$7 billion of neoliberalism

The Stationers' Company mark

The Stationers’ Company: an early example of government cultural policy. Image: Wikipedia.

Australian economist Jason Potts has restarted an important debate about cultural policy in this country with an article entitled “You’ve got $7 billion – so how will you fund the arts?“. I just wish he hadn’t analysed Australian cultural policy from the sort of instrumentalist, neoliberal position we find so familiar in many other spheres of policy debate.

I’ll say right up the top that I’m a fan of Potts’ work, and think him a pretty clever fellow. His work on evolutionary economics is in its own way quite heterodox, and a far cry from the sort of automatic and reflexive market worship we often associate with both the RMIT Economics school, and the Institute for Public Affairs, which he is apparently doing some work with.

On the other hand, his op-ed in The Conversation on cultural policy  is not one of his more perspicacious efforts. Justin O’Connor has already written a useful response, but I thought I’d add a few points of my own, set forth below.

Let’s start by setting forward Potts’ argument. Then we’ll move on to a critique.

Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics did the maths – government spends about A$7 billion annually in Australia on arts and culture. The exact dollar figure varies depending on what we count, but it includes heritage, broadcasting and botanical gardens, along with all the usual suspects: performing arts, literature, film, visual arts, and so on.

This is apples, oranges and all sorts of random fruit.  “Heritage” funding, for instance, includes such things as war memorials, botanical gardens, zoos and some national parks expenditure. That’s a pretty different sort of thing to grants to game design companies or tax incentives to Hollywood movie studios. Does it actually make sense to treat all of these things as the same sort of expenditure?

Anyway, moving on:

To make this exercise fun, let’s suppose that no political horse-trading was involved in reaching this figure. Let’s assume this figure is the result of disinterested economic calculation of the size of the positive externality in the production of a public good, all wrapped in willingness-to-pay studies, and tied with a big bright cost-benefit ribbon.

So what’s next?

Do we put away our box of shiny economic tools and turn to grubby political compromise to allocate the exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding?

In Australia, as in Europe, this is more or less what we do. Economics to justify an economically efficient level of spending – and politics to implement it.

Really? Last time I looked, in most nation-states, including most democracies, politics is almost always the over-riding factor in the way  budget priorities are set. Sure, politicians and lobbyists and ordinary citizens use economic arguments to make the case for this spending increase or that tax cut. But the process is always and by definition political. On the really big picture stuff, economics arguably can’t really help us. For instance, how much should Australia invest in national defence, or climate change mitigation? The answer depends on inherently political judgments, such as whether you think global warming is real, or the likelihood of a major war.

Indeed, ‘economic efficiency’ is itself an inherently political argument, because it applies a very particular set of assumptions to public policy — namely that Pareto efficiency can actually hold in the first place. In markets in which there is imperfect information — and cultural markets are amongst the most opaque of all — Pareto efficiency may well be impossible. Potts knows this, which is why his quip about the “exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding” strikes me as disingenuous.

So let’s get to the guts of Potts’ argument:

… modern economics suggests that it would be better if we turned the process upside down. Let politicians determine the level of funding in a given area – and let economists determine the allocation.

Why? The political model of funding allocation is very bad at creating – or even recognising – new knowledge. In fact, political allocation mechanisms cause incentives that reward lobbying and punish experimental or innovative thinking.

Only by weakening those incentives can arts and cultural funding seek to be more than a rearguard preservation exercise or sinecure for vested interests.

I suppose it’s something of ad hominem attack to point this out, but it’s just a tad ironic that the person making this argument is a Federation Fellow of a publicly funded Australian university. A person writing for a website, by the way, also funded by universities and the government, using a medium — the internet — that was created almost exclusively by public investment in research.

“Political allocation mechanisms”, by which I think Potts means governments making budget decisions, certainly create incentives that reward lobbying. Then again, so do market mechanisms. Markets require the state to provide a level playing field via such basic institutions as property rights, police forces and courts of law. All of these create incentives for vested interests to plead their cause.

