Trained incapacity is a vortex for making art supporters into consumers, and consumers only.
Remember when we never used the word engagement because it was just known that people who go to galleries will take in the work there at their own pace?
Not any more. Audience engagement is just about numbers now. While arts organizations scramble to get their programming off the ground with meagre stipends they’ve stitched together, corporations turn their attentions to one off festivals. Festivals like Culture Days & Nuit Blanche fit nicely into a corporate agenda. An upcoming summit about this very issue will happen in Toronto in October. These fests can take care of arts sponsorship for a year in one swoop without having to deal with the diversity or complexity of the arts, and it puts all the hard work on the artists involved for little or no money. Commitment from sponsors and the municipalities are a variable. Artists and galleries line up to be a part of events like this because they get so much media attention and they seem fresh. Being left out makes one a party pooper. But it seems to me that its all just one big happy corporate family, where the lowly artist props up a bank or an insurance company giving them the aura of art patronage.
This trained incapacity is yet another example of how corporate capitalism infiltrates our creative lives. As artists we are ‘slaves’ to our vocation so why not just be slaves. What a happy thought to the profit obsessed; artists aren’t going to revolt or ask for more, they’ll just figure out how to make their work without our help. The results of this thinking already appears in our culture. Homogeneous rules. Diversity is discouraged. Reference pop culture in your work and you’re bound to begin trending on Twitter.
We seem to be complicit in allowing audiences to now believe art making is but another commodity that is prepared for the market and should receive the same appreciation as ipads or diet soft drinks or chewing gum, and that gallery going is not unlike the shopping mall, just more confusing. We decided to do this in the arts because we feel the general public should get involved in the arts. We gave up on our supporters, marginal but fervent, they just weren’t going to help with the bottom line. Sometimes you can inspire people not inclined to care. But mostly you will just cater to what works because corporate capitalism likes that, it’s risk adverse and needs to keep shareholders happy.
A recent treatise on the worthiness of artist Jeff Koons made a remarkable point, that his work is without any content except that of commercial value. While I have stated in the past that I admire Koon’s unabashed cynicism I now have to admit that perhaps by allowing and not resisting this kind of capitalist populism we are turning our public space for art into a cosmic dollar store. Many of us actually believe the business model can still help the arts. With that kind of thinking goes the need for capacity building in terms of understanding the complexity surrounding how the arts interplays with our economy. Suddenly I feel like George Bailey in the New Deal propaganda film It’s A Wonderful Life, “your art work doesn’t exist just because you can sell it, it exists because your colleague’s art work exists, don’t you understand it’s because you are building an art world together? It’s the shop next door to the gallery, the cafe down the street, the people who want to bring their children up with original art in their homes.”
People are leading the charge now, not artists. With very few exceptions such as the brilliant Liberate Tate who demonstrate their concerns for corporate sponsorship of the arts through inventive interventions, it’s regular folks who are now braving tear gas, arrest and battery by taking to the streets to address our most pressing issue: the world is no longer ours. Our world is owned, bought and sold by huge corporate interests that want us to believe that capitalism is aligned with democracy and freedom. Nothing could be farther from the truth, just look at how police forces are armed today even for the smallest civil unrest.
So, what are artists to do? What I expected was that we would want to be the nexus between change, social dynamics, political power, economic comprehension and aesthetic vision. This cannot happen if we allow ourselves to be slaves, selling our sad wares into a void.
I am not without hope because change is afoot and change is when art can truly be it’s best, shiniest self, we just need to help each other with the courage needed.
Photo from the Liberate Tate website.