Shooting Back With a Color Gun: Counterstrategies for Critical Art
The Finnish Arts Policy Event was, of course, not just a conference but also an artwork in itself. Choreographed by Israeli artist Dana Yahalomi and organized by Baltic Circle (an international festival for contemporary performance) and Checkpoint Helsinki (a new arts commissioning body in Helsinki), the event was not only talking arts policy but also making it. The event, funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture, the City of Helsinki and grants from independent foundations, directed art funding towards a practice that does not anymore resemble art as we know it, but instead camouflages itself into the society, re-creating reality.
Other large scale initiatives, such as the ridiculously non-sellable and seriously megalomaniac animal rights project The Museum of the History of Others by me and Laura Gustafsson or the Next Helsinki competition, organized by Checkpoint Helsinki and its allies Terreform and G.U.L.F., or Mustarinda, a collective working on deep ecology and alternative economic theories, are just a few in the line of work that aim at directing art money into critical societal discourse not possible within the commercial art market nor mainstream politics. These initiatives try not only to make space for other voices but also to safeguard the very premises of critical art's existence. It is the strategy of “take the money and shout your lungs out while you still can” of an art world that is being cornered from all sides.
The Finnish Arts Policy Summit was held in Helsinki in November 2014. The event called together politicians and art professionals to discuss the guidelines of art funding and arts policy in Finland. The representatives of 10 official political parties delivered a speech in which they outlined the cultural policy of their party. The audience, consisting of mainly cultural workers and artists, were given the possibility to react to the speeches by raising up cardboard cards – blue for “this is unclear – please clarify” and white for “this is jargon – concrete examples needed”. When there were enough cards, the speech was interrupted by an orchestra.
Not surprisingly, most party representatives considered art to be one of the most important fields of society. More than one of them brought along a book or sang a song. Also not so surprisingly, most party representatives proposed more cuts to the state cultural budget, explaining this as a “force majeure” of the current economic situation. It was about time for art, as one could read between the lines, to grow up and make a living on its own. Over the party lines, there seemed to be a well-understood consensus on tax reductions of art purchases and closer collaboration with the private sector as the only solutions in sight.
In the social democratic utopia of the welfare state, art has traditionally been seen as part of the civic society, i.e. as part of the critical apparatus that is at the core of a stable democracy. The state-funded free education and health care system are supported by a network of museums, libraries and theaters, and sided by newspapers and critical opposition, also funded by the state. Fulfillment of basic needs is followed by equal access to knowledge and, finally, structures that should enable any one citizen to voice their concerns. Here, the state functions as a provider of protection for voices that would otherwise be in danger to be marginalized. A truly functioning democracy supports oppositional forces and gives room for debate and dialogue.
What we all know by now is that a truly functioning capitalist utopia works towards monocultures and even deeper marginalization of the voices of the unheard. Tax reductions of art works do not bring more money to the state but merely give the control over art institutions’ programming to private funding bodies and their interests. There, supporting the status quo becomes the base line. No privately funded exhibition will focus on the greatest issue of our time, the problematics of the current global economic injustice. Simultaneously, the global income gap widens and democracy flees politics. Speculation in the global art market has already reached a point where art dealers themselves send out warning signals.
As a reaction, art as a site of critical opposition flees the art world, leaving behind a pet opposition of sellable shells. These shells tour museums, galleries and biennales, generating more profit for the non-democracy they work for. Critical art, in contrast, takes on parasitic structures and camouflages itself into society, using art funding to establish sites for the unheard voices to be heard. Art flees to the academy, finding shelter from doctorate programs. It flees to design, scaling its anarchy to the size of everyday objects. It flees to activism, abandoning material forms altogether and holding on to only the immaterial structures of a new thought. Thus, the shift from state-funded art world into a market-led system is not just a change from one funding source to another, but a paradigmatic shift in how we understand the function of art in society.
The art funding problems of a well-off Scandinavian state might seem insignificant in relation to the recent turmoil in Mexico or around Ferguson. But it is all related to the breaking down of the democratic structures that should provide equal protection for different voices. If that protection fails us, we will become Mexico, and Ferguson. It is true that social democratic processes can flatten thinking just as the markets can and that entrepreneurship and philanthropy can provide welcome spaces of exception to fuel the dialogue. But they cannot be the foundation.
Our memory is short and silenced histories need to be brought to light over and over again. The US once had a beautiful, functioning art support structure and a tax-funded welfare state, envied by the Europeans, in the pipeline. If the lobbying of the industry and big corporations wouldn’t have destroyed the American welfare utopia, the American art world would now represent the people of America, instead of being middle-class, like-minded and white. The art world of the US could be the place where all voices are heard.
Art censorship has always been a canary in a coal mine of entering a totalitarian order. The censorship of art under the order of privatization is soft, seductive. It lures us to mistake the high of carbon dioxide as the euphoria of real freedom. At some point, the cap will blow off and the injustice of a profit-led society will explode into riots. We, artists, will use all the tax money we can get hold of to lower the pressure and make our unheard voices heard. But if the space provided for us by the state diminishes and the pressure rises, we will eventually camouflage ourselves and merge into the marching masses until it is impossible to tell us apart.
Visual artist, Chairperson of Checkpoint Helsinki
http://www.fciny.org/program/fciny-identity-by-tsto http://www.fciny.org/program/pilvi-takala http://www.fciny.org/program/terike-haapoja