JMW Turner: The Blue Rigi
The successful fight for JMW Turner's: The Blue Rigi
I was very pleased to find out this morning from my email box that JMW Turner's The Blue Rigi has been bought by the Tate Gallery. What gave me special pleasure was that I had bought 6 brushstrokes through the special National Art Fund innovative online campaign.
OK my life as an art collector extends into the virtual rather than the real and aside from interesting issues as to whether I've got some virtual art which is tradeable inside Second Life the fact that people had to be charitable at all in order to ensure that this painting stayed within the UK and available for public contemplation is a serious cultural policy issue. There is no way I would have contributed to a Tracy Emin piece or Damien Hurst piece. Amusing? Yes. Intellectually challenging? Possibly but rarely. Overhyped? Yes. Overvalued? Yes. How can we reasonably compare to Turner arguably the very first modernist painter and one who was up on the latest theories of colur (Goethe) and pereception (developing psychological theories) in his day producing valuable paintings which stand the test of cultural time.
In recent years it has become especially trendy amongst fans of 'New' Labour to spend their time in a typically postmodern way of using culture as an instrument of economic and social policy. Forget 'Art for Art's Sake' they sneer, don't be judgemental about content, let populism rule, what the audience think they want is all right just providing we can make money out of it and we can sit around getting audiences to evaluate their experience for the marketing people. This of course ignores issues of ideology and the construction of dominant cultural discourses.
Instrumentalism & Cultural Policy
Well, taken from this entirely instrumentalist perspective which at a theoretical level appears to subsume Walter Benjamin's notion of removing the auratic aspect of Art with a capital A and turn it into an excuse for commerce; paintings of the quality of Turner's Blue Rigi are fundamental to the success of megapolises such as London and New York. You can hardly hear a native English accent in central London in summer and now increasingly all year around. Students and tourists flock to London because it is a cultural capital of the World. those who have considerable cultural capital and wish to invest more in this go to London and its galleries as well as enjoying the signature architecture which is an iconic must for the contemporary global city fighting for the tourist trade, and in the case of London adding value to attract global financiers to work in London. Great art therefore can be seen as underpinning the attraction of London as a place to live and work. A process which has rather neatly been defined as Brandscaping.
Even from the pitiful perspective of 'anything goes' providing it makes money New Labour should have the made the funds available to keep this 'high added value' sort of art without all sorts of quangos having to chase around for funding which is small fry at the national level. The irony is that City councils elsewhere in the country are beginning to sell of their own smaller art treasures because they can't afford to run their education and social care systems.
The January Warwick podcast by Munira Mirza is a welcome antidote to this sort of thinking. Hopefully it marks the beginnings of a change away to a more balanced view of culture than extreme populist postmodernism. this is not the same as saying that the cultural popular should be ignored. There is an issue of definitions as well as issues of quality.
Taxation & Paying for Art
Why these mainly Northern councils have no money when the Chancellor emphasises 10 years of apparently unbroken economic growth is an interesting question. It is also hard to disagree with the Tories when they rail against the levels of taxation. Even they can justifiably note that poorer people are being hit by the tax system, just funding poorer people still.
At risk of slipping into anecdote most of my monthly outgoings are in the form of taxation. As a couple we spend over £120 per week on petrol. Most of this cost is tax in one form or another. Furthermore as my wife is currently a full-time student in receipt of a government loan she is effectively paying twice for her education as a huge proportion of the loan goes on this fuel every term. On top of that the course is materials and equipment heavy which attracts the regressive 17.5% VAT. At the same time I receive no tax relief and currently must commute a long way to work which is in the underpaid Tertiary education sector. We do not even have parity with school-teachers!
Three months of longish distance commuting shows that many people are in similar position . The key point here is not an individual whinge, it is to emphasise the huge tax burden that ordinary people are paying either to get to work or to get an education. Yet at the same time our cultural citizenship is being eroded. Why on earth should I or anybody else have to respond to begging bowl campaigns to maintain or improve an economically / culturally / socially valuable infrastructure in which content (the Art itself is central). Quite obviously I already do this through the disproportinate tax system. It is a benighted cultural policy framework increasingly based upon narrow accountacy discourse which creates this situation.
It is now the case that that the National Lottery which is a 'voluntary' tax on the very poorest who have had little training in probability theory. The fact that the Government has this at all is shameful. The fact that our culture is dependent upon the wheel of fate rather than a properly funded policy framework is despicable. The fact that a large amount of this extremly dubious tax is now being siphoned away from the cause it is promoted for supporting to the Olympic extravaganza is dihonest and exploitative beyond belief. The plain fact is that almost nobody funding the Olympic games through their gambling will be able to afford a seat in the stadium highlights the point.
As taxpayers we are seemingly paying a lot for 'cultural consultants' and a range of parastites positioning themselves around policy honeypots while a cultural drain continues in line with the general opening up of wealth divides in the era of post-neo-liberal cultural-economic policies. They are the real vultures of culture!
The Olympic Games and the funding of it is a 21st century version of Roman gladitorial contests. Wage slaves are funding the pleasures of the rich. As a crumb they can sample the pleasures second hand through the Mass Media. Of course we can buy into the regeneration argument and I'm sure most of the population in the UK feel that the Millenium Dome bonanza was an excellent way of spending vast amounts of money rather than bulding say twenty art galleries the cost of the one in Wasall and some art to put in it! the citizens of Athens would probably agree as they pass the crumbling and unloved Olympic Stadium built for the last Olympics. Interestingly the tourist population is there for the genuine cultural heritage which seems to show that quality will out!
It is time that we fought for a system of governance which values and promotes notions of cultural citizenship which should have at its heart the accessibility of canonical cultural works - This opens up a can of worms on canons but that is another debate. This needs to be thought of on a global basis just as any other facet of advanced citizenry should be. I want people from all over the world to be able to experience great art. The nature of individual paintings means that people usually have to travel to it unlike music which is more accessible.
I resent being arm-twisted to pay more for what as a state the UK should pay for anyway and what I consider I have more than paid for through my taxes. If I give money or goods it usually goes to Oxfam or global development campaigns and that is how I prefer to keep it.
When it comes to the arts and culture I would also prefer a wider European cultural policy perspective to be developed. Small accession states such as Lithuania inherited quite a good cultural infrastructure in terms of the numbers of galleries and museums and performance spaces. These countries became impoverished through neo-liberal approaches to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Now they should be having more support to rebuild the good aspects of cultural citizenship which were previously available under Soviet rule. Cultural citizenship and a common cultural sense of 'Europeaness' is more likely to succeed in uniting Europe at the level of the quotidian than highly abstract constitutional structures which have little to do with everyday European citizens. In brief culture is far more valuable than just simple accountancy benchmarks. It is where it is hardest to define that perhaps it becomes most valuable in terms of geist.