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Paul Werner, "Culture and Crisis"

Culture and Crisis
Paul Werner

I] Whew! that was close! I had planned to give this lecture in French; fortunately, the organizers contacted me and asked me to lecture in English instead; and there's no equivalent for "Big Bird" in French. So. Welcome, Everybody! Hello! Hello!... Hey, kids! Can you say PRODROMIC? Prodromic: It's a historian's term, as well as medical. It means that certain events can give a sense of how later events are going to unfold, without necessarily suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship. A prodrome is purely heuristic… never mind.

And here's something prodromic about Romney's Big Bird statement: it had so few repercussions. Four years ago any promise to defund the Public Broadcasting Service or the National Endowment for the Arts was sure to meet with outrage. This time, it was met with a big yawn. As a Democratic apparat-chick explained:

There are more pressing issues than Big Bird for voters to care about. Big Bird has over $29 million in the bank and doesnt need government funding, he's a very big business now and can stand on its[sic] own. Other shows can get funding from sponsors...

It seems the only ones willing to stand up for Big Bird were the four-year-olds; and four-year olds don't vote. I'm pretty sure they blog, however...

II]
When the author of a new book is interviewed on National Public Radio and other media, when she presents her book in the The New York Times – that's a subtle hint that she’s raised certain issues that certain powerful people at the New York Times and NPR and elsewhere think you should think about. The liberal media follows the model for the "manufacture of consent" defined by Walter Lippmann: the formulation of consensus around the directives of liberal democracy. The Times does not claim to determine the future, it merely aims to define what's significant.

Let's get with the prodrome.The book is The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland. The problem is unequal distribution of income – in other terms, the 1%. Freeland postures like Occupy Wall Street but her agenda comes from the International Monetary Fund, which recently decided that maybe income inequality is not a result of economic growth; income inequality might actually be a drag on economic growth. (A similar possibility was suggested in a recent report for the US Congress, the one that was withdrawn at the insistence of Republican lawmakers.) Then again, expressions like "a drag on growth," are the economist's equivalent of art-world tags like "references" or "symbolizes" or "illustrates." They don't mean a thing until the details come out.

Freeland details (or rather, illustrates) her argument with an anecdote: after 1350, she claims, the city of Venice went into decline because the greedy Venetian elites refused to share with the "risk-taking entrepreneurs." Really, now? The same greedy Venetians who built San Giorgio, La Salute, and the social support network known as the Scuole Grandi? The ones who financed entrepreneurs like Titian, Palladio, Tiepolo, Aldus Manutius, not to mention Nicolas Jenson, the French printer who set up shop in Venice in 1470 to produce luxury editions for the elites but eventually thrived by printing university textbooks? Freeland might respond that Jenson and the others don't count as "entrepreneurs;" which raises the question, what did count as an entrepreneur in the Early Modern Era, and what counts as an entrepreneur now? And what exactly is, or should be, redistributed?

III]
A: An entrepreneur is someone who deserves to get rich, and someone who deserves to get rich is someone who's worthy of receiving whatever gets distributed. Recently the New York Times published an article that described as fact an advertising campaign which, if it happens at all, will take place in March, 2013. The campaign, says the Gray-Haired Slut, is promoted by “five European countries;” which means “promoted in five European countries by a non-governmental trade group funded by private donations, with the support of the European Commission in Brussels.” Or somebody at the European Commission. Whatever. The gist is: we must support “Entrepreneurship” – see definition above. The projected ad begins with shots of a museum, with statues of Plato, Darwin and Charles Babbage – but not Ada Lovelace; Francis Crick – but not Rosalind Franklin. Then a young woman breaks out of a glass box. Then a young woman is shown holding a sign that reads “I think Europe is finished. It will be a good place for tourism but little else. Europe is a thing of the past,” while the banner underneath runs: “This is not my future.” Girl, it's not even your past...

