Who’s afraid of the Kulturkampf? Art will not die for lack of public subsidy, argues Laura Gascoigne

While currency speculators place their bets on which Eurozone economy will be next to fail, the clatter of falling dominoes has reached the contemporary art world. And it’s not just about investors being hit in their pockets. As austerity bites, discontent is spreading through society at large.

Last September in Istanbul – our current European Capital of Culture – fashionable liggers quaffing private view drinks on the pavement outside a contemporary art gallery near Istanbul Modern museum were set upon by anti-art vigilantes, who attacked two other galleries and hospitalised five people. Locals in the up-and-coming Tophane district are apparently unhappy

that their neighbourhood is becoming a cultural quarter without their consent. They know that up-and-coming, for them, means up-and-going as soon as property prices rise through the roof.

Meanwhile in Switzerland, home of the Basel Art Fair, a poster campaign by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has forced Zurich city council to scrap plans for the Nagelhaus, an art pavilion designed by cardboard model-maker Thomas Demand with help from architects Caruso St John. It was meant to improve the look of a rundown square as part of a 300m regeneration package, but the SVP – who make a virtue of being Swiss – balked at spending money on anything arty and demanded a referendum. Their poster featuring a golden toilet and the slogan ‘5.9m Swiss Francs for a shit!’ carried the day. The SVP leader on the city council objected that the money “would give dreamers the possibility of self-fulfilment at the expense of taxpayers.”

This is, of course, the far right nasty party whose last poster campaign to hit the headlines featured three white sheep kicking a black one. But it’s simplistic to blame public reaction against contemporary art on a right-wing bias against the left-wing avant-garde, especially when the Chinese Communist Party is poised to demolish Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio. The hard truth is that when it comes to a vote, there’s almost anything the public would rather spend its money on than art. In a recent UK poll, 60% put the arts at the top of the list for cuts.

In the boom years, people were prepared to humour the liberal arts establishment’s delusion that an education in contemporary art would improve the nation’s quality of life. But now that school and university education budgets are threatened, this looks like an expensive indulgence, especially since the government launched its transparency agenda itemising exactly what things cost – a Machiavellian wheeze to get the citizenry clamouring for cuts before the Treasury unsheathes the knife. So far, all the riot police have had to worry about is students lobbing fire extinguishers off roofs. How long before protestors in Anarchy bandanas start uprooting sculptures and a cordon has to be thrown around the fourth plinth? The Serpentine may have chosen the wrong moment to open its second outlet in The Magazine, a munitions depot established in Hyde Park by a former government fearful of civil unrest. Rather than filling it with more extravagant art, they should perhaps restock it with munitions.

David Cameron signalled which side of the avant-garde art barricades he was on three years ago when he let drop that ‘one-legged Lithuanian lesbians’ clanger at an arts funding lunch at Tate Britain. To be fair, he only expressed the hope that “you won’t be giving grants to too many [my italics] one-legged Lithuanian lesbians”. He didn’t rule them out altogether. Now he’s in power, the job of deciding exactly how many has been passed to Culture Secretary Jeremy (Berkeley) Hunt, who has lobbed it on to the Arts Council, under instruction to trim 50% of its own administrative fat before liposucking 15% from its 850 dependents.

Crises have unpredictable effects on people: suddenly the whole arts lobby is speaking German. The term ‘kulturkampf’ is in widespread use and Serota has even referred to a ‘blitzkrieg’ – this despite having been allowed to keep the final £2.2m tranche of the £50m of DCMS money he has so far sunk into a giant hole behind Tate Modern. If the hole doesn’t succeed in sucking in the remaining money needed to put up an extension by 2012, it can still make an artistic contribution as an Olympic-sized Doris Salcedo crack – or Ai Weiwei could ship over the rubble from his Shanghai studio and plug it.

While our national museums heave faint sighs of relief over less damaging cuts than initially feared, local authority museums wait in trepidation while councils decide which non-essential services will be least missed. In Italy, where most museums are locally funded, 30% cuts threaten the closure of contemporary art museums in Turin, Bologna and Naples. Naples’s La Madre (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Domina Regina), which has come close to having its electricity cut off, is in the mother of all financial messes. A petition from 7,500 intellectuals (more than you can fit in a Fiat Topolino, but fewer than it takes to turn on the lights when the meter’s empty) failed to impress the regional assessor for culture (it might have helped if the signatories had come from Naples). “It is not possible that with a budget of 8m euros a year it only manages to generate a 100,000 euros with the odd disco and party,” she reasoned. “Ma si, signora,” reasoned the intellectuals, “é possibile.”

Do cuts spell Armageddon for the arts? Not if they force the avant-garde back onto the streets, where they belong. From the Jeremiads raining down from on high you’d think we were returning to the Dark Ages. The direst predictions, of course, are from arts administrators, as they’re the ones who’ll be out of a job. Creative industry workers at the coalface go on being creative and industrious without the need of incentivisation by fat monthly cheques and a final salary pension. The average annual earnings of artists in this country are in four figures. Most of them make art not to educate the public or to promote tourism or regenerate rundown areas; they make it because that is what they do. Arts administrators can big themselves up by pretending the whole cultural edifice will collapse without them, but it won’t. Painters will go on daubing, poets will go on poeticking, actors will go on playacting, musicians will go on fiddling. The band will play on after the bandwagon stops.

In the past month I’ve had three five-star cultural experiences, none of them paid for by state subsidy. Exhibition of the month was Eric Rimmington’s latest show of still lifes in a small commercial gallery, the Bohun, in Henley: 40 exquisite paintings, as many as one can profitably look at, nearly all sold (none to a public gallery). Play of the month was Kiki Kendrick’s Next! at the 40-seater Etcetera Theatre above the Oxford Arms in Camden, a brilliantly written and acted one-woman drama with an ideal running length of just over an hour. Musical experience of the month was a

301 Moved Permanently

videoed pop-up performance of Handel’s Hallelujah 301 Moved Permanently chorus, sung by a flash mob of 600 singers – gathered under the banner of ‘1000 Random Acts of Culture’ – to the accompaniment of the world’s largest pipe organ, in Macy’s department store in Center City Philadelphia. Seeing shoppers who had no intention of being  ‘cultural consumers’ suddenly transported by the experience brought me close to tears, partly because it wasn’t packaged as culture but sprang apparently unaided from the ground.

State subsidy has not been the mother of invention; let’s see what necessity can do.

The Jackdaw Jan-Feb 2011