This is no trivial point, by the way: the cultural industries are completely dependent on intellectual property rights such as copyright and patents. The very fact that many cultural goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable creates huge incentives for content industries to lobby governments to create and strengthen IP regulations — as has been well documented by researchers such as Lessig. When property rights become unenforceable, digital goods become a whole lot less valuable. Anyway, Potts’ claim was that public spending creates lobbying, which is bad. On this analysis, many of the cherished market mechanisms of the cultural industries must also be bad, because they were created via lobbying.

This points to a further naievete: the implicit belief that cultural goods and services are just like any other industrial product.

Even a moment’s reflection shows us this isn’t true. The products of cultural industries are not like any old widget or commodity: they are not even really the same thing as an iPhone or an operating system. Cultural industries produce symbols, and symbols are powerful (or at least highly influential). An aluminium ingot or a wind turbine cannot affect the democratic judgment or voting intentions of millions of citizens. A newspaper empire or television network can.

It doesn’t really matter whether you think that the power of media companies to swing elections is illusory. The history of modern media policy tells us that governments certainly do think symbols are powerful. Media has generally often been heavily regulated, sometimes on the grounds of public interest, but more commonly for naked reasons of political expediency. Even in the US, with its famous First Amendment, successive Washington administrations have had no qualms about controlling spectrum, imposing stringent copyright regulations, and spying extensively on their citizens’ communications. Hosni Mubarak turned off the internet in Egypt for a reason. Whether it’s internet filters or the Stationers Company, the political nature of cultural industries means they can’t be divorced from questions of power.

This curious ignorance of the symbolic reality of culture is often found amongst unsophisticated approaches to cultural economics — much as economics as taught in the modern university tends to ignore key aspects of sociology. As a result, when economists issue prescriptions for cultural policy, they tend to propose cures that are far worse than the supposed disease.

Perhaps this is why Potts misconstrues key facts about real-life cultural policy. For instance, he seems to think arts funding is about “inputs, not outputs”, when in fact nearly all Australian government arts grants are legal contracts specifying outcomes, allowing the government to recoup the funding if not properly acquitted. He also equates prizes as some sort of gold standard of outcome, which is strange because prize committees show exactly the sort of “bullshit” he decries in grant panels.

Similarly, when he argues for “tax credits to anyone – private citizen, corporation, foundation or NGO alike – for spending on arts and culture”, he seems to imply these don’t currently exist. In fact, they do. An individual donating to a DGR-status cultural organisation already receives a tax credit, while a non-profit NGO or foundation already pays no tax beyond the GST.

New art is popular

This article appeared in Crikey on April 8th.

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot "From here to ear (v. 13) 2010". Mixed media, exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. Image: Queensland Art Gallery.

Your correspondent was in Brisbane last weekend, where he was able to spend a couple of afternoons at the Gallery of Modern Art’s latest contemporary art exhibition, 21st Century: Art in the First Decade.

The gallery was filled with people from across the demographic spectrum: young hipster couples, tourists, senior Australians, and families. So many families. This is an exhibition that seems to to capture the imagination of kids, as well as those who refuse to grow up.

And who can blame them? This particular vision of art in the 21st century could be criticised for many things (some have even used that most devastating of artworld barbs: “safe”), but one thing you can’t fault is its sense of sheer, innocent joy. GOMA’s take on the art of the past decade is filled with the interactive, the relational and the funny, from Martin Creed’s room filled full of purple balloons (Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space (purple)) to Carsten Holler’s signature slippery dip Test site, and from Rikrit Tiravanija’s key relational work — a Thai meal for four — to Olafur Eliasson’s giant Lego play pen, The cubic structural evolution project.

Martin Creed, "Work No. 956" (2008), exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Image: Queensland Art Gallery / Natasha Harth

Of these, Holler’s Test site is something of a signature work of the show, dominating the gallery hall over two levels as visitors enter the space. Crikey’s correspondent was struck by the long stretching lines of kids queuing to go on the slides.

