eipcp Policies A Critique of Creative Industries
11 2006

The Future is Here

Language editing: Aileen Derieg

Maria Lind

Maria Lind




The future is here. What eight writers from seven regions in Europe have predicted regarding contemporary art and its public funding in 2015 has already been implemented.[1] Art has been heavily instrumentalised and become a popular tool for social inclusion. It is used to create jobs at the same time as it is expected to function as an entertaining free time activity. Moreover, art is a rewarding instrument for building and reinforcing regional, national and European identities. You recognise all this – probably all too well. The main difference between today’s situation and the writers’ predictions is therefore a question of degree and not kind. Nevertheless, I am startled when I find out that the British Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports already calls art centres “centres for social change”.[2]

Art has indeed always been instrumental. Potentates with diverse political leanings have unflinchingly used art to serve their own purposes. One example from the mid-90s is Tony Blair’s campaign to make Great Britain appear to be “cool” and creative, attributes which in turn are expected to generate economic advantages. This has in fact happened: according to the Design Council in 2002 the link between economic growth and design could finally be established. The more a company would focus on design the higher share prices they would have. However, this turns out to be more of a rosy vision than reality, in which design instead tends to replace innovation.[3] One of the first conscious long-term initiatives to “brand the nation”, using culture as the primary instrument, was carried out by the young Bavarian nation during the 19th century. The Napoleonic wars made Bavaria an independent monarchy, where the regents quickly commissioned the building of an art museum and an opera in order to create a Bavarian identity as a cultural nation, something that even today Bavarian politicians continue to elaborate upon. It is probably no coincidence that the man whose leadership led not only to one of mankind’s worst catastrophes but also to a particularly horrible example of a minutely calculated use of culture for political ends spent many years in Munich. Germany’s salutary conclusion after the Second World War is worth mentioning: strategically utilizing culture for a particular, programmatic purpose is very risky and should be prevented. Thus not until recently has there been any national budget for culture, no national “German” institutions. Instead, the federal states have taken care of culture and each state has had its own budget for culture and a number of institutions which otherwise only crop up in capitals and other large cities.

This type of political instrumentalisation has most often occurred more openly than it did after WW2, when in western Europe it began to be considered unsuitable to demand measurable results from art or to advocate open tributes to leaders, nations, forms of government, etc. This attitude is, of course, just as ideologically loaded as, for example, the Bavarian instrumentalisation of culture or the use of art in the other side of the Iron Curtain, but it has a different impact on culture and its producers. Through asserting the freedom of art to do what it wishes, the type of control resulting from a belief in “free” art did give more room to maneuver – at least its palette contained all the colours of the rainbow. The current marked increase in interest in those kinds of policy questions, including questions about the funding of art, is connected with the expansion of the critique of institutions.

Although it initially addressed the physically and administratively uniform institutions of art, this critique now embraces more or less a whole system – the “institution contemporary art”, so to speak. This includes both the art market and the public apparatus, with its policies and channels for financing. Characteristic of this wave of institutional critique is also that those doing the criticizing implicate themselves in what is being criticized: there is no real “outside”, no absolute detachment.[4] Artists such as Marion von Osten and Carey Young have been involved with projects that take this kind of a – more systemic – approach, if only through one or two aspects of the system. This development is in turn linked with changes in the global economy, not least with how work is organised in an economy where deregulation and flexibility – with constant creativity as the leit motif – structure the labour market. A crucial element in this creative imperative is the need for self-motivated and self-regulating workers.

So it is only logical that discussions about the artist as a role model, not only for the entrepreneur but also for the contemporary worker, have flourished over the last decade.[5] The traditional artist as a bohemian (read flexible), inspired (read self-motivated), and most importantly, creative (read innovative) individual is the ideal for a large portion of the work force in a deregulated labour market. But if this traditional role has been adopted by mainstream work, what does it mean for the working conditions of artists themselves today? Besides selling material images and objects and being subsumed into the so-called creative industries, how can artists survive under the present circumstances?

