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Every era gets the art it deserves,” declares the German academic and respected collector Harald Falckenberg.
I sometimes think about this – especially when I’m gnawing my arm with boredom in the face of some pretentious performance piece or some vacuous but fashionable exhibition. But, more often, I ponder his dictum because although it sounds authoritative, even profound, I really have no idea what it means. It surely can’t be a moral point, given the close relationship through the ages between great art and tyranny, horror, cruelty and pain. It would be like saying that Stalin’s gulag deserved Solzhenitsyn’s novels, or that the trenches of the first world war were somehow necessary in order to create all that luminescent poetry, or that an act of genocidal violence in 1936 was properly rewarded with Picasso’s “Guernica”. That way madness would lie.
Falckenberg may have a moral comment in mind about our own era, – as a collector of contemporary art, he can be no stranger to the more deranged aspects of today’s art world, where art is valued for reasons of status, fashion, interior decoration or money-laundering rather than for any durable aesthetic worth. (But, perhaps, the same could have been said of the Renaissance. The art may have changed; human motives, no.)
On the positive side, though, I think Falckenberg means that we get the art and culture that we care about and work for. We “deserve” it in that sense. And something of that feeling must be uppermost in the minds of the Arts Council decision makers, whose latest round of awards (I’m not going to call it, as many of my press colleagues like to do, a round of cuts) has recently been announced.
It’s obviously a tense moment for the cultural institutions and individuals involved; even for those of us who believe that public funding is one of the most essential ways in which we will create the cultural landscape we want. In Britain this is demonstrably true – it’s no mystery that from the 1960s onwards Britain started to become a powerhouse of contemporary culture, beginning with rock music and fashion, on to a golden era of novelists and, of course, the celebrated YBAs.
No mystery, because the facts are simple: the overwhelming majority of those creative people were the product of fully-funded educational opportunities after the second world war. (And free milk in the playground.) The scene was richly enhanced, too, by the children of postwar immigrants.
This week I was in Birmingham, at the Ikon gallery, which, under the exuberant hand of director Jonathan Watkins, is celebrating its 50th birthday. The gallery was a child of the 1960s, born in optimism and a spirit of experiment, and its attitude to new artists was in keeping with that spirit.
Watkins has marked its history by staging a series of exhibitions celebrating the passing decades, each of which shows a pretty remarkable prescience about talent in the making. These have reached the 1980s, with a beautifully and thoughtfully crafted show that shines a spotlight on so much that was inventive and extraordinary (as well as a little bit that was completely bonkers) about that decade. It’s called As Exciting as We Can Make It, which is a quote from a letter the then director Hugh Stoddart wrote to the American artist Agnes Denes, inviting her to exhibit at the gallery.
The letter explained that Ikon was a non-profit gallery supported by the local authority and national Arts Council – this is telling, given that the date was 1978 – describing itself as “one of the small number” of British public galleries specialising in contemporary art. A year later, Margaret Thatcher came to power, and many such institutions started to feel a blast so chilly it almost froze them to death. But – look – it didn’t, and the creative thinking involved in negotiating the tough realities of mixed-economy financing has not been all bad.
But the bedrock of public funding remains essential, and Watkins has been speaking out about it this week. He makes an eloquent plea about a more equitable distribution of funds: one report claims that Londoners receive cultural subsidies 15 times greater than those in the regions of Britain.
Watkins also pointed out a significant linguistic shift. Instead of “awards” and “grants”, the Arts Council now chooses to talk in terms of “investment”. And how right it is: this allocation of public funds is the seed money for a creative economy that is now valued in the billions of pounds. It shows, Watkins says, “an understanding that support for the arts is not a charitable donation but a vital investment”.
There’s much in terminology. Whether we want to describe arts funding as a higher moral cause, think of it as a pragmatic bread-and-circuses approach to the body politic or calculate its extremely healthy return on public investment in the creative economy doesn’t matter to me. But it does to some: so if “investment” is the language of the day, that’s fine. It’s an argument strong enough to be solidly justified from many points of view. And that is how we will get the art and culture that we hope to deserve.
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