Editorial - Mute magazine, volume 3 #1

By Josephine Berry Slater, 12 June 2011

‘Ever since man crawled out of the cave he's been making art!' Thus spake Colin Tweedy, director of Art and Business, at the ICA's event ‘Public Art, Private Money' last September. Tweedy invoked this childishly simple image of ‘the way the world ever was' in his zeal to justify the fundamental irrelevance of the then still unconfirmed 29.6 % cut to Arts Council England's budget. (Quite an irony when one considers that Tweedy's organisation and the ICA have both been swingingly cut in the interim.) Leaving aside any injustice we should feel on behalf of the ‘artists' of Lascaux, this argument smacks of a residual Darwinism that sees cultural production as some kind of irrepressible life force that will continue to ooze forth good stuff no matter the circumstances; the hardiest (and thus, best) of its breeds able to endure even the most hostile environments. By this logic it might seem that austerity is a great chance to purge art of all those lazy pretenders, fund-hogging pseudo-artists and surplus poseurs who dilute its genus, not to mention its genius.

Yet we are starting to see the true face of these hardy breeds, as the likes of Greek tycoon Dimitris Daskalopoulos mutate reputable art galleries like the Whitechapel or the Guggenheim Bilbao with the germ of his private collection (the Whitechapel programmed no less than four shows around its contents and, despite him sitting on its board, the Guggenheim is also giving his art assets a chance to appreciate in the hydroponic glow of their very own show, ‘The Luminous Interval'). Judging by the recent Arts Council cuts to publicly funded arts organisations - one of whose casualties is the magazine you currently hold in your hands - it seems that the die-hard breeds beloved of cultural Darwinists often turn out to be the well established and crowd-pleasing varieties that are unlikely to drive forth species diversification. Not the elusive white rabbit of febrile imaginings, but the grey rabbit of distinctive brand values, well governed institutions and solid business plans.

Culture always does and always will find a way, just like capitalism.... but please don't call it natural! The eternal neoliberal logic, that the market alone is capable of deciding our fate, is safe and well in the verdant valley of the arts. The ongoing blood transfusions required to maintain this illusion of growth, however, continue to be disguised. Where once the arts were subsidised less through direct grants than a welfare system that could sustain the economically semi-active and provide free higher education, now one imagines they will be sustained increasingly by the spoils of oligarchical exploits on the one hand, and a parasitism on voluntary groups and free-content providers on the other. A kind of Big Society / Big Patron sandwich. But, just like the source of Daskalopoulos' millions, we shouldn't ask too many questions. We shouldn't ask who will be able to afford an arts education in a few years' time, or whether working class practitioners will be able to support themselves during the passage from obscurity to success, or whether black artists or the marginalised genres like media arts, and the dissenting, hard-to-digest messages of crowd-displeasers and the awkwardly critical will get a look in in the over-crowded artscape. Nor should we think about the character of the historical shift from the mutual supportiveness bred of ‘dole autonomy' to the self-interest and competitiveness inculcated through the hunt for scarce funding. No, indeed! Because, despite all these obstacles, talent will simply find a way, the good stuff will rise to the surface and the gifted will inherit the earth.

A grimace of forced optimism was conspic-uously present at last year's future-casting ICA event; it was hard to tell whether panelists and the cultural managers in the audience were faking it, or really believed their own hype as they out-gung-ho'd each other with talk of attracting new revenue streams, developing audiences and becoming more digitally savvy. In fact you'd be forgiven for thinking that this mass experiment in austerity is actually a life-affirming opportunity to accelerate the forces of economic and hence cultural innovation. For many the promise of ‘crowd-funding' cultural programmes served as a kind of holy grail, a model for financing culture that conveniently folds in a pre-emptive audience-feedback function - thus fulfilling the simultaneous need to create endless indices of cultural value, generate cash and make the spectacle creatively benign. Thank God for the crisis!

The Darwinists would also concur, no doubt, that the development of knowledge is a similarly self-organising ‘force of nature' - the fertiliser of choice for our esteemed knowledge farms just so happens to be the ‘STEM' (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, not philosophy. That's nobody's fault, and nobody's judgement, but a reflexive effect of the market, a reflection of unimpeded ‘choice', right? So hey, that's just the way it flows...

It is the bad faith of conflating capitalism's transformation of the cultural field with the criteria of so-called ‘cultural excellence', and a systemic inability to acknowledge how decisions one-sidedly follow and drive forward the logic of the market, that pervades the upper echelons of arts policy and management. Similar to a national passivity in the face of attacks on wages during a time of spiralling inflation, there is a docile, lock-step mentality blanketing the ‘arts sector' as it conforms to the logic of the market and the creative economy as the only defence against certain death. Better a pay cut or an autonomy cut than be axed and/or foreclosed on and cast out into (multitudinous) oblivion!

It is rare to encounter an open handed consideration of where we are headed, what publicly funded culture could be and what the effects of a kind of X-Factorisation of the arts will mean for its and our development. Instead there is a closing of ranks and proliferation of consensus that feels frankly totalitarian, as the lie is swallowed and circulated with an unctuous, self-preservatory fervour. And as it circulates, the distinctions between what is thought and what is merely replicated, what is worthwhile and what is hollow, what creativity might mean versus the box-ticking activity of ‘creatives' is eroded. And, as it erodes, the chances of interesting life forms seem to dwindle. It all raises the question of what will grow in the light of such a cold sun?

Josephine Berry Slater

<josie AT> is Editor of Mute