Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Art of the State
Luis Camnitzer

The national art Salon in Uruguay was a yearly event when I was an art student during the 1950s.1 It took place in one of the wings of the old theatre and opera house in Montevideo. The rooms were in the upper floor and one could only get to them by climbing an endless marble staircase with a hardwood handrail. The Salon was very conservative. Controlled by the Ministry of Culture, it was run by a committee and a jury formed by very old people with an academic taste.

One day my schoolmates and I had a terrific idea. The afternoon before opening day we bought several pounds of chewing gum. We chewed overnight and produced a soft, pliable mound of little pellets. Then, some hours before the ceremony, we went to the marble staircase and stuck our work along the handrail. We were delighted with our clever sabotage of such a bourgeois elitist reactionary event. However, it was winter. The unheated staircase was even colder than outside. Most of the pebbles fell off to form a trail of what looked like rabbit droppings. And, the few units that remained were far removed from the word “viscosity.”

More than anything else, the operation reflected our opinion about the State and state sponsorship. However, looking back, I would say that we were blaming the wrong people. The State could be accused of a lack of imagination, but the low quality of the Salon was not the fault of the government, but of the artists. If the government was to be faulted for anything, it would be for its lack of investment in art education and, mostly, for not ensuring that artists could survive making art. The State should have bought work or subsidized artists in a serious way beyond some once-in-a-lifetime little prizes. We hadn’t understood the real problem.

There is a difference between “art of the State” and “art subsidized by the State” although both may overlap. “Art of the State” takes over and usurps the expression of a community. “Art subsidized by the State,” facilitates the expression of the community. In the first case, we think about how the powerful, who finance and sponsor art production, co-opt or coerce art to serve their interests. But, as soon as we recognize the exercise of power, we come to see that the structure we call the “State” is only one of the entities holding power. Reducing the topic of power over art to “art of the State” artificially limits inquiry. Moreover, posing the issue as “art of the State” encourages us to see “the State” as a uniform, monolithic event in human affairs, a natural event, an act of God. In this way, when we blame “the State” for its influence on art, we are basically saying that solutions lie outside “the State,” that our project should be about finding alternatives, but not all states are the same, particularly with respect to their relation to the arts. The degree to which the State usurps the art agenda can vary tremendously, depending upon the particular regime currently holding the levers of state power. During the chewing gum incident, the agenda of the Uruguayan regime was actually quite harmless and not much more than trying to look like France.

From the point of view of the artists, the question is whether or not any power, state or otherwise, should be allowed to “sponsor” art. There are questions that follow from this—for instance, who takes control when the State is uninvolved? What agenda influences sponsors? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of different types of sponsorship And beyond these logistical questions is a deeper one, regarding cultural identity. Art production has consequences for cultural identity, and control over production is almost always accompanied by a predetermined notion of cultural identity; the agenda is more or less a program to reinforce a particular take on “identity” or to promote a new one. A community, on the other hand, evolves its identity, which comes to be perceived and named after the fact, not before. This form of identity, superficially put, is more or less the statistical median emerging from an accumulation of spontaneous individual expressions over time.

It is difficult to define what constitutes “individual expression,” since we are all, as individuals, products of interaction between our character and our environment, and even harder to clarify precisely the relevance of individual expression to community building. But, both of these difficulties are magnified tremendously in capitalist liberal democracies where confusion reigns about individuality and community. On the one hand, an ideology of individualism makes it hard to see the ways in which community is essential to individuality; on the other hand, the religion of markets makes it hard to recognize powerful interests for what they actually are—antagonists of community, not just builders.

How art production is understood depends on the ideological vantage point of the viewer. One person’s “freedom of expression” may be another person’s “promotion of petit-bourgeois narcissism,” and a third person’s “blasphemy undermining moral coherence.” By the same token, the project in art ranges from boundless individual freedom, which often seems to serve no purpose beyond individual therapy, to rigid control with the goal of sacralizing a national power structure and eradicating dissent.

At one end of the spectrum is sponsorship as defined in Holland in the period from 1947 to 1987. At the other end are both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the latter as it developed after the demise of Lunacharsky’s policies in 1930. The Dutch project is interesting because it was mildly selective and relatively unconditional. The State defined itself as an enabler for the expression of the community. Holland funded its artists at a rate of twenty percent above the cost of living and the condition for participation in the program was to donate three works per year to the government.2 Interestingly, the severest criticism of the program was that it “disrupted the open market.” The project was terminated in 1987, not for ideological reasons, but because the government was unable to manage a collection that by then counted over 200,000 pieces.

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About the Author

Luis Camnitzer is a New York–based artist, writer, and curator.

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