Reassuringly enough, when the control of cultural production worryingly moves so much in this one direction, counterweights of varying magnitude always arise. It is notable that most of the authors of European Cultural Policies 2015 point to a phenomenon parallel to instrumentalisation, something which is moreover a cornerstone of the so-called new economy: namely, self-organisation. According to several voices in the report, artists’ self-organised initiatives will play an increasingly important role in the future. The authors go so far as to claim that it is just here that the room for maneouver, for activities which neither suit the market nor agree to follow the dictates of public funding, will be found in 2015. Art that will be critical of the status quo and that will resist being utilized as a commodity, as entertainment, job opportunity or social leveller. How these initiatives will be maintained and supported is not spelled out, whether they will exist as no- or low-budget activities, or if they will have external sources of funding or generate their own income.

However, at this point the future feels more remote. To enumerate economically independent artists’ initiatives, or financially independent, non-commercial initiatives in general, is not an easy task. 16 Beaver[6] and e-flux[7] in New York are two clear examples of artists who have survived with integrity in the capital of art commerce, through rental fees and the distribution of information respectively. Eipcp (European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies) in Vienna has succeeded in seeking and obtaining sufficient amounts of European cultural subsidies to run an independent trans-national, research-related programme in which a critical discourse is given a great amount of space.[8] Eipcp is moreover one of the few organisations that has become engaged in publishing important texts on the Net, which are translated into several languages. One could also mention Pro qm, a thematic book shop in Berlin, which deals with cities, architecture, art, design, pop, politics and theory by selling books, publishing, doing projects and other public events.[9] All of these examples produce ideas and projects which are almost never otherwise encountered within either the publicly funded or the commercial art market. There are also a number of individual artists and institutions that have acquired certain sources of income – mainly renting out space – which are supplementary to the official (public) sources. These channels or sources often function together with conventional funding and together create a mixed economy, and to my knowledge rarely lead to conformist art production and curatorial practice.

In addition to what the authors of the report say about the future importance of self-organised artists’ initiatives I would like to add something which has come to my attention fairly recently. I am thinking of initiatives which take a sort of “counter-position” in relation to mainstream culture and specially instrumentalisation, wanting to be situated “outside”, also for polemical reasons. In a way the mentioned initiatives would qualify here, but I am thinking of a more vociferous expression of discontent and taking certain action. Some producers of culture have even joined forces to alert people about the risks involved with the instrumentalisation of art and to present alternatives. In this way they are taking a big step to the side from current cultural production as mediated by public and commercial institutions, underlining negation, withdrawal and the importance of opacity. In this context it is even possible to speak of yet a new turn of institutional critique within the “systemic approach”, namely that of a certain strategic separatism. Here the lines are drawn between spheres and activities, if only to clarify that at the moment the leakage is seriously undermining artistic practice as we have known it over the last 50 years, but also to symbolically mark that “enough is enough”. This turn can be understood as a survival attempt.

One example of this new wave is the so-called Manifesto Club in London, a forum and campaign around the issue of artistic autonomy.[10] They are reacting against the kind of conformism that instrumentalisation produces. Or as they themselves phrase it:

“Our ambition is to develop a network of individuals who share the common interest of challenging the current culture of instrumentalism that artists face in current government policy, and the strain of anti-experimental conformism that infects both art education, cultural policy and mainstream culture more broadly. Against this, we defend artistic autonomy in all its forms: A vibrant artistic culture we believe must be founded upon artistic freedom, and the only limits for artists should be the limits of the discipline and the limits they choose for themselves. We want to start a new discussion about the values we attach to art, about the role of artists in our society, and about the nature of cultural experimentation and an aspiration for new possibilities. We also feel it is important for people working in different areas of culture – visual arts, museums, theatre, music, film, design, dance, etc – to come together and understand the common challenges we face.”

Although this bears some similarities with high modernist ideas of autonomy and art for art’s own sake, it does not appear to be an essentialist approach. They seem to promote an art which can very well be actively engaged with society, if the artists so wish. Therefore I do not, so far, see it as a return to the ivory tower but as a slightly desperate scream for the possibility of self-determination and reasonable space for manoeuvring, a call for the continuous relevance of emancipation.

