Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Putting the FUN! back in Arts Funding

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In times past, the Church was the major patron of the Yarts, hence all the lovely cathedrals and paintings of Jesus. Is the modern era's legacy in danger of being no more than a paean to arts bureaucrats?

I’m in London on holiday, and I’ve just seen a ceramic jar from 2500 BC.

And the very last thing I wondered about it was who funded it.

I did, of course, being an 8-years-at-art-school, interested-in-that-sort-of-thing, red-wine-with-fish-on-a-Tuesday-are-you-serious kind of wanker, wonder a lot about who made it, how they made it, why they made it, how it survived, what else may not have survived, and how people of that time must have smelled.

Being a jar, the item itself probably served a practical and useful purpose, however the decorations adorning the jar did not. As humans, we decorate useful and practical things, we make them artful, because of an urge we have to personalise, or individualise, or even tribalise. And because we’re up ourselves and like showing off, and art is the best kind of show-offy wank there is.

In order to discuss ‘pure’ art, that is, the non-practical and solely artistic, I probably should’ve opened with a reference to rock painting rather than a more practical jar, but I wasn’t in Arnhem Land, was I, I was in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Suffice to say, there’s an urge. It’s there. We’d make art with one dollar or a million dollars. With no money and no possessions some of us would make art with faeces and a stick. In fact I’m pretty sure someone at my art school did just that, and got a distinction.

So, if we would do it whether or not it was funded, why fund it? And I’m not actually going to turn around and now list all the reasons why we should fund it, because that’s the thing.

I’m not... I’m not completely convinced that we should. Not to the extent that we do, anyway.

Okay, I’ll give two reasons – preservation and record. The 2500 BC jar I saw might have actually been a bit shit compared to other artworks of the time, but we’ll never know because the other stuff didn’t make it this far. Dave, who made the jar, might have had vastly inferior talent to Alan, his contemporary, who specialised in what, in installations made from butterfly wings and bison spit (I checked all those facts, don’t bother looking them up) that just didn’t make it through the weather.

One of the best ways to learn about culture and history is through art, but it’s possible that we’ve got the 2500 BC kids a bit wrong, because we’re only getting our clues from the stuff that was hardy enough to survive. For all we know, they had biodegradable post-it notes that they drew self-portraits on, but the darn things went and biodegraded.

That said, money is well-spent making records of the art that is made, and preserving at least some of it – taking a punt on what will be the most meaningful, historically relevant and zeitgeisty in ten, fifty, five hundred or a squer-fillion years. And it’s well-spent giving kiddies artsy opportunities that they might not otherwise have.

But I’m a bit iffy on public funding to enable art to actually be made. I’m happy for the government to look after roads and health and infrastructure and welfare and prisons and general maintenance of various parliamentary buildings and their lawns, but I feel weird about them wanting in on culture as well.

I maintain that whether or not it’s funded, art will be made somehow.

Art that is well-received by many will often be financially rewarded, and art that is not, will not. I’m not necessarily talking on a grand scale here, either – if an artist sells a painting for eight hundred dollars, that eight hundred dollars is enough money to create another painting. If it doesn’t sell at all, the chances are excellent that the artist will still create another painting. For all the toss the art world maintains in order to be treated differently to every other pursuit, this is the shining light of difference – art will persist even if there is no commercial encouragement. Those nutty, tea-drinking bastards.

If anything, we revere artists who find their inspiration from poverty, hardship and struggle. Not that I’m suggesting that we intentionally inflict poverty, hardship and struggle, but where there is some, art will still be made. Important art, because so much important art is borne of reaction to a thing.

One of my main beefs, though, is that by publicly funding art to be made, who then decides who gets the money and who doesn’t, based on what criteria? If it is, essentially, the government, or a council deemed worthy by government, or knowledgeable art people chosen by a council deemed worthy by government, who is to say that the art produced from this funding is the art that is and will always be important? The art that survives and defines us emerges arbitrarily, based on a Chaos-theory-worthy myriad of tiny variables, and none of those variables should be who submitted an articulate argument in their grant application.

Art is so often a reaction to a thing, and that thing is, frequently, either the current state of the art world or the current state of the political world, on whatever scale, from Guernica to graffiti. If a government chooses people from the art world to pick which artists should be funded, how likely are they to pick the ‘fuck you guys specifically’ ones? Although if they did actually call it a Creative Australia Fuck You Grant, I might get behind it.

Whoever bankrolls the art controls the art, just like anything else, and that’s certainly the reason behind the metric squillion of goddy, churchy pictures in history, and how we know what most of the British royal family has looked like for centuries, but not their coach drivers or chamber-maids, who were almost certainly more attractive and less inbreddy. And private patronage of the arts is great, but just as fraught with influence.

In an intensely and increasingly regulated and reading-the-small-print world, art is one of the things that thrives joyously when we just throw everyone in a pit and see what happens.

Except stop with the fucking musicals.

Jo Thornely

Jo Thornely writes for The Daily Telegraph and The Punch, but leaves time for her day job in television, which facilitates her love of criticising people and gin. Follow her on Twitter @jothornely