‘The Arts’ Are Not A Service Industry


Here are a series of typos and grammatical errors I put together the other day…

Art is made and enjoyed in the service of many things. This is not a contradiction of the title. A defining characteristic of all artistic practice is that it necessitates decision-making  (the decision to place a decision out of your hands, not act or leave it to chance is still a decision). Work where the prevalent impression on its audience is that the creator was not comfortable making decisions is often, for many, unsatisfying. Thus the decision to make an art-work in the service of someone or something else is entirely valid. It would be easy and justifiable to judge a work that purports to be in the service of someone else’s desires on the basis of weather or not those desire have been met. This would not be the final word on the mater of the works relative worth but it would be an entirely coherent way to outline a position. This is the essential difference between art and a service industry, a service industry must provide its value where as we must engage with art to find its value.

When art get trotted out with its primary function described as the economic gains it produces a number of things happen. Certain limited viewpoints on the definition of value are reinforced and a reductive definition of Art is fostered. As it happens the economic arguments for supporting the arts are sound but it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t. (More worrying is the application of market logic to the arts, which is something that the support of the economic arguments can result in.  I.e People like paying to see more of the same form Andrew Lloyd Webber so there is not point in allowing funding for an attempt at a stage version of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. This is the result of something that many self declared ‘rationalist’ [especially economists] don’t like to consider or admit possible. It is the tyranny of rationality). Say the economic arguments aren’t sound. That does not take away at all from the personal and socially liberating potential of engaging in or with artistic practice. It is more than simply a pleasant distraction from the work a day world of everyday life (it is that as well); it is something that nurtures the ability to think that life can be better. That the way in which one is expected to live and behave is not necessarily the way in which you must. Human achievement and potential is not predicated by the values of consumer capitalism (as helpful as it may be to some areas).

When art is discussed in terms of cultural industries (a clever adoption of the the Culture Industry originally devised by Adorno and Horkheimer for critique. The Culture Industry being the industrial framework that placates the masses desire for change and social justice and the Cultural Industries being the shop in the Tate Modern) it can loose this power. When art is reduced in the public understanding to something that is only a brief and entertaining relief from the day to day then to express another view is to become fringe, a deviant. When it is framed as an industry it not only puts the experience of art on par with a commodity like iPhones and toilet paper and sets in motion an arbitrary rationale of monetary worth but also forces critic to appear to be attacking the right to a livelihood of those within the industry. This is clearly not the target of this criticism. It is important that people can have a livelihood in and around that which fulfills them. What I am objecting to is the term as it is used to foster ideological position towards art.

Nor am I criticizing here is not the validity of any particular artwork, that is established between the ethical values of the creator and their audience [and arguably society at large] and is never fully resolved. Rather what I am criticizing is the frameworks and systemic failures, which narrow how we think about that which it is important to live for.  At the root of our collective inability to think beyond traditionally established life patterns is the strange mess that is postindustrial society (there are a number of great things about it but there are enough people writing about those already). And this inability is fostered by our education system (fully explained here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U by the wonderful educationalist Sir Ken Robinson). What is thought to be important or worthy of our effort is ingrained into us for years; as such it is difficult to escape. By the time the many arts students reach university level they have learned entirely how to operate when being taught to the test and find self initiated learning difficult. This difficulty is to engage critically in areas that are not directly related to a particular assignment or A to B outcome. This is a colossal waste of potential as tangential connections that have the potential to be vital are dismissed and ignored.

What art offers people is the potential to engage with any and all areas of human endeavors. Art can explore and elucidate science, act in the service or in dissent to any economic, political, or philosophical positions, provide respite and relief in both metaphorical and real terms, and make all of this something that you want to engage with. While it is currently possible for the cultural industries allow such work to exist, I fear that one day not too far off, if nothing is done to change attitudes, due to the logic of the marketplace, all they will do is provide a not unpleasant (and financially profitable) distraction on a Saturday night.

Through the work of the comedian Josie Long I came across the charity ‘Art Emergency’ that she founded along with Neil Griffiths in 2011. The Charity works to provide funding for under privileged individuals to pursue degrees in the arts and humanities.

Check them out here http://arts-emergency.org/index.html .

By providing opportunities for people to realize the potential power of art and the humanities the world can be a better place. To end; some quote from the charity that are inspirational.

‘Teaching students to read poetry or philosophy or how to understand a painting or a film are not elite pursuits, although they will increasingly become so if public funding is withdrawn. 
The humanities are founded on the conviction that everyone can be educated and that culture is for everyone. Elitism assumes that only some people are interested in or have the time for humanistic learning.’


‘Without the capacity to think beyond repetition there is no beyond to crisis.’


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