Since the cutbacks in the cultural sector from 2011, policymakers have set the so-called ‘creative industry’ as an example to the arts. Industrial design, architecture, graphic design and the gaming industry: the creatives have become ‘top sector’. This, I believe, is the root cause of the unease expressed in this newspaper’s Cultural Supplement last week: the increasing instrumentalization of art by policymakers.
In his article Why Studio Drift’s magic is hypocritical (15/7) Hans den Hartog Jager protested against designers who ‘penetrate’ into the art domain. His criticism focuses mainly on the designer duo Studio Drift and the fact that the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum has purchased one of their works (Drift donated two smaller works to the museum). Den Hartog Jager accuses these designers of eroding art by making clever use of concepts from autonomous visual art and translating them into ‘consumer kitsch’. According to him, the national museum for contemporary art legitimizes bite-sized ‘humbug’ with this purchase.
I don’t think the problem is that cultural disciplines overlap and mixtures are introduced. Of course you can think that Studio Drift’s ‘starry sky’ created with illuminated drones is nothing more than ‘simple sensation’. The same discussion also played out about the exhibition by designer Marcel Wanders in the Stedelijk and about that of visual artist Jeff Koons, who calls himself ‘partly a cheater’.
Charlatan yes or no: art history has been discussing it since time immemorial. It is precisely the task of present-day presentation institutions to conduct and nurture that debate. (By the way, the work of Studio Drift was purchased by the curator of industrial design at the Stedelijk, so not funded from the art budget.)
The real problem is that art is increasingly directed via subsidies – also by equity funds – to projects with ‘social impact’. An example is the special programs in museums for Alzheimer’s patients.
Such involvement is meritorious, but there is a risk that particular importance will be attached to the derived value of art: this then functions as a means to provide issues in society with a creative – and sometimes cheap – ‘solution’. An additional problem is that for such functional applications of creativity not first of all autonomously working artists are suitable, but designers. They are trained to use techniques for assignment-related work. As a result, it is they who increasingly win commissions for, for example, art in public space – traditionally important for the livelihood of sculptors.
Where previously artistic freedom was central, now the emphasis is on applicability. A well-known example of this is the sustainable and attractive lighting that Daan Roosegaarde, trained as an architect, designed for the Afsluitdijk. This shift is particularly noticeable at the local level. Municipalities are the largest distributors of cultural subsidies, but art financing is not a legal obligation for them. Because budget cuts have been implemented at the same time as the decentralization of central government tasks to lower levels of government, municipalities are cutting back considerably on culture. So that they can fulfill their mandatory (youth) care tasks. By using art budgets in healthcare, they kill two birds with one stone.
Artists or designers who give workshops to the mentally handicapped are usually cheaper than specially trained social workers who work continuously with these people. It is also significant that an increasing number of municipalities no longer appoint a separate alderman for culture: art is then assigned to care or education. As a result, the knowledge about and involvement in art of the most important art financier: the local government disappears.
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The fact that the creative industry must now act as a role model has a clear message: can art not also develop into a for profit-sector? It is efficiency thinking implemented in its most extreme form: the aim seems to be art that no longer needs subsidy. This policy trend sends the wrong signal to politicians and the public. After all, the so-called ‘earning capacity’ of autonomous art is fundamentally different from that of the creative industry.
Nowadays, the ‘cultural and creative sector’ is also spoken in the same breath within the art world itself, recently, for example, in the advice Kunsten2030 from lobby organization Kunsten 92 to the minister.
With this compliance with this instrumental subsidy policy, the sector is shooting itself in the foot. It is precisely the art world that must continue to draw attention to the fact that the arts in themselves have value for viewers and listeners. That value lies precisely in the fact that a painting or symphony is not always easy to understand, but rather wants to offer a different experience or perspective than we already know.
It is not the ‘entertaining’ forms of art – or kitsch – that pose the greatest threat. The danger lies in the assumption that artists can ‘hold up their own pants’ as long as they are enterprising enough and a little flexible. The comparison with the creative industry is a false comparison that seems to be motivated mainly by frugality and a lack of knowledge.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 22, 2022