Art of the State

Feb 09, 2013

Would you invest in a business where the principals range from quirky to deranged? Would you invest in a consumer product that, initially, causes widespread disgust and complaints?

You probably wouldn’t, and neither would I. Investing is efficient, dispassionate, and rational. Art is none of these things.

The Creative Enterprise Initiative has made its first major investments in the arts in Waterloo Region. CEI manages a combination of public and private cash, but the focus is on funds supplied privately by local individuals.

The CEI’s focus is on private investment to allow artists to build revenue streams. It entices us away from public “funding” and starved public budgets. It fits well into the ongoing privatization zeitgeist.

Is public funding for artists a recent aberration? In past centuries, nobles and businessmen privately, personally, commissioned works of art for public/religious consumption. Of course, they were the effective public authorities, often collecting taxes themselves. They knew commissioning art was part of keeping their heads attached to their shoulders.

Democratic government, by contrast, can fund art made solely for art’s sake. In recent decades there has been a distinct shift away from this, according to Charles Reeve, curator of OCAD’s Onsite gallery. Private funding has not picked up the slack, resulting in less money for art and less art being made.

Reeve warns that lately he has seen private benefactors wrestle control of the programs they support out of the hands of the artist partners they rely on. It’s a “recipe for blandness, flavour-of-the-week work that is not very circumspect”.

Art struggles to be emotional and transcendent. These qualities don’t translate to a balance sheet.

Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”), in her seminal TED talk on creativity, examines the price that artists pay for their artistic gift. In its mildest form, it’s called “writer’s block” (and not “chemical engineer’s block”).

Artists are notorious for emotional and mental volatility. Their gift can torture them, and impact the people around them. Until broader critical perspectives develop, their audiences often torture them too. This does not make for a reassuring prospectus.

Gilbert’s broader message is that ancient peoples attributed artistic inspiration to an external spirit or “genius”, and that we should consider doing so as well.

Both artists and the community believed art started with the genius. This indirection protected everyone from the humiliation of failure–and the hubris of success.

The model of the genius would help us accept that art arrives early or late, with little concern for revenue forecasts. We all know the pain of the right word remembered at the wrong time. Imagine trying to build a career and a dignified living on it.

Public funding of art is one way that invasive, capricious inspiration can pay for the art it so inconveniently commissions.

Public arts funding, the Living Wage movement, and our unkempt knot of social programs hint to us that traditional investment and trade structures do not meet all needs. Art, as life, is not always coin operated.