Another pertinent example is the project Opacity. Current Considerations on Art Institutions and the Economy of Desire, curated by Nina Möntmann, which pointed out and challenged “anti-experimental conformism”, particularly the institutional constraints.[11] The project tried to provide a platform for artistic practices which are based on research and analysis, for example those by Stephan Dillemuth, Kajsa Dahlberg and Gardar Eide Einarsson, through exhibitions, workshops, screenings and the production of a fanzine. As opposed to classical institutional critique, by artists such as Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser, this project used a lack of transparency rather than its abundance. It propagated the right for artists and smaller institutions to be opaque in order to have a chance to experiment with new types of collaborations and other practices. By turning their back to the expectations of constant and immediate accessibility in public institutions they also pointed to the fact that for post-studio practice having time and space to prepare for projects can more or less only be offered by institutions.

The picture that emerges from European Cultural Policies 2015, and which is already discernible today, shows a tendency toward radical division in the art world. On the one hand we have a commercially viable art, often entertaining and/or “shocking” with populistic elements, adapted to the public institutions, particularly the large ones, that increasingly function as mass media. On the other hand, we have a “difficult” and “uncomfortable” art with critical ambitions, which opposes being incorporated into these patterns. The former produces high visitor figures and copious media coverage, but lacks serious, long-term production of new ideas. It tends to be superficial and to be implicated in the creative industries. The latter generates lots of new ideas and excels in sophisticated discourse, but preaches to a small group of the already converted. Although this division has existed before, channels of communication between the different branches have nevertheless existed. Today these channels are rare, and if we are to believe the authors of the report, they will hardly exist at all in 2015. Whereas support for opening up art – and intellectual activities in general for that matter – to popular culture and to deconstruction of all kinds of power hierarchies has been strong in critical circles over the last 40 years, the doors are now closing. But again, this is for strategic reasons rather than a belief in essentialism. Decades of theoretical defense of ideas of the productive nature of hybridity as in Homi Bhaba, the constructed nature and power relations of all categories as in Michel Foucault, and not least of all the emancipatory potential of fluidity and leakage as in Deleuze and Guattari now have to give some way to more separatist thinking. Which means that we will probably see more quotes from people like Gayatri Spivak and Hal Foster in the near future.

If the crossroads have long since been passed and the roads are becoming more and more distant from each other, I have to ask whether it is desirable to bridge these differences. If yes, is it at all possible? If not, will not each branch wither away without contact with the other? Increasing numbers of institutions – and in extension, even artists – are forced to adapt their programmes and/or work to the prevailing policy and/or market forces. If not in public then at least among themselves, colleagues vent their feelings about the pitiful compromises they are forced to make and about how great is the gap between what they must do and what they want to do. To their funders, they stress quantities: numbers of visitors, numbers of exhibitors, numbers of press cuttings, despite the fact that this way of measuring quality is met with considerable scepticism by most professional producers of art – mostly in private. It seems to me now that the real question is how the first “populist” variant of contemporary art will manage without influx from the “idea-rich” segment? And what will happen in the long run with an art that wishes to remain narrow and advanced, if it does not, at least periodically, resonate with a broader public? This is what we need to debate now.

An earlier version of this text was published by The Showroom gallery, London in The Showroom Annual 2005/06, http://www.theshowroom.org/.

[1] Lind, Maria, & Minichbauer, Raimund (Eds.). (2005). European Cultural Policies 2015. London, Stockholm, Vienna: Iaspis and eipcp. http://eipcp.net/publications/ecp2015

[2] This is part of the lingo of the ministry, also during public appearances.

[3] See Heartfield, James (2006). “A business solution for creativity, not a creativity solution for business.” In Munira Mirza (Ed.), Culture Vultures (pp. 71-92). London: Policy Exchange. http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/images/libimages/138.pdf

[4] See for instance Irit Rogoff

[5] See for instance the project Atelier Europa.

[10] www.manifestoclub.com At the moment they are focusing on the idea of a possible free art school: “For our first project, we are proposing to set up a programme of open seminars and discussions in art schools, under the question 'What is a free art school?'. [...] We aim to bring together students, tutors and others, to explore the shape of a possible 'free art school', against the realities of art education as it now exists. From this we want to bring together an overview of people's experience of art school as it now stands”.

[11] See Möntmann. Nina (2006). Art and its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations. London: Black Dog Publishing.