The resentful tone is typical, also, of those French entrepreneurs who now call themselves “pigeons”, and who've enlisted twitter technology to thwart economic reform. One such messenger bird attacked the newly formed Socialist Government for « le dogme anticapitaliste, l’anti-économique, le brisage de rêves, la démotivation quasi sadique, » while Laurence Parisot, head of the French Chamber of Commerce (MEDEF), denounced « le racisme anti-entreprises. » – the comment is patterned on the far-right buzzword « racisme anti-blanc. » The tone of these messages is that of the Poujadistes, political activists of the nineteen-fifties who combined their resentment of upper-class Culture with the contradictory demand that the Government offer them more support and fewer controls: fundamentally, it's Freeland's tone as well. The Poujadistes were protectionist and therefore xenophobic: their best-known representative was Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right Front National. Ultimately, Freeland's message and Parisot's go back to Teddy Roosevelt, who's become a big favorite in the East Coast Academy; to Woodrow Wilson and the “New Freedom” plan of 1913: curbing the oligarchy should not lead to greater government control but to legislation that encourages small business and “entrepreneurship.”

Most midstream economists agree by now there's a problem in Europe: no money to invest because it's being hoarded by the big banks; hence the “Capitalist's Dilemna,” as it's been called: the difficult task of deciding how best to redistribute value. And since, by definition, only capital begets capital, the very possibility that the value to be encouraged and promoted by the state might be labor, for instance, or social capital, is off the table. The free-market attitude toward culture and the arts hasn't changed since Adam Smith back in 1776: art, for Smith, is a form of “unproductive labor” producing “trinkets and baubles” that merely gum up the economic machine:

All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind [who] sold their birthright, [...], in the wantonness of plenty, for trinkets and baubles, fitter to be the playthings of children than the serious pursuits of men [...] for a pair of diamond buckles, perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless.

We could be talking about the Venetian aristocracy. Or rather, Freeland could be quoting Adam Smith. When Smith refers to The Wealth of Nations he's not talking about wealth from labor or from social connections; and certainly not from lazy artists. Since only that which can be turned into capital is productive, it stands to reason that only those aspects of the Culture Industry that are properly considered capital, should be encouraged.

IV]
Fortunately sort of, the American Culture Industry is moving full throttle towards the exploitation of “its” capital, meaning that it's gradually abandoning any pretense to a social mission. Since the Late Middle Ages, corporations in Anglo-Saxon lands have been granted a privileged tax status in acknowledgement of the social utility of their activities. Now these corporations are willing to sell their birthright for a mess of Paulus Potters. And vice-versa. Take John Wilmerding, an art historian at Princeton, whom the Times shows hanging pictures at a commercial gallery. Wilmerding's lectures and publications were once a discreetly acceptable way of hiking the value of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's investments in American Old Masters, just as the Met's for-profit bookstore and its paying concert series were legally, ethically proper ways of supporting the Met's cultural, educational mission. At one point, also, the Met's Education Department was devoted to, you know, educating, not to running a profit-making booking agency, but of course that was before the Met changed its mission statement. In the latest step, the Museum has a new web-site, with direct links to its profit-making ventures: It's no longer the purpose of the accessory enterprises to jack up the value of the capital (the actual paintings and scultures), it's the purpose of the collection to support whatever profit-making enterprises the internet, the private galleries, the auction houses, the Museum itself allow. Or whatever the State Attorney General is willing to overlook.

Six years ago I wrote that museum directors like Tom Krens had figured out that the internet had radically changed the Museum's relationship to relations of production, they just hadn't figured out what to do about it. Well, they've figured it out, now: it's to extract more capital from their investment, even if the traditional, protected investment (the museum as a physical space holding physical objects known as artworks) falls by the way. In New York State a strip club argues that pole dancing is a form of expression on a par with Marina Abramovic parading around the Museum of Modern Art in her birthday suit; therefore the nightclub should be tax-exempt on similar grounds. The case is being followed with the rapt attention of a strip-club customer – or a New York State Attorney General. Some question whether MoMA deserves it own tax-exempt status; a few others wonder if it might need one. Given the choice between unbridled speculation and the traditional, protected variety, museum directors and trustees and curators may well choose the latter. Some already have.

