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State of the arts
Art is too often put out of ordinary people's reach by extortionate prices and a snobbish social elite. So why is big art such big business? And what does that mean for working class artists? Rob MacDonald - a resident artist at La Fundicio del Poblenou in Barcelona, and member of Socialismo Revolucionario (the Socialist Party's sister party in Spain) - comments on the problem.
In 2007 we were at the beginning of a crisis that has since engulfed the world, prompting harsh austerity measures and much suffering. In the same year Damien Hirst presented his platinum skull encrusted with 8,500 diamonds, "For the Love of God", with a £50 million price tag. This contrast was not a coincidence, but a symptom of the crisis-ridden capitalist system.
Art is big business. Huge revenue is drawn from film, music and visual art, among many other forms. In the last few years, international art sales alone averaged £40 billion a year. That's equal to Ikea's international sales and the American tobacco industry combined.
In 2013, Francis Bacon's triptych "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" was auctioned for a record £142 million. These massive sales are double or treble what was reached in the early 2000s. Aside from a minor blip in 2009, profits in the arts industry have grown continually during the economic crisis.
Most of this business is centred on auction houses, elite galleries and art fairs. Big players like Sotheby's and Christie's dominate. These are the playgrounds of the super-rich. The UK and USA together account for 65-70% of top-end art imports and exports. China, with its burgeoning wealthy elite, is a major growth market.
The leap in art sales is not built, in the main, on sections of the middle class using expendable income on luxuries. It is better explained by the growing wealth of the super-rich over a whole historical period that has now reached sickening proportions.
But this growth in the arts industry during an economic crisis also represents something else. Art is a safer place to invest capital when traditional investment is not returning high profits. In reality it shows the weakness of the whole capitalist system that something as subjective as art, and particularly unproven contemporary art, is a safe market.
The market is led by the world's billionaires. In particular the art billionaires - like Francois Pinault and Nasser Khalili, who have a billion dollars of arts assets each. Worst of all, the super-dealers and billionaire art collectors dictate taste and direction for mainstream art. It is likely this period of art will be known for the rampantly commercialistic styles this has resulted in.
But how has this flood of cash affected the arts scene? You might think some of this vast new wealth would trickle down to ordinary people.
Most people interact with art in public museums or galleries. For most publicly owned art institutions there has been a huge squeeze in funding. They are forced to look beyond the public purse to continue.
The People's History Museum in Manchester faces a £200,000 cut (see page 9), which will hinder heavily its ability to tell the story of ordinary people's enormous role in history. Government funding for the arts has been slashed year on year.
The arts are always first on the list for local councils to cut. Included in this is a wholesale attack on public libraries, youth services and arts centres in general: all in the name of 'necessary' austerity to 'rebuild' the economy. Yet the economy is booming in the private, high-end art sector; overflowing with hoarded funds in all industries - and swelling the income of the richest 1% across the board.
There has been development of new, contemporary museums. The argument is they regenerate areas, bringing tourism and developing creative industries.
More museums should be a good thing - but their business models are mostly short sighted, led by the super-rich who want the prestige of a wing in their name. They often struggle to compete in a tight market where 20 of the top museums control 95% of assets.
Big-ticket, heavily publicised events only perpetuate the elitism and commercialisation of art, and do less than nothing for the grassroots. Many of these modern museums are "more building than art", and cost more to run than they help economic development.
Barcelona is an important city for art, and not just because of Gaudi and Picasso: there is a thriving, living grassroots arts scene. There have been growing demonstrations and community protests over super-exploitation of the city centre for tourism. At the same time in nearby areas, artistic spaces situated in old industrial buildings are under threat due to short-sighted planning.
Where does all this leave the artist? The number of artists has hugely expanded in recent years. There is a tiny layer of celebrity artists that dominate like football stars. Another small section just about scrapes a living together from artistic work. But the vast majority struggle to survive at all.
Many people today have some type of art qualification, and millions more consider themselves artists in some form. Committed artists often work in precarious jobs to allow even a small amount of time and 'flexibility' to develop their craft. Most struggle simply for space to perform or create in.
If they do overcome these obstacles, they can still be forced to "pay to play" - fork over cash just for the right to put on their work. This super-exploitation - in an industry which is super-profitable at the top end - super-alienates artists. They are made natural allies in the fight for change, against the capitalist social system.
The right to work in and consume all arts needs to be fought for at every level. Artistic expression, in all its hugely varied forms, is key to self-fulfilment and our understanding of the human experience. We must seize it from the hands of the super-rich and capitalism, for in their hands it is nothing more than a commodity for sale or trophy for prestige.
For working people, free art represents our history and our day-to-day struggle for existence. Organising arts workers, and defending art in general, should be intertwined with the wider workers' movement - to fight not only for freedom of artistic expression, but for the socialist society that can free us all.
In The Socialist 7 January 2015:
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