Managing risks with money, culture, or politics along the long chain of art making its appearance

The following essay by Marc Herbst is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.

Urgent appeals for arts funding often assume that such funding always serves a common good. While not questioning the benefits of such funding per se, I would like, instead, to pause and simply consider the sociopolitical functions of funded art within the wider cultural situation, dominated, as it is in the West today, by Autonomous Art rather than seemingly organic sociocultural expressions.

Art’s “autonomy” is often discussed in relation to idealistic politics, but autonomy can be understood as the most mundane way that culture formally functions in the West. While we understand other people, anthropologically, as possessing culture, we in the West often understand our culture primarily within the small channel of the things we “culturally” consume as audiences or participants, through the many expression of the culture industry. Otherwise, when we are not “culturally engaged,” we often see ourselves and others as just naturally “being”… naturally buying shirts and naturally watching videos on YouTube. The consumable identity of culture is its “autonomy” (under the crudest of interpretations of Marx, Bürger, or Adorno), and under this situation, freelance artists and cultural organizations produce culture today.

Avant-garde projects are autonomous; but so are blue-chip artworks, seaside paintings, research-based practice, Pokemon cards, Hollywood film, and community arts projects. What is autonomous, in the general sense, is the relation between the artwork and any direct social need. Art and cultural work are “autonomously” suspended within a seemingly abstract network of capital—the suspension being akin to a shirt’s suspension on a hanger on the rack in a shop. On that rack, the shirt’s final use is not totally clear, though its final use seems relatively well defined.

Autonomy is not the issue; rather, at issue are the value-based distinctions made between different funding structures that allow for particular autonomous productions of art. The crude fault line between autonomous art and any other anthropological cultural expression is that speculative value is invested in the creation and support of Western cultural work; that though there may be no need, doing it may be good, and thefore it should be supported. That is, while anything we might retrospectively evaluate as art was produced through some organized social structure, formal art and culture today is identified by it being speculatively produced, only slightly different from that shirt that is placed on the sales rack.

Speculation does not necessarily mean financial speculation. Art forms are speculative in relation to potential audience—any audience’s speculative autonomy gives them the capacity to respond to the work, or not, or to simply pay no attention. For who the artwork is can itself be an object of speculation. This speculation is based on the autonomy that disentangles audience and object in an opaque network of social freedom built upon “free market” relations.

Funding allows artists, entertainment industry, nonprofits, etc. to manage the inherent risk of the speculative project of cultural production. Finance supports the logistics of media (reviews, publicity), education (art history, human resource development), and audience management that literally and figuratively brings audiences to art and culture. Funding manages the risk that no one needs what is presented. Importantly, projects that are less intertwined with hegemonic cultural forms (and are therefore less financed) must work in proximity to political and cultural movements to manage the risk of supporting their particular cultural articulations.

Finance’s management function within art mirrors the speculative management function of autonomous culture within the West, together they give cause for Western being’s seeming restlessness. Hegemony is served when a variety of acceptable things appear, even if they are purely speculative. Cultural forms serve to manage specific interests across the chain of its production, reproduction and consumption. While the managemental function of non-Western cultures appear to be functionally embedded within and across their whole cultural being (therefore seeming “more natural” to us), the West “floats” the possibility of social management within a set of art objects in addition to the already ongoing and seemingly natural ways we do things. That is, what we call art provides individuals and collectives a set of tools to manage their worldly encounters on top of what is already baked in.

Generally, critical content helps to forward specific political ways of being (and therefore particular political/cultural projects); aesthetics can provide affective relief, or provide a manner to organize relational scores, keys and tempos; performance can model individual or collective social practice. They all become subjects of the “general intellect.” To be clear, these functions operate within meaning and production matrices—single artworks can never drive whole social operations. Matrices engage both funded and unfunded modes of cultural speculation in order to motivate performance; conceptually speaking, outcomes from real social performance can be easily made autonomous from the organizational models that initially brought them about. We scream for many reasons, not just because the boss tells us to.

When considering cuts in arts funding, let us return to core questions about the social investment in art or cultural work. It is useful to recognize the formal and informal social organization necessary for the viewing, reception and ultimate “outcomes” from cultural work—and the variety of (often invisible) institutions, communities and structures precede the work and its effects. Are there other, less costly ways to organize effects within, by, and through such communities and institutions? Politics may suggest the expediency of less finance-dependent organization.

Marc Herbst is the coeditor of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest and is just completing his PhD at Goldsmiths University of London, Centre for Cultural Studies. His thesis, A cultural policy of the multitude in the time of climate change; with an understanding that the multitude has no policy looks at ways in which cultural workers (generally defined) might consider how their work informs social and more formal relations between people within the context of a changing world.

The next response in the In whose interest? series is “Without the Master’s Tools: Imagining Another Future for the Arts” by Anni Pullagura.