In Europe, likewise, those private interests that have long benefited from the Culture Industry are cashing in their chips. (The painting on the left is thought by scholars to represent the newly appointed French Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti, contemplating the disintegration of a national consensus on the benefits of the Cultural Sector.) Recently, the French Government attempted to impose a tax on privately held artworks. The proposal was rejected, with one Socialist deputy arguing it would harm the private speculative market, which he calculated accounts for 45,000 jobs, as opposed to the millions of jobs created by tourism and the museum industry. (France alone has 85 million foreign visitors a year). Incidentally, the Georges de la Tour painting shown here is not in France any more, it's in America; it was sold by André Fabius, father of Laurent Fabius, presently Minister of Foreign Affairs. Georges de la Tour is a classic example of private investors and dealers manipulating museums to manufacture a market for an artist whose reputation was, in great part, manufactured to begin with. A last-minute amendment that would have exempted artworks that were made accessible to the public was defeated: wealthy art collectors don't see the advantage of jacking up the value of their investments through public display any more. Art is seen as capital tout court, now, not as social capital.

V]
Which may have incalculable effects on the European Culture Biz – and it is a major business, after all. Unfortunately it's no longer treated as a business that falls in the category of “creative entrepreneurship,” as it once did. In the nineteen-sixties, for instance, French literature and philosophy were major export items, even though the literature and philosophy in question were often opposed to the Gaullist regime; likewise, in the early Interwar period, the Social-Democratic Government of Vienna attempted to develop avant-garde music, architecture and theater to compete in the global economy, as Vienna had done under the Habsburgs. After 1924, private capital provided by the Dawes Plan allowed Weimar Germany to build up a cultural economy that ultimately sucked in much of Vienna's talent pool. At the present time the French Government is considering a program for global competitiveness (Projet Louis Gallois) that bears some similarities to the Austrian economic program. It seems unlikely that the plan will go very far, or that the entrepreneurship it aims to promote will involve the Cultural Sector.

In any case, that's not what the Cultural Sector's about these days – or those: In the late nineteenth century, Modernity was blended with Modernization. With liberal thinkers like Michel Chevalier, Saint-Simon's idea of a Mission Civilisatrice for Culture was folded into the notion of State-directed imperialism. Saint-Simon and Chevalier were among the first to anticipate the idea of a European Federation, and the cultural conflicts inherent in their vision have re-emerged with a vengeance.

Hey: you don't look like Michel Chevalier! Just as Greek Orientalizing Art was at once Greek and Mediterranean, just as Art Nouveau was at once International and fiercely nationalistic, so, too, the New Euro-Global art. Today this is most evident in Istanbul, which has been negotiating its entry into the European cultural zone for the last three hundred years. An institution like the Istanbul Modern plays a role as clear-cut as the Art Nouveau mosque nearby played a hundred years ago:

to bring Turkey in line with the latest in global culture, and by osmosis, to develop an audience among the Turkish bourgeoisie and working class that is as capable of responding to Marina Abramovic in a mature manner as it is to meet the high cultural and humanitarian standards of Europeans - why the Istanbul Moderne even has a painting by a modern woman artist! To attend the Istanbul Modern (if you're Turkish) or the Louvre (if you're French) is to become One of Us. Or one of them: “The museum ….aims to convey the artistic creativity of Turkey to the masses and share its cultural identity with the international artistic environment,” says their mission statement. That, and a Euro won't even get you on the trolley to Tophane...

