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Instrumentality or artistic autonomy? – the pursuit of cultural value by Susan Jones

In this guest blog post Susan Jones, Director of a-n The Artists Information Company explores the tension between cultural value and the pressure to ‘deliver impact’ as seen from the artists’ perspective, which has so far been largely missing from discussions around cultural policy.

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Those who drive cultural policy or employ, commission or otherwise ‘mediate’ between artists and audiences have defined their own agendas and expectations of artists and art and indeed of what art and artists are for:

 Artists are actively encouraged by policy makers to widen their practices and expectations because: “There is nothing reprehensible in artists seeking to extend cultural democracy by opening their practice to others”.

Thus art is often perceived and valued as a social instrument, as exemplified in statements such as: “art produces social change that can be seen, evaluated and broadly planned; contributes to social cohesion, benefits environmental renewal and health and injects creativity into organisational planning.”

The neo-liberalism of the last decade in the UK at least has located artists – unless they are the art stars of the commercial art market – largely as deliverers of public policy. Artists may find themselves shoe-horned (through financial necessity or the arts PR machine) into making art/delivering art projects the efficacy of which are measured in terms of their instrumental powers – how well they serve the needs of others (achieve social improvement such as regeneration, uplift the lives of disadvantaged people, they fill the ‘arts gap’ in school curricula.

In short, their role is to create art or use art processes that are predominantly measured by what they “give to others”. Thus highlighting the altruism of artists

However, as John Holden commented: “Institutional and Measurement Properties of the administrative system exert far too much influence over the nature of cultural activity itself…The danger is that unintentionally, these pressures will institutionalise cultural mediocrity by encouraging funders and funded to take safe bets…We should be not be satisfied with criteria that act as proxies for cultural value; rather, we should be seeking to design the institutions around the creation of cultural value”.

So how do artists navigate the political and social agendas and the expectations of ‘service’ without feeling they are unreasonably compromising their ideals, ethics, sensibilities? This puts us in the slippery territory of instrumentality versus artistic autonomy.

Hans Abbing articulates the dichotomy in his book Why artists are poor.

“Most artists earn very little. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of aspiring young artists. Do they willing or unwilling give to the arts? They often subsidise the arts to raise [what are] low incomes. But their support is ineffective: because such subsidies only increase and perpetuate the poverty of artists’.

Although the arts can operate successfully in the marketplace, their natural affinity is with gift-giving rather than with commercial exchange. People believe that artists are selflessly dedicated to art, that price does not reflect quality and that the arts are free.”

In her lecture ‘The gift controversy’ Emilia Telese commented: “Are artists actually able to free themselves from the constraints that are placed on them – by the grant-givers, the commissioners, the commercial sponsors etc – those whose roles and evaluations are seemingly legitimising the artist’s role?”

Some artists perceive this “gift economy” as reasonable. They don’t want to be bound by – or actively buy into – any form of financial arrangement that might become the legitimiser of their work, because doing so would interfere with the artist’s autonomy.

The authors of Running a one-person business describe an attitude that is directly translatable into the artists’ world: Such “Life-style businesses” are those that are “a statement about who you are and all that is important in your life”. Such an approach provides artists with the degree of artistic autonomy they aspire to.

Following a discussion amongst artists on this, Andrew Bryant wrote: “Can art be a commodity and at the same time have value as art? Who do we artists think we are anyway? Are we so special that we think we can live in a world without envy, greed and ambition; without money? It does seem hypocritical to be forever complaining about not having any money and not getting paid for what we do, and then as soon as someone gets to be successful and starts to sell their work, we all suddenly decide they have sold out.

Whilst this is not the place to explore the role and constraints of the art market on artists’ autonomy and practice, this observation from artist Graham Crowley is significant:

“Nobody I know about talks about the market (as represented in the media) or discusses the work of artists like Damien Hirst in any critical manner. It’s seen purely as a construct of the market and the media… a dealer told me that he thought that ‘so and so is an important artist, because his work is becoming very expensive’. I disagreed. His reply was that nobody’s interested in what painters thought. This artist’s work is expensive in the market place, and that’s what was important.”

Interestingly, in terms of artists’ ability to find success in the market, I read last year that the UK now has a higher percentage of fine art courses per capita than anywhere else in the world: more that Europe and North America – places in which there are very established contemporary art markets.

A report into artists’ careers[1] produced for the Arts Council (of England) in 1997 concluded that for artists: “Money is not the driving force behind making work. What is most important to artists is making work which they are personally happy with. This suggests that artists’ experience non-pecuniary or psychic income from continuing to practice.”

In short, then unlike ‘small businesses’ and entrepreneurs, artists are not concerned with expansion and profit making, but tend to view money as only important because it provides them with the freedom to make more art. In this way artists could be considered more as social enterprises – as non-profits – who create cultural capital for others whilst fulfilling their own artistic aspirations.

Whether and how this image of artists’ value may concur with that of cultural leaders and policy-makers – most of whom don’t think it necessary to actively seek the views of artists when creating this policy – is worthy of debate. In my mind, whilst seeking to ‘fit’ artists into their policies and instruments might have worked – a bit – in the past couple of decades, it won’t in the future. We’re in a different world now, one that needs solutions to complex environments – clumsy solutions. As Matthew Taylor commented: “Rather than seeking to resolve or suppress inherent tensions among different ways of seeing and exercising power, clumsy solutions acknowledge and work with those tensions.”

I’d like to give consideration here to other options for artists positioning other than the ‘instrumentality’ of the policy-makers or ‘living with’ the restrictions placed on their artistic livelihoods by market forces.

I believe it’s possible for artists to mediate their own practice, to develop the language and to translate / reinterpret others’ needs and aspirations for art into the mechanics of their practice, enabling artists to grow and sustain their practice.  To be artists first and foremost.

The ‘short-hand and the buzz words’ of politicians and policy-makers – terminology such as regeneration, community development and digital innovation – can and should be appropriated and subverted by artists themselves into the research and the level of social engagement that can extend artists’ circles of audience, that achieves whatever kind of financial/value exchange that artists need to pursue their practice and be recognised for having a serious practice, and thus plays a vital role in building an understanding of what constitutes cultural value to society.

Susan Jones

Director a-n The Artists Information Company

Extract from ‘Nobody wants you but everyone needs you’, lecture for MA in Fine Art by Distance Learning, OpenCollege of the Arts, 2011.


[1] Career paths of visual artists, Honey, Heron and Jackson, Arts Council of England, 1997

Bio

Director of a-n The Artists Information Company, Susan Jones is a activist and researcher who warms to lateral, radical, subversive thoughts and de-institutionalisation. A former artist, she is passionate about arts and culture, advocating for innovation and excellence through investment in artists themselves. Her study Measuring the experience of the scope and value of artist-led initiatives (1995) highlighted how proactive individuals working collectively are a dynamic force for change, foregrounding the role social networks now play in democratising communities. Her studies on artists’ livelihoods and professional development matters are published on www.a-n.co.uk. She has presented evidence through peer networks including CreativeClusters, Paradox, Interartes, CreativePeople and N-Ten, and to the Cultural Media and Sport Inquiry into Markets for art.

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  1. […] The Guardian; Where is the place for art? Engage conference 2011 and published The Guardian; Instrumentality or artistic autonomy – the pursuit of cultural value, Cultural Value Initiative Warwick University 2012 and Are there too many artists? MarketProject […]

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