Statement | Don’t confuse autonomous art with creative industry

Since the cuts in the cultural sector from 2011, politicians have set the so-called ‘creative industry’ as an example for the arts. Industrial design, architecture, graphic design and the games industry: the creative have become the ‘top sector’. This, I believe, is the root cause of the uneasiness expressed in this newspaper’s Culture Supplement last week: the increasing instrumentalization of art by politicians.

In his article Why Studio Drift’s magic is hypocritical (15/7) Hans den Hartog Jager protested against designers ‘intruding’ into the domain of art. His criticism mainly focuses on the design duo Studio Drift and the fact that the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum has bought one of their works (Drift donated two smaller works to the museum). Den Hartog Jager accuses these designers of eroding art by making clever use of concepts from the autonomous visual arts and translating them into ‘consumer kitsch’. According to him, the National Museum of Contemporary Art is legitimizing a biting ‘humbug’ with this purchase.

I don’t think the problem is that cultural disciplines overlap and that mixtures are introduced. Of course, you may think that Studio Drift’s ‘starry sky’ created with illuminated drones is nothing more than ‘simple sensation’. The same discussion also unfolded about the exhibition of the designer Marcel Wanders in the Stedelijk and about the visual artist Jeff Koons, who calls himself ‘partly a cheater’.

Charlatan yes or no: art history has debated it since time immemorial. It is precisely the task of today’s presentation institutions to lead and nurture that debate. (Incidentally, the work from Studio Drift was bought by the curator of industrial design at the Stedelijk, so it is not financed from the art budget.)

Social impact

The real problem is that art is increasingly being directed to projects with ‘social impact’ via grants – also from equity funds. One example is the special programs at museums for Alzheimer’s patients.

Such involvement is meritorious, but there is a risk that the derivative value of art is given special weight: it then functions as a means of providing a creative – and sometimes cheap – ‘solution’ to social issues. A further problem is that it is not primarily artists working independently who are suited to such functional uses of creativity, but designers. They are trained to use techniques for task-related work. It is therefore they who are increasingly winning assignments for, for example, art in the public space – traditionally important for sculptors’ livelihoods.

Where artistic freedom was previously at the center, the emphasis is now on usability. A well-known example of this is the sustainable and attractive lighting that Daan Roosegaarde, trained architect, designed for the Afsluitdijk. This change is particularly noticeable at the local level. The municipalities are the largest providers of cultural subsidies, but art funding is not a legal obligation for them. Because budget cuts have been carried out at the same time as the decentralization of the state’s tasks to lower levels of government, the municipalities are cutting back considerably on culture. So they can take care of their mandatory (youth) care tasks. By using arts budgets in healthcare, they kill two birds with one stone.

Artists or designers who hold workshops for the developmentally disabled are usually cheaper than specially trained social workers who work continuously with these people. It is also significant that an increasing number of municipalities no longer appoint a separate councilor for culture: the arts are then relegated to care or education. As a result, knowledge about and involvement in the arts is disappearing from the main art funder: the local government.

Also read: Can art save the world?

Dividend thinking

That the creative industry must now act as a role model has a clear message: Can’t art also develop into one for profit-sector? It is efficiency thinking implemented in its most extreme form: the goal seems to be art that no longer needs subsidies. This political trend sends the wrong signal to politicians and the public. The so-called ‘earning capacity’ of autonomous art is, after all, fundamentally different from that of the creative industry.

Nowadays, the ‘cultural and creative sector’ is also spoken of in the same breath within the art world itself, recently for example in the advice Kunsten2030 from the lobby organization Kunsten 92 to the minister.

With this adherence to this instrumental subsidy policy, the sector is shooting itself in the foot. It is precisely the art world that must continue to draw attention to the fact that art itself has value for viewers and listeners. Its value lies precisely in the fact that a painting or a symphony is not always easy to understand, but rather wants to offer a different experience or perspective than we already know.

It is not the ‘entertaining’ forms of art – or kitsch – that pose the greatest threat. The danger lies in the assumption that artists can ‘keep their pants down’ as long as they are enterprising enough and a little flexible. The comparison with the creative industry is a false comparison that seems to be primarily motivated by austerity and lack of knowledge.

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