Some day perhaps the past 125 years will seem like a Golden age, the Investment Phase of Capitalism in Culture, when governments and business invested massively in the Mission Civilisatrice of Art; those days may be over. The people of Istanbul are leery of the promise of Europeanization; it's a wise leer, even in the Art World. Today in Vienna, in Athens, in Paris tomorrow, cultural administrators are ordered to comply with central directives posing as economic rationalization. “Budgetary Discipline,” it's called, and it's bound to get worse as the European Banking Union comes into effect. Walter Lippmann once suggested that the herd of citizens must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” In Europe today the “specialized class” is cracking the whip.

If I follow David Harvey, the next phase will have cultural institutions excluding every aspect of their mission except the extraction of capital: excluding the creation of social capital, the formation of a national/global identity, the education of a culturally skilled workforce. And we'll see this well beyond Europe; in cities like Campeche, Mexico, sites like Nim Li Punit in Belize, which have been “preserved” with investments from Unesco and the European union, and now, under the claim of developing tourism, are returned to their ancient role as engines of colonial exploitation. Is the Parthenon next? I'm having a Big Bird moment...

VI]
It's a moment I share with my friends and colleagues, the European artists, art workers and museum personnel of Europe. Recently the online journal Artleaks reported on the anxiety of young Ukrainian artists “caught between two evils.” One such evil was the Director of the Kharkov Art Museum, shown in a video enthusiastically kicking away a pile of contemporary art works on the Museum floor. The other is Tatyana Mironova, an evil of the Knievel kind, well on her way to an official appointment as Director of the National Art Museum in Kiev. Mironova runs a private gallery on the side, and talks a lot about branding; as that arbiter of hip, the Ukrainian edition of Vogue, explains, there's no conflict for concern since Mironova's plan is to “bring people to the museum.” As opposed to bringing the Museum to the people, no doubt.

A museum director on a motorcycle? Darling, that's sooo Tom Krens; So's the investment in branding as a miracle cure; as I wrote a few years back, during Krens's tenure at the Guggenheim and mine, “the return on his investment—the justification for the gamble—was made out to be the spontaneous appearance of hordes of visitors through the galleries.” Measuring success by the number of visitors is a feeble attempt to paper over the difference between the Museum's civilizing mission and its sponsors' demand for quantifiable economic results, people to the museum vs. museum to the people. The two were never commensurate, and whenever the economic imperative actually runs counter to the museum's mission the museum's mission will be thrown overboard.

My friends: there's nothing for you there. It's harsh of me to say this, since so many of you have spent years under the impression that you're not really artists, you're entrepreneurs in the field of Art. And you've spent considerable amounts of your own, hard cash and labor developing your own brand of Art as your social capital; developing your mind as a form of human capital, easily traded for the real thing. But the museum's not interested in social capital any more; it's not interested in helping develop Art, yours or others, as capital it may exploit, even for free. Think of yourselves as the workers in a factory in Europe or America, desperately refining your skills; meanwhile the plant's been sold, and your boss is selling the machinery for scrap and shipping production overseas. In the Age of Extraction, social capital isn't worth a hill of Beuys.

I only wish Ukrainian artists would take a page from their own tradition, as the Turks are doing. The best-known painting in the Kharkov Museum is by the nineteenth-century artist, Ilya Repin. It references the Zaporozhian Cossacks, a fierce, independent group: they'd probably be considered war entrepreneurs today, or in France, intermittents du pillage. In 1676 the Sultan of Contantinople offered to hire them away from their Polish and Lithuanian overlords. Their reply was put into French verse by the great Franco-Polish poet Guillaume Apollinaire, in 1903; it's a reply we, too, might consider:

Plus criminel que Barrabas
Cornu comme les mauvais anges
Quel Belzébuth es-tu là-bas
Nourri d'immondice et de fange
Nous n'irons pas à tes sabbats

Poisson pourri de Salonique
Long collier des sommeils affreux
D'yeux arrachés à coup de pique
Ta mère fit un pet foireux
Et tu naquis de sa colique

Bourreau de Podolie Amant
Des plaies des ulcères des croûtes
Groin de cochon cul de jument
Tes richesses garde-les toutes
Pour payer tes médicaments