We’ve talked a lot this year about the power to create. The RSA is focusing its efforts on unleashing the creative powers of all citizens to shape their own lives and society around them. One of the most obvious creative expressions is art. Artists at their best can show us something of who we are, honing our ability to make critical, aesthetic and moral judgements about the world around us. In our increasingly image-saturated information society these skills are invaluable. But what about the money to live on in order to create? Expressing your creativity is rarely a profitable career path.
The way we recognise and reward creative expression is explored in a new study Channelling Talent - with a report and short film, focusing on the music industry, released by the RSA this week. Below, we draw on a piece co-written with Tony Fisher and Joshua Edelman of the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, first published in Perspectives magazine.
Making art requires money for materials and labour, but the monetary terms that dominate debate about public funding and private compensation are not appropriate for understanding art’s value as a social good...
While, of course, our lives are enhanced by art and culture, artistic work only acquires monetary value at the moment of commodification, not at its creation. This undervaluing, or exploitation, of creativity is long-standing. The joint stock company that owned the original Globe Theatre collected ticket revenue from performing Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard and his fellow actors received a portion of that because they held stock in the company, not because of their work as artists.
The market for producing art fails on two counts; first, artists often don’t receive payment equivalent to the value they add; secondly, less art is produced than demanded as monetary value is concentrated on just a few ‘superstar’ artists.
Traditionally, the ‘money to create’ problem is solved through ‘making do’. Artists take on casual, flexible, insecure paid part-time work that in turn influences their capability and outputs.
Others may simply accept a life of poverty in order to pursue what they love doing most.
Artists have through the centuries found all kinds of means to exchange their products for money. Rich benefactors, family members, patrons, gallery owners and art dealers incentivise the production of certain types of art.
A few artistic pursuits may end up paying well but many would argue that the closer artistic production comes to a profitable business model, the more it becomes a product (a marketed commodity) and the less it retains its status as meaningful, challenging and therefore useful art. A focus on money-making can run counter to the production of great art. Audiences may be averse to risking the minefield of unknown and potentially ‘difficult’ artworks but if artists only ever make what is already popular, there will soon be no original art made.
As the long-term health of art thrives on innovation, experiment and creative risk, there is a case for intervention to overcome this bias towards the purely commercial, to inspire demand for art and subsidise its production.
The great Romantic poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller called theatre a ‘moral institution.’ He wanted the theatre to serve as the conscience of a society, as a prompt to moral decision-making, and for it constantly to propose new and more open-minded ways of thinking.
The Art of Public Funding
Since the early nineteenth century, emerging nation-states encouraged and funded the arts on the premise that engagement with art is good for society as a whole. Governments have subsidised the arts through a variety of means — by direct patronage, through competitive grants to arts organisations, by supplementing artists’ incomes, and by facilitating and funding the infrastructure that artists rely on, such as buildings, equipment and touring networks. This allows more art to be produced than the market would otherwise support.
Public funding comes with challenges. Art that seems indecent or causes offence can jeopardise public funding, often amounting to a form of censorship. The issue is not the corrupting influence of money as such; money – private and public – will always exert influence. The question is what are appropriate criteria for investing money? Who should give it out?
British history provides examples of what can happen when the arts lose their autonomy – as in 1737 with the introduction of statutory regulation of the theatre by the first minister Sir Robert Walpole. Walpole did not intend the theatres to ‘go dark’. He wanted to silence his critics such as the playwright Henry Fielding who satirised him on the London stage. The result was a century of stultifying theatre and a censorship law that was not lifted until 1968. When it was finally lifted, the theatre flourished.
In a market economy where artists, like everyone else, need money to live, we should be asking what kind of corrupting influence we find the least uncomfortable. We may argue that public funding is the best option, precisely because it can respond to the democratic concerns and interests of the people. The mechanism for funding should provide a transparent, public, account of criteria, decision-making and impact. A system of democratic scrutiny can also leverage private funds. It has, for instance, become common practice for planning authorities in the US and Ireland to require developers to allocate 1% of the construction cost of new projects to public art.
All funding comes with strings attached but in a public system, the question of whether oversight is legitimate and enforceable should be decided on the basis of the public interest. We should recognise the collective benefit gained from individual creative and artistic expression and experience.
“Starving artists” nourish society, building our visual literacy. The arts are therefore worthy of support and protection through society’s collective monetary resources allocated through democratic processes. This needs to be mirrored by accountability in the institutions which develop and bring to market the creative talents of artists.
Channelling Talent has been funded by the University of Manchester and the Arts and Humanities Research Council