Storm the Culture Ministry!

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Via Arts & Letters Daily, François Clemenceau, Washington correspondent for Europe 1, the French national radio network, reviews former French cultural attache Frederic Martel's provocative book De la Culture en Amérique. In it Martel argues that, contrary to popular French opinion, the American model of private arts financing is not such a bad thing. Clemenceau explains:

In his book—and it's a big one in every sense—Martel has done the equivalent of heaving a boulder into the pond of cultural affairs; the waves seem bound to ripple on, quietly for the moment but perhaps with a bigger splash as events play out. Initially, the reaction has been respectful of his work and guarded about its implications. But the questions and pressure for reforms raised in Martel's book seem likely to gain traction under the new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy and perhaps even trigger some re-examination of French cultural dogmas among the Socialist-left.

Working with an eye to the idea of transplanting American techniques to France, Martel describes in detail—thanks to hundreds of interviews—the mainstays of the institutional landscape in the United States. Starting with the history of private patronage and endowments, Martel carefully catalogues public-private partnerships between museums and corporate sponsors. He describes how cultural policies in the United States are totally decentralized thanks to local cooperation between cities and private foundations. He dwells on the theme of how Americans learn about the arts, as performers and as public, from early childhood right through university, from institutions of learning that function on their own without any direction, from a single cultural arbiter laying down a monolithic vision from the top.

As New York Times correspondent Alan Riding wrote last year, what intrigues Martel "is how American culture flourishes despite the indifference or hostility of major government institutions":

And that leads him to the crucial role played by nonprofit foundations, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, universities and community organizations, which in practice do receive indirect government support in the form of tax incentives."If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found," he writes, "cultural life is everywhere."

Riding's review is here, Clemenceau's here.

Way back in 1995, reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie wondered if, "given that gargantuan level of voluntary arts gift-giving" in the U.S., the NEA was necessary at all.

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  1. Artist craps on floor,
    Calls it art, needs more funding.
    More cash, thanks to us.

  2. Well, the impressionists were outsider artists who did it on their own – e.g., without government support.

  3. Neither the author nor the reviewer seem to question the need for the government to aid the arts, but merely discuss the relative merits of one structure over another.

  4. I’m sure it has more to do with me than anything else, but doesn’t the mere idea of a “culture ministry” seem creepy to anyone? I would think that the idea would be most repulsive to the artist, yet often times, it’s cherished by same.

  5. …doesn’t the mere idea of a “culture ministry” seem creepy to anyone? I would think that the idea would be most repulsive to the artist, yet often times, it’s cherished by same.

    If you learn how to appeal to the bureaucrats who run the Ministry, it becomes a cash cow. Any artist who could figure out how to do that would likely cherish it.

    I mean, if you are putting art out there and nobody likes it, and then somebody from the Ministry comes along and both likes it and wants to fund it, you are getting both your ego and wallet fattened. Not a bad deal from the artist’s perspective.

  6. I would think that the idea would be most repulsive to the artist, yet often times, it’s cherished by same.

    To some artists, the idea of having to offer value to someone else on a voluntary basis can be scary, since a) art gives a poor living and b) artists are more likely than others to believe that their work has unrecognized value (which can often be the case), so they are more likely to like state-funded art because it provides them with a living they wouldn’t get otherwise have and it can provide the illusion that some sort of “true” value in their work is being rewarded.

  7. Anyone who’s ever studied arts and culture in a historical context can tell you that, more often than not, “art” that was funded by monarchies and other governments is generally uninteresting in the context in which it was created.

  8. Reinmoose,

    The Parthenon and the buildings which surround it were government funded. Then there was all the art funded by the Medicis, particularly Lorenzo de Medici.

    Government funding has produced a lot of great art. It has also produced a lot of not so great art. As for the “more often than not” business, well there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that government funding can produce masterpieces.

  9. Government funding traditionally produced whatever the King considered to be a “masterpiece.” He who pays, calls the shots.

    If you want to be avant-garde, don’t expect to do it for the money. And I say that as a very unconventional musician.

  10. ChrisO,

    Actually, if we take the art of 5th century CE as an example the art which the government funded – which often had great political and religious import – was fairly democratic art (or as democratic as Athens could be at the time).

  11. Ok, I suppose I should clarify that I’m referring more to arts movements than anything else.
    I do not deny that “masterpieces” can be produced on the government’s dime. I am merely trying to point out that aesthetics are hardly the only thing by which art can be measured.
    You are correct, it is all very subjective and anecdotal.

  12. Syloson,

    There is the question of whether to count art funded by the Medicis (for example) as government-funded art or privately-funded art? Is it possible to separate a Prince or King into their government roles and their private roles?

  13. robc,

    It was a mixture. Then again, in my other example the Athenians were using both the funds from the wealthy and funds from their empire to build up the acropolis. In either case that I don’t think that the art as we see it today would have been created with the efforts of particular rulers and the ruled.

  14. In other words, while private funding is great, I have no problem with the public funding of art (at least up to a point). If I did I’d have to I guess forswear seeing the Elgin marbles I guess.

  15. The temple of Athena on the Acropolis was a functioning building, and so must be considered differently than a painting or musical work. The U.S. Capitol has many interesting artistic qualities, too, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.

    It’s a very recent phenomenon of European states funding art that was not in service to some sort of official aesthetic. The Dutch government was notorious some years ago for having a big warehouse full of publicly funded paintings that were largely unsellable.

  16. ChrisO,

    I don’t see why how the piece “functioned” makes much of a difference, but note that paintings for the government sponsored Paris Salon produced many works of great note, including David’s Oath of the Horatti.

  17. Is it possible to separate a Prince or King into their government roles and their private roles?

    Back then, no.

    People don’t realize that the concept of the independent artist is a fairly modern idea. They were commissioned by a patron, usually of the ruling classes, to make whatever the patron wanted.

    Art for art’s sake is new, and is the reason why we have, amongst many good works, things like a yellow cube in a white room being hailed as profound.

    Disclosure: Used to be engaged to an art student. God she was a pretentious bitch!

  18. I don’t see why how the piece “functioned” makes much of a difference, but note that paintings for the government sponsored Paris Salon produced many works of great note, including David’s Oath of the Horatti.

    It does matter, in that commissioning a building is not the same as commissioning art. Art is, essentially, useless.

    BTW, I wasn’t saying that government funding never produced great art–it actually produced *most* great art made in the West before about 1820 or so. But said art was basically ‘made to order’ for its patrons and didn’t reflect a truly independent viewpoint.

  19. So, there were times when most people where desperatly poor and couldn’t afford to create art themselves, and society was ruled by kings and monarchs who through taxation had all the money… When the government made it impossible for anyone not government funded to create art, the best art seemed to be government funded. Um, OK.

    Nowadays, hip hop artists from poor urban America produce more popular music in France than government supported musicians! Clearly, once a society becomes rich enough that all the resources aren’t consumed by a monarch or despot, and once the people become the consumers of the art and not some monarch or despot, the rules change. Government no longer produces the best art when it allows independent artistry to thrive.

  20. ChrisO:

    So, in other words, Western art began to get weird and suck rear a few decades after it was privatized?

    ::starts to rethink this whole libertarian thing::

  21. How can I, as an artiste, possibly be expected to inspire fresh insights, challenge ze status quo, and subvert ze establishment if I do not receive government funding?

    I cannot be expected to work under zese outrageous conditions!

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