Two of the most popular works at the show were interactive and tinged with a sophisticated play of emotions: Rivane Neuenschwander’s wall of ribbons with wishes printed on them, I wish your wish, and the indoor finch aviary of Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s From here to ear (v.13). Neuenschwander’s work knowingly winked at the unattainability of so many of our hopes and dreams (Crikey particularly enjoyed “I wish I was a famous cricket player”), while Boursier-Mougenot’s work echoes some of the best installation work of the past two decades, such as Hirst’s 1000 Years, and takes it in a sadder, quieter and more sublime direction.

The exhibition certainly has several potential flaws. As a show substantially built up from the gallery’s own collection, it has an unashamedly Asia-Pacific focus; many of the works chosen to represent important artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Julian Opie and Chris Ofili are far from the best examples of their ouevre. On the other hand, this Asia-Pacific collection is the gallery’s obvious strength, and has taken on a chilling importance with the recent imprisonment of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose Painted vases are a part of the show.

A show such as this is something of a risk for a big gallery — or at least once might have thought to have been — especially in comparison to tried and tested blockbuster exhibitions of old masters. Hence, it must be gratifying for the gallery to mount such a well-attended show, despite the devastating floods of summer. Brisbane’s Gallery Of Modern Art/Queensland Art Gallery complex is now themost popular art gallery in the country, according to recently released figures.

It’s indeed interesting that two of the most exciting recent exhibitions in contemporary art in this country have occurred at Brisbane’s GOMA and in Hobart, where the Museum of Old and New Art, or MOMA, continues to wow Australian contemporary art lovers with a collection whose breadth and vision is unmatched in the country (for a recap, have a look at Andrew Frost’s episode of Artscape for ABC-TV).

According to Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Elwood, speaking on a panel discussion as part of 21st Century’s talks program: “We are a soft target because we are innovative and because we are in Brisbane. We work twice as hard to get half the recognition because we are in Brisbane.”

Pointing to criticisms that the exhibition is something of a “fun park”,  he answers: “It’s just disappointing that … by demonstrating just how much we want to reach out to whole ranges of audiences, that we then become a target. Contemporary art is always going to be the most critiqued and the most misunderstood of all the different art histories.”

As a result, Elwood says the gallery worked particularly hard on the ancillary aspects of the exhibition: its didactic panels, itscomprehensive blog and the handsome catalogue. The catalogue is notable for a typically clever essay on the theory of contemporary art by the inimitable Rex Butler, who canvasses the Duchampian nature of the exhibition in a few stylish paragraphs, before declaring, in a wonderful double movement, that “the new motto for art in the 21st century should be ‘Please don’t touch’.”

He means that, as art “increasingly heads towards a condition of total immersion, of a psychedelic or even neurological model”, it also embodies a contradiction: “It would be something of the hand … in an age of digitality.”

Of course, you don’t need to understand the history of modern art to enjoy 21st Century — and that’s precisely the point. In its large-scale installations for children, in particular, the exhibition demonstrates just how vibrant and enjoyable a commitment to new art can be. This really is living art.

 

The Australia Council’s recent Arts and Creative Industries report

The following article appeared in Crikey on February 4th. There’s been quite a bit of debate over at Crikey in the comments pages of this article, so head on over to see the discussion.

The plan to provoke a profound shake-up to the arts

In a week where so much has happened in the world, it’s not surprising a report from the Australia Council has not made the news. But in the rarefied atmosphere of arts policy, the release of a report entitled Arts and creative industries will make waves — the document, if followed to its logical conclusions, implies a profound shake-up to the current status quo. 

Authored by a team of QUT academics led by Professor Justin O’Connor, Arts and creative industries is a long, detailed and rigorous examination of the context, shape and setting of arts and cultural policy in Australia. It’s not quite the Henry Tax Review, but it’s certainly the most academically informed piece of research to be released by the Australia Council in a long time.

