Welcome to the future!

© e-flux

It is this obsessive phrase that accompanied me during the reading of extremely interesting and immeasurably pessimistic analysis of the financing of culture in general, and arts and education in the UK in particular, done by Claire Bishop. To make it short the case is the following: further on the big and successful will receive much, the small and experimental – little or nothing at all. Thus, the strong will become even stronger, while the weak will disappear. The state program of budget cuts foresees that everyone will become more active in the realm of fundraising and the increasing needs of cultural institutions will be financed by private capital, while the government spending on art will be reduced. Reduced unprecedentedly.

Even more dramatic changes will occur in the field of education. Only four “strategic” areas will receive a generous public funding: natural sciences, technologies, engineering, and mathematics. This means that students of these four disciplines will be supported by the state. All the rest will have to pay for their education by means of the long-term loans. The payment will last for such a long time that the author calls it a life imprisonment. The loan for education will be paid within thirty (!) years. Claire Bishop in response to these – as it seems taken for practical reasons – initiatives warns that they will lead to the closure of access to education for not very wealthy families and transform the humanities into the privilege for the rich. In the future children of successful lawyers and financiers will become philosophers. In art the hopes for fundraising will lead to what she calls a “blockbuster thinking”, that is, when funding goes to big, celebrated and media-attractive projects. Therefore, the mental energy of cultural institutions will be invested into them. These will be projects for which you can find a generous sponsor, interested in his/her own PR, but not in art per se. Then the small, experimental, research or critical projects will remain behind. Art will lose its life-giving ground and become a part of show business. All this will lead to self-censorship and desire to make a colorful, but not necessarily an interesting project. Under such circumstances, the novels of James Joyce will not have a chance in the future.

So let us go back to the future. Hope for private financing has been for many years very alive in the post-Soviet Ukraine, where the private sponsor finds him/herself in a situation of being probably the only donor. And exactly that was the reason for the decision to stop funding the Soros Center for Contemporary Art, as argued by George Soros himself in the distant 1998. They say he then claimed the following: “You have a great space – give it for rent! For weddings.” This forced the SCCA to compromise with its own program and give every effort to find commercial donors, or not necessarily commercial ones, but those who were interested in blockbusters only. Then the SCCA encountered a new situation when to finance an international exhibition with the costs for transportation, insurance and artists’ arrival have been much easier than a Ukrainian one. Easier to such an extent that Ukrainian exhibitions were simply unrealistic. This led to dissatisfaction in the art community, but back then the SCCA was the only living contemporary art institution with the strategy, a long-term program, and quite a dynamic team. Therefore, the Center managed to take care of another important thing – the development of contemporary art audience. It then became strategically important to have public lectures, workshops, talks with artists.

What is interesting, in the late 1990s the genre of debates had no much popularity compared to lectures. This indicates that the development of audience (including the inner art audience which includes other artists, critics, journalists, curators) finally took place during the last 10 years. But the situation of the SCCA, or more precisely “Foundation Center for Contemporary Art” as its ultimate successor, now perfectly demonstrate how threatening the calls to donate space for lease are. The situation of the besieged fortress, when it is difficult to predict whether this important institution will still exist tomorrow. For financial reasons. What is left is to rely on the loyalty of its people.

Thinking about that I am getting more and more convinced that what happened in the post-Soviet countries is the future for the British art, as described by Claire Bishop. This is what we usually call an “art glamourization” combined with a lack of critical thinking of the artistic reality (as well as the philosophical analysis in general). Paradoxically for a standard hierarchy of countries in which we commonly believe. It appears that post-Soviet countries are not the ones which should look at more developed Western countries but those later should pay attention to the former ones. Their future is embodied there.

Here, in eastern Eastern Europe, we so ruthlessly believed in capitalist maxims, pinned such hopes on private money, disdained all public (just remember the language pearl of the society with low social capital – “grant-eaters”!) and changed it for the state one that we stopped to appreciate the abstract knowledge as such. And it is exactly what non-speculative, critical and not very popular art gives. As well as humanitarian education. Even the realm of culture is enveloped by thinking in ROI (return on investment) categories. Thus, the culture slowly began to turn into “image projects”, and it is especially sharply manifested in the art (not only today, by the way). Donors started to think about art events in the categories of media exhaust. Is it not a blockbuster thinking from which Claire Bishop warns us? Is the ease with which such thinking has become dominant by us not amazing? Of course, all this happened on the background of extremely low status of humanitarian knowledge. It is exactly for the reasons of low ROI. After all, who benefits from the fact that we for example understand the trends in world literature over the past 100 years? Almost no one. And of course, in Britain the status of bearer of such knowledge is immeasurably higher, and the very knowledge has more respect. But trends in education when philosophy becomes a privilege of rich and carefree, and only a few natural sciences will have status, can also lead to a transformation of culture in the domain of “image-making” Meet the future.

And a few more words about the competition and labor remuneration. Thinking in ROI categories implies that competition between members of one project leads to the best results, the optimum ratio of money and quality and victory of the most worthy ones. And also that it is necessary to invest money and effort in that what will give the biggest profit (plus margin error for individual happiness). And this principle does not work in the field of art at all. Let us make a simple mental experiment. Imagine, for example, a plumber. He performs certain functions, receiving financial reward for each action performed within these functions. This is the only normal and socially acceptable situation. A plumber who repairs pipes for free will be at best a great eccentric, who should not be let into the house.

Now think about an artist, a critic or a curator. As for them unpaid work is not only considered to be normal, but it is often expected to be done on such a basis. And certainly no one considers an artist who, for example, produces paintings in a studio and never sells them, to be crazy. Even if an artist will be of little interest from an artistic point of view, his/her works will cause some respect and no one will call him/her a suspicious type. Without going deep into the discussion of how work in the artistic field should be paid, I just want to emphasize that the work in art, which does not bring direct revenue, makes sense and is socially acceptable. The same applies to education or, for example, religion. Thus, culture in the broadest sense. Here the increase or the return of investments is neither the only nor the central logic. Even more, thinking in such categories often causes shame, because it denies the value of knowledge per se. The value of the intellect and not the common sense.

Thus, imposing of behavioral models on the cultural field (competition, maximized profits spent on efforts, publicity as a measure of quality) which dominate in the capitalist production of material goods, breaks the internal logic of the culture itself. It makes the culture to become an amusing hobby out of the center of thinking of the society. With losses for all parties – both the culture and its society, because such a society loses the ability to reflect on its state. Does it not remind you of anything? And if so, we welcome the great cultures to look in the mirror of their future. In our eastern Eastern Europe.