3 asked here are, How can art make a difference
artists and organise conferences, symposia and They mostly found that de Botton pedantically in [creating] a liveable neighbourhood or
not-for-profit shows than museums and art reduced art audiences to an unthinking mass of city, energy and climate, care and welfare,
institutions, the tables have been turned. Public infantile souls, incapable of reflecting, feeling technology, science and economy?6 It is no
funding, that ever dwindling resource, which or experienceing artwork without prescriptive coincidence that artists are required to step in
facilitates non-commercial and difficult art, has guidance. Art critic Wieteke van Zeil of the where neo-liberal governments are pulling out:
over the past fifteen years, beset by budget cuts largest Dutch daily de Volkskrant put it very education, care, social services etcetera. In an
and increased populism, struggled to articulate well when she wrote; economic context where cultural resources are
its raison dtre. The effect is that nowadays more So let it be said, the exhibition Art is scant, even prestigious and unique international
often than not art has to do something if it Therapy is an insult three times over: for cultural foundations such as the Prince Claus
museums, for the works of art and above all Fund have shifted their focus more towards
for the visitor who is addressed as a childish topics such as conflict and poverty, the
victim and is not encouraged to look or traditional areas of humanitarian development
to think. And thats exactly the opposite agencies.
of what every good work of art evokes, if
Opposite
you make the effort. Whether amateur or
Apologies to Rene Magritte connoisseur.4
25 c o n t e m p o r a ry v i s u a l a r t + c u lt u r e b r oa d s h e e t 4 4 _ 1 2 015

Though value-washing the arts took flight A curious effect of all this is that certain Institute for Contemporary Art other than
particularly after the 2008 global economic crisis politicised forms of radicality and resistance spectacle? We have to ask ourselves if
and ensuing massive cuts in arts and culture in art are embraced by institutions and funders mijewskis act would have been more powerful
budgets, especially in countries with typically alike. In her excellent history of, and critique on, had he simply joined Occupy rather than
generous cultural budgets, such as the UK and participatory art, Claire Bishop argues; models putting them on display in a white cube gallery.
The Netherlands, the writing had been on the of democracy in art do not have a relationship In the end both the artistic and the political
wall for a while. In The Netherlands the idea of to models of democracy in society.9 Yet time gesture are weakened here. After all, is art the
cultural entrepreneurship was trumped and and again these two models are collapsed best vehicle to further the social change he
written into policy by former Deputy Minister and confused. The 7th Berlin Biennial titled desires? Isnt arts role elsewhere? Returning to
of Culture Rick Van der Ploeg in 1999,7 who Forget Fear curated by Polish artist Artur Bishop: This new proximity between spectacle
concretised the by now irrevocable relationship mijewski in 2012 is a case in point. Known and participation underlines the necessity of
between public funding, artistic ambitions, for his provocative and confrontational videos, sustaining a tension between artistic and social
marketability, accessibility, audience preference mijewski does not shy away from disturbing critiques.12 In the 7th Berlin Biennial this tension
and ultimately the self-sufficiency of cultural the socialand otherorders. came undone.
producers. Cultural entrepreneurship is to There is nothing sugarcoated about During the 2011 uprisings in the
this day a key criterion for funding bodies to his artistic work; it is raw and in-your-face. Arab world many artists participated in the
assess an applicant. In the UK, writers such as Nevertheless, what works for mijewskis demonstrations. Many made a point that they
Alana Jelinek and Claire Bishop trace a shift of artistic oeuvre became problematic as a were there as political subjects and that their
attitudes back to the rise of Tony Blairs curatorial framework for the Biennial. I share artistic practices would have to wait. It was
New Labour government in the late 1990s. mijewskis frustration with the current political a potent statement. Conversely, artists are
For the first time, funding became linked not climate that is detrimentalnot only to the censored, arrested, tortured and killed for their
to an artworlds [sic] elite self-defined notion artsbut to society at large and that change work the world over, from Ai Weiwei, Iranian
of excellence, but instead to increasing the is urgent through different forms of alliances. filmmaker Jafar Panahi, to Syrian cartoonist
range and the type of audience for the arts He propagates a fervent anti-institutionalism Ali Ferzat, Pussy Riot and the atrocious killings
(known as access) and, to a lesser extent and rightly observes in his foreword to the at Charlie Hebdo. Art is never innocent, whether
to those activities that provide social goods, Biennials catalogue that artistic radicalism is we choose to identify with its assumptions or
such as community cohesion.8 transformed into velvet critique and that in not. Therefore the binary that is often set up
the art world and beyond art has become between autonomous art or art for arts sake
It is an unpopular position to challenge a dcor for a neo-liberal system, [which] and engaged or politicised art is a too facile
the direct social and political impact of art includes not only art objects, but the intellectual one and undoes the complexity of what art is
projects. My quarrel is as much with the total discourse that frames them. 10 Nevertheless, I and what art does. Not being exactly able to
commodification of art in an art market that has do wonder at his idea of what he calls artistic pinpoint what art does is, I would argue, an
totally spun out of control as it is with artistic pragmatism, which he explains as: inherent part of its beauty and attraction. It is
practices which are blatantly instrumentalist What interested us were concrete activities why we can re-visit a certain piece again and
and hence end up in their own way leading to visible effects. We were interested again and not become bored by it.
commodifying the arts. Albeit not in terms of in finding answers, not asking questions. However, in a neo-liberal context
sales, but rather of its measurable contribution, We were interested in situations in which and in the participatory society geared towards
i.e. profit, to society. A wholesome participatory solutions are implemented responsibly. We demonstrable results, there is little patience
society, whether its the neo-liberal variety that were interested neither in preserving artistic for this. At a workshop on art, value and
is organised top-down or the self-organised immunity nor distancing ourselves from globalisation that I ran at the arts organisation
horizontal Occupy variety, both call for a society All that art has now is spectacle, TENT in Rotterdam in the autumn of 2014,
wholesome and participatory art. Aesthetics where social and political problems are students commented on a piece by artist
that dirty wordhas all but disappeared from played out with no substantial impact on Jonas Lund, who was part of the group
most critical artspeak. I am exaggerating for the reality. And no substantial impact even on show The Value of Nothing. Lunds piece
sake of argument, but there is a disturbing and the players in the field of art: other artists Projected Outcomes (2014) consisted of a huge
cloying dogmatic reek to all of this. and curators.11 blackboard depicting a real-time, cost-benefit
Cultural producers, already Biennials, and the institutional structures overview of the exhibition. The data ranged
working precariously and on shoestring that shape and support them, are unwieldy from grants received, ticket sales, artist and
budgets, should be weary of perpetuating animals, no matter how many transformations curatorial fees, production costs, mentions
a feel-good semblance of participation or they go through. As such, as a biennial curator, in the press, to cleaning and PR costs. It also
criticality, so that value mileage can be accrued. its difficult to have your cake and eat it too. listed the volunteers paid to come and adjust
Symbolic capital, so it seems, is bleeding to And though mijewski is fiercely anti-neo- the numbers on the black board every day, as
death in the twenty-first century. There is a real liberal in his arguments and discourse, we well as the price of the blackboard itself (54).
danger that artistic production may fall in two might wonder whether he too has failed in
absolute categories: the luxury consumer good his endeavour. What is the artistic or political
or the PR extension for faltering governance. meaning of bringing part of the Occupy
Neither option is attractive. movement to the spaces of the Kunst-Werke
VALUE W ASHIN G THE ARTS : ON THE Q UANTI F ICATION AND INSTRUMENTALISATION O F ART

