In the beginning, there was the golden arm. The golden arm suddenly appeared in the room as if it punched through the wall. At the end of the golden arm was a clenched golden fist. Held fast and tight in the grip of this golden fist was a golden bag. Inside the golden bag were so many golden coins that it seemed the golden bag might break from the weight – spilling the golden coins everywhere onto the floor of the room. But the golden bag did not break. The golden fist maintained its firm grip. The golden arm retained its strength and did not waver nor tire. There did not appear a set of shoulders or legs, no torso or head, to complete this partial image of a human form. The golden arm remained alone – separate and distinct unto its golden self – reaching through the wall, clasping at its golden bag full of golden coins in mid-air off the ground. Was the golden arm extending its treasure as an offering? Or was the golden arm taunting us by suspending its golden coins ever so slightly beyond our reach? These questions were left unanswered. For no sooner had the golden arm manifested itself, then it vanished without a trace.
If you worked in any capacity in the North American or European arts sectors, this image of the golden arm suddenly appeared in your social media news feed during March 2018. In actuality, the golden arm and its bag of gold was a work of sculpture by the Danish-Norwegian art duo Elmgreen & Dragset titled Temptation, and dated from an exhibition in 2012. When the image of the golden arm manifested itself on your preferred social media platform, the image itself was uncredited; since identifying the artist or context did not really matter. What was of paramount importance, however, was the news story the image represented and linked to – a brief article on the American arts website Hyperallergic written by the arts critic Daniel A. Gross. It was published on March 6, 2018 under the stunning title: ‘The Arts Contributed a Staggering $763 Billion to US Economy, According to New Data’. As if that bold proclamation was not clear enough to shock you from the comforts of your day job, the editors at Hyperallergic added an even more stunning and catchy sub-title: ‘That’s 4.2% of the US economy – more than the entire GDP of Switzerland’.
The original article quickly went viral across every industry and discipline in the arts world. For weeks and months, it appeared and re-surfaced over and over again on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. It was discussed, referenced, and linked to in countless posts across the blogosphere by the self-appointed Arts Commentariat. The original post with its image of the golden arm was shared by arts workers and arts institutions alike across every genre and medium in North America and the European Union. (I first saw the article for myself in a social media post from the IETM, an international contemporary performing arts network based in Brussels.) Funders and presenters, museums and agencies, theaters and galleries, unions and associations, all shared the golden arm via their Facebook Pages. The golden article evolved into the perfect click-bait storm of Spring 2018 for both the under-funded and the well-endowed. Desperate independent artists and the parents of unemployed actors accompanied their posts of the golden arm with angry mini-rants demanding more public funding for the arts. Federal and local government agencies, major private philanthropic donors, large for-profit and non-profit arts institutions – even major film studios – all beamed with great pride as they accompanied their posts of the golden arm with grand proclamations taking responsibility for helping contribute to such a staggering financial sum.
Leaving aside fantasies of conquering neutral Switzerland for the moment, this golden article with the golden arm served as a blessing for American arts organizations in search of a positive arts narrative to counter the negative attacks emanating from the Trump administration during 2017–2018. For both American and European arts leaders, the golden article served as clear evidence to further enshrine what has become the near-sacrosanct ‘go-to’ arts defense argument – the Economic Impact Argument. Critics of public funding for the arts could now be cast out back into their neanderthal caves in the face of indisputable economic data that the arts and culture should finally receive the ‘attention that must be paid’ reserved for other industries that contribute to GDP like manufacturing or agriculture.
What exactly the golden article with the golden arm linked to was not discussed in great detail. It was sufficient to simply post and link to the golden article, then let the staggering financial sum speak for itself. The great Economic Impact Argument only required the quoted dollar figures and a catchy Swiss reference to prove its self-evident point. No further examination or debate was needed beyond the obligatory ‘likes’ and ’emojis’ or the ensuing comment chains from friends, relatives, and colleagues made upon a social media post. At its best moments, these comment chains were elevated to borderline political action; while at their worst, they degenerated into nonsensical squabbling from the depths of Dante’s Lower Cantos. After a month, the click-bait storm died down without any fundamental changes to the over-arching structure of arts funding in the United States.
One year later during March 2019 – a similar headline quoting the same dollar figure is making the rounds anew on social media. Nothing has changed and there is nothing new being reported about the financial data. The same story from a year ago is being quoted, but because it is from a different online arts website – ARTSY.NET – and the image of the golden arm has been changed to an image of a paintbrush with some paint jars – it is being shared on social media as if breaking news. In my hometown of Brooklyn, New York – this tweaked version is now being shared online by reputable arts organizations like the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance and ARTs East New York. The entire ‘golden scenario’ from March 2018 is repeating itself via social media, but still lacking any significant examination of the original reporting – and without any significant changes to the underlying structures of what is a predatory and inhumane arts funding system in the United States.