Beginning with a historical overview of 19th century culture and the genesis of “cultural policy” in postwar Britain, the report then examines each of the issues that has bedeviled the arts debate: the role of public subsidy, the growth of the industries that produce popular culture, the divide between high art and low art, and the emergence of the so-called “creative industries” in the 1990s. It’s as good a summary of the current state of play as you’re likely to find anywhere, including in the international academic literature.

O’Connor and his co-writers conclude that “the creative industries need not be —  indeed should not be — counter posed to cultural policy; they are a development of it” and that economic objectives (in other words, industry policy) should be a legitimate aim of cultural policy.

Taken as a whole, the argument has big implications for the way Australia currently pursues the regulation and funding of culture. For instance, it argues that “the ‘free market’ simply does not describe the tendencies of monopoly, agglomeration, cartels, restrictive practices, exploitation and unfair competition which mark the cultural industries” and that this in turn justifies greater regulation of cultural industries like the media. That’s a conclusion that few in the Productivity Commission or Treasury — let alone Kerry Stokes or James Packer — are likely to agree with.

The report also argues the divide between the high arts and popular culture has now largely disappeared, and that therefore “it is increasingly difficult for arts agencies to concern themselves only with direct subsidy and only with the non-commercial”. This is an argument which directly challenges the entire basis of the Australia Council’s funding model, in which opera and orchestral music receives 98% of the council’s music funding pie. No wonder the Australia Council’s CEO, Kathy Keele, writes in the foreword: “This study proposes to challenge many of our current conceptions, definitions, and even policies.”

Intriguingly, the report stops short of any concrete policy recommendations. Perhaps this is because some existed, but were excised from the report. Or perhaps it’s because any recommendations that genuinely flowed from this report would imply the break-up or radical overhaul of the Australia Council itself.

As Marcus Westbury this week observed in The Age: ”While the Australia Council isn’t backward in promoting research, reports and good news stories that validate the status quo, there is not much precedent for it challenging it.”

That’s because the real guardian of the current funding model is not the Australia Council, but the small coterie of large performing arts companies and high-status impresarios that are its greatest beneficiaries. It won’t be long before a coalition of high arts types, from Richard Tognetti to Richard Mills, start clamouring to defend their privilege.

Ben Davis on the rise of art news and the crisis of art criticism

Clement Greenberg. Image: Chicago Art Criticism

At ArtInfo.com, Ben Davis has a thoughtful and I think largely accurate description of the rise and rise of news media about the visual arts industry over the past decade – at the expense of art criticism:

The expanding market for “art news” coincided with the ballooning of the more commercial side of the art world in the ’00s: the explosion of art fairs (Art Basel Miami Beach debuted in 2002, Frieze in 2003), the rise of the “ego-seum,” the hunger of corporations to tap high-culture cachet (Takashi Murakami’s team-up with Louis Vuitton was in 2003), the triumph of art-as-investment, and the “emerging artist” wave that saw galleries harvest kids fresh out of school (Alex McQuilken’s “Fucked,” a video of the 19-year-old artist having sex made while she was at NYU, famously sold out at the 2002 Armory Show). But everything about “theory-crit” requires the reader to buy the idea that the academy is the most important tastemaking center. Thus, the commercial explosion created a space where all the stuff about the market and the social scene, institutional moves and their political ramifications, actually feels more relevant than the most “serious” criticism.

And there’s the rub, of course. Art news is more relevant than art criticism in the year 2011, because almost no-one reads or takes art criticism seriously. What mattes in the art world nowadays is the money, in the way that what matters in publishing and in Hollywood are best-sellers and blockbusters. Critics will remain interesting, insightful and even incisive, but the days when a powerful critic such as Clement Greenberg could effectively ignite and then police an entire art movement are, at least for the foreseeable future, probably over.

An interview with Anthony Gardner about biennales

Crowds outside a lecture presentation featuring Kazuyo Sejima, Venice Biennale 2010. Image: Luke Kakizaki

I’ve been away on holidays over the Christmass – New Years break, but with 2011 well and truly underway, it’s time to dust off the WordPress passsword and get blogging again.