irony was lost on my students. They cried


foul that artists criticising the capitalist system
should then actually expect to be paid for their
labour. Their reasoning was: if you expect
remuneration for your work, you cannot oppose
the system; you have to acquiesce and be
part of it. There is no other system. They read
Lunds work as hard quantitative data only,
not as a poetic intervention. While it might
be unfair to argue that this group of students
is representative for a general public, it is
informative as much as it is slightly worrying.
If we obsess so much over the measurable and
literal impact of art in society, we forsake the
power of the imaginary and the potential for
art to make worlds, no matter how hopeful
or dark they turn out to be.
Notes
1
Georgina Adam, Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market
in the 21st Century, Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2014: 10
2
Cfr. http://alaindebotton.com/art/; last accessed January
23, 2015
3
See for example Adrian Searle, Art Is Therapy review
de Botton as doorstepping self-help evangelist;
http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/apr/25/
art-is-therapy-alain-de-botton-rijksmuseum-amsterdam-
review; last accessed 23 January 2015
4
Wieteke van Zeil, Alain de Botton in het Rijksmuseum:
Alain de Botton in Amsterdams Rijksmuseum: An insult
three times over...; http://www.volkskrant.nl/dossier-musea-
en-galerieen/alain-de-botton-in-het-rijksmuseum-een-
drievoudige-belediging~a3646456/; last accessed 23 January
2015
5
Emphasis and translation from the Dutch Organisaties,
bedrijven en beleidsmakers zouden meer gebruik kunnen
maken van kunstenaars om dat te bereiken wat ze
nastreven, mine. Cfr. http://www.theartofimpact.nl/over.html;
last accessed 23 January 2015
6
Translation from Dutch Hoe kan kunst verschil maken voor
een leefbare wijk en stad; energie en klimaat; zorg, welzijn,
technologie, wetenschap en economie?, mine. Cfr. http://
www.theartofimpact.nl/over.html; last accessed 23 January
2015
7
Cfr. Rick van der Ploeg, Nota Cultureel Ondernemerschap,
presented to the Dutch parliament on 25 October 1999;
http://parlis.nl/pdf/kamerstukken/KST41287.pdf; last accessed
23 January 2015
8
Alana Jelinek, This is Not Art: Activism and Other Not-Art,
London: I.B.Tauris: 24
9
Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the
Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso Books, 2012: 279
10
Artur mijewski, Forget Fear: Foreword; http://www.
Projected Outcomes is a wonderful tongue-in- berlinbiennale.de/blog/en/comments/forget-fear-a-foreword-
cheek example of turning the quantification of by-artur-zmijewski-19528; last accessed 23 January 2015
value in the art world against itself. The hard 11
ibid: 10
data becomes the artwork, the spectacle, and 12
ibid: 9, 277
presents itself to be assessed quantitatively,
conceptually and aesthetically. Lunds simple
but genius move of flipping a work against
itself is extremely effective as a critical
statement. It also shows us that little meaning
Jonas Lund can be derived from this hard data only; you
Projected Outcomes, 2014
Photo courtesy the artist and TENT, Rotterdam
still need to experience the work in order to
Photo Janssen/Adriaans reviewor assessthe show. However, this