When the American arts funding system eats you for breakfast
I possess firsthand experience of this predatory and inhumane American arts funding system. Since 2004, I have been working as a playwright-director in New York, and working professionally as a theatre artist in Canada and the European Union on a semi-regular basis since 2007. An outsider might observe what passes for my artistic career over the last fifteen years, and view it as an incredible success. This time span is marked by multiple world premieres at some of the best downtown venues in New York, and at several of the more respected contemporary performing arts institutions in the European Union. This theatre work has been favorably reviewed by The New York Times on four different occasions, in countless other American and EU publications, and has received support from both private and public sources in the form of space grants, subsidized rehearsal-production agreements, travel grants, fellowships, residencies, artist fees, modest project grants, and even a successful crowd-funding campaign.
However, all of these various forms of support have been utterly powerless in the face of these predatory and inhumane structures to actually provide a living wage for any of the artists or actors involved (myself included). Nearly all of this work has been subsidized by their unpaid or under-paid labor. Many of these artists and actors resorted to working two or three different day jobs to subsidize their time working during rehearsals; while others could rely on higher salaries from tenured university positions, or from commercial television and film work, to off-set their loss of income. The upper tier of American funding partners that offer larger project grants have universally rejected our applications. The experimental and multidisciplinary nature of these artistic projects also means that other avenues of income provided by extended engagements, private investors, or partnerships at commercial, for-profit American theaters remains sealed off. Out of my four plays that have received positive New York Times reviews – none of them provided me with a salary of any kind. The majority of actors and artists who worked on these projects have been forced to leave the theatre industry entirely – never to return. This attrition process is repeated and repeated year after year for other artists and projects all throughout New York City on a scale that might seem unimaginable to a foreign observer. This grim reality check is a far cry from the “social media version of reality” that proponents of the great Economic Impact Argument gather around to worship at their Altar of the Golden Arm.
The original arts funding context and arts industry data of the Hyperallergic article, combined with the article’s subsequent viral manifestation via social media, represents a confluence of two distinct subjects or themes that have occupied my work during a 2014 Saari Residence Fellowship and my current term as the 2018–2019 Saari Invited Artist. These dual overlapping subjects or themes can essentially be distilled into two points: 1) a fundamental misunderstanding of American arts funding legislation; and 2) the difference between what we perceive as reality online, and what is actually transpiring out in the real world. The persistence of the former and the prevalence of the latter combines in the distorted stew of American public discourse to construct major obstacles to legitimate arts funding reforms in the United States. Since the tactics employed by American conservatives in their successful attacks on arts funding during the 1980s–1990s have been replicated, modified, and codified by conservatives in multiple European countries — and since the manipulation of the social media reality gap is a contributing factor not only to the 2016 election of Donald Trump, but also to the BREXIT results earlier that same year – a significant discussion of this overlapping confluence seems urgently relevant to me working within a European context in Finland.
Starting during the Fall 2013, I formally began researching the history of public funding for the arts in the United States, and then compared it with histories of other nation’s public funding structures like Belgium, Canada, Finland, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. I started by obtaining transcripts of the original hearings and debates that took place on the floor of the U.S. Congress from 1963–1965, which led to the establishment of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965. Then, I conducted interviews with several European arts leaders and experts in EU cultural policies. (This research, combined with my reactions to attending the landmark MAKE ARTS POLICY! Event during the 2014 Baltic Circle Festival, were previously summarized in an essay on the Kone Foundation’s Boldness Blog and in their 2015 Annual Report.) This work became a major component to an interdisciplinary theatre project – THE AЯTS – which investigated the history of American arts funding. It premiered at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York during September 2018.
Even though THE AЯTS project had previously received research and development support from several New York and EU institutions during 2014-2017 – and in spite of the confirmed commitment to co-present the world premiere from La MaMa (New York) and the Baltoscandal Festival (Estonia) – no major American arts foundation or funder would support the final stage of rehearsals and production of THE AЯTS during 2018. This lack of support transpired while the Trump administration was actively working to eliminate all public funding for the arts from American life. Even though the New York premiere of THE AЯTS went forward at La MaMa – it was realized under an extremely skeleton budget; with the primary artists taking no salary and the ensemble cast of actors being extremely underpaid. How are such work conditions possible in what is considered one of the greatest American arts cities? How is the systemic impoverishment of American artists possible within an industry that we are told contributes $760 billion to the U.S. economy? What perpetuates such a large-scale contradiction?
Unchecked compression, consolidation, and contradiction in the aЯts
On August 3, 2016 I watched the entirety of a Donald Trump campaign rally in Jacksonville, Florida. This event took place a few days after the Republican and Democratic conventions that July. It was widely accepted that Trump’s convention was a colossal failure, ensuring his inevitable defeat by Hillary Clinton later on that year. However, my viewing of the Florida rally provided shockingly clear evidence that blatantly contradicted the ‘inevitability narrative