Kicking off this year is something I’m very excited about: an interview with University of Melbourne researcher Anthony Gardner. Gardner came to my attention as a outstanding early career researcher who late last year was awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council grant to study the international visual arts biennale circuit.

It’s a subject I’ve covered peripherally here before, and one that has been dealt with by some important recent books I’ve mentioned here such as Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World and Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark.

I emailed Anthony before Christmas with some questions in bold; below are his responses:

 

Anthony Gardner in 2010. Image: Anthony Gardner.

Can you tell me briefly what you’ll be researching?

The main and overt subject matter is the development of so-called “mega-exhibitions” worldwide since the Second World War: the biennales, triennales, quadrennials, quinquennials and so on that have emerged in places as diverse as Dakar in Senegal, Tirana in Albania or Guangzhou in China. These perennial exhibitions – perhaps we should really call them perennales, no matter how uglythe word – have been one of the main driving forces in the display, production and thinking of art in the last 40 years or so, and what I want to track with this project (together with my co-investigator, Charles Green at the University of Melbourne) are three (maybe even four) waves of biennialisation that have emerged since the development of the Venice Biennale in 1895. This wouldcomprise a first wave in the late 19th century, a second in the 1950s to the mid 1980s, a third from the early 1990s on, and if there is indeed a fourth, then it is only in recent years as biennales have supposedly begun to decline and become discursive, have reflected on their own conditions, as they age.
The more meaty subject, however, is the shift and changes that histories of exhibition and curatorship have brought (and on occasions wrought) on art history, and how the ideologies driving these exhibitions signify important shifts from “world art” and its grounding in internationalism, to globalism and globalisation in art and culture, and the re-emergence of regional and very localfoci amid the global. What complications do histories of art’s display present to our usual understandings of the history of art works as discrete entities? And how can a broad yet thorough understanding of these waves of biennialisation provide us with a richer of art’s globalisation through the twentieth century?

Continue reading

A bunch of links: casualised higher education labour, Hollywood movie betting, collapsing business models in TV, whingeing arts administrators, Siva Vaidhyanathan lecture, and more

From around the blogosphere and the web – some links:

1. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Conn argues we need to acknowledge that “full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term.” Heading the list is casualisation, followed by older faculty who refuse to retire, the rise of for-profit higher education and a university system that continues to pump out PhDs.

2. Clay Shirky calls on the guru of complex systems theory, Joseph Tainter, to explain the current predicament of television production as a business model. Bottom-line:

The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)

Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.

3. The high arts lobby starts to get shirty with the lack of hand-outs from Peter Garrett, as a number of arts administrators whinge to Michaela Boland in The Australian. Notice the parade of usual suspects, including a festival director, a couple of theatre company managers and the CEO of the Australian Council. Because that’s what “the arts” is for journalists like Michaela Boland.

4. Siva Vaidhyanathan is giving a lecture at Vanderbilt University, which be podcast on Thursday. I’ll post something about that this week.

5. Lyn Gardner in the Guardian profiles artist-led communities.

6. By way of Tyler Cowen, a New York Times article about Hollywood’s quest to prevent betting markets. Both the Cantor futures exchange and Veriana Networks would allow investors to buy or sell — or “short” — contracts based on a movie’s box-office receipts, in essence betting on how well a film will do when released in theaters.

Ben Lewis’ The Great Contemporary Art Bubble

Tonight ABC2 screened Ben Lewis‘ documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

It’s a compelling contemporary history of the bubble in contemporary art between 2003-2008 and the dumb money and savvy art world insiders who enabled it to happen.

This is both a vital piece of contemporary art journalism and a fine exploration of the darker side of the art world itself. Lewis argues that key dealers and galleries colluded to routinely bid up prices for hot contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst. Featuring important on-the-record interviews with leading dealers, collectors and critics, including Jim Chanos (though, unsurprisingly, not those at the centre of the art world rumours – Sotheby’s, Jay Jopling, Larry Gagosian and Hirst himself).

Recommended.