Ai Weiwei has faced censorship and repression in China. The artist’s work continues to attract international acclaim
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The relationship between art and nationality is never a simple one. As Maya Jaggi points out in her introduction, art doesn’t sit easily under national flags. As a judge of the Emerging Voices awards, my mind has been buzzing with questions about the relationship between art and national economies. Specifically, the question of whether it’s more difficult to make art in emerging countries. Whether wealth is necessary to trigger great artistic creativity. And whether the deep needs of creativity are as readily satisfied in emerging nations as in developed countries.

Let’s get rid of a few cliches first. The example that always pops up is that of the European Renaissance. No Medici bankers, no Michelangelo: ergo, money makes art happen. And, that’s true, in crude terms. The difference in that era was the status of the artist as craftsman for hire; the vast majority of western art before our modern era was made to commission.

That is not how we think of artists today, or how they think of themselves. So even if commissioned projects are an important part of our art scene, we’re talking about something different when we discuss creativity and the ability to make art.

And yes, much art production today is fuelled by a rampant market for contemporary art, which can make superstars of youngsters just out of art school and has given birth to the phenomenon of the artist who may be richer than their patrons. But those are very few.

So that’s also not what we’re really talking about, if we’re investigating the roots of creativity. Looking back instead to the birth of what we loosely term contemporary art — that is, art made in the western world after the second world war, whose tenets gained international significance and were in turn informed by artistic traditions from elsewhere — we can trace other relationships between economics and creativity.

To help me think about this I conducted an informal survey, mostly among artist friends (and helped by the odd glass of wine) from various parts of the world, emerging and established. What, I asked them, are the fundamentals that artists need, whether those artists are from Samarkand, Santiago or Somalia? A list of three things emerged: space, time and each other. When those three coincide, it seems, something remarkable can happen.

Of this trio, the first two cost money. Especially space. The problem in many great cities now is that young artists can’t afford to live in them. So think back to this: in the early 1970s, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, part of the now legendary downtown New York scene, cut up buildings. Yes, whole buildings, abandoned properties bought at auction for $50-$100. Such was the state of the city’s decline.

Yet one of the most significant motors of the New York scene of those days was the fact that so many painters, musicians, dancers, sculptors, writers and others could congregate there. They had space, time and each other.

Artists have always flourished in places in which well-heeled people don’t want to live: for the Impressionists, it was the Left Bank in Paris; in the US, artists are now rapidly recolonising parts of Detroit. If the space comes cheaply, the time requirement looks after itself. As for the “each other” element of the recipe, that looks after itself, too. Creative people relish each other’s company and are adept at finding it.

If they can. Surely freedom, and the ability to move to be with other inspirational people, is part of the list of essentials? One Chinese artist I spoke to, and one Turkish woman performer, live in vibrant, artistic scenes in which they and their peers continually negotiate restrictions that would seem appalling to outsiders. Yet those restrictions didn’t rate highly as a barrier for them. It has just been part of the air they breathe.

There seems to be a fourth ingredient, one I’m going to try to define based on what the artists told me. It echoes powerfully with emerging economies — something like hopefulness, or the self-confidence that comes from a sense of future.

Creativity, we know from many sources, arises from social friction. As emerging countries grow, explore their identity and re-define themselves, such frictions are inevitable. They may be painful, but they are often an essential part of the rich mix in which art grows. In an atmosphere of hopefulness artists can bring prosperity and growth to their countries as much as vice versa. That’s why such countries — all countries — should cherish the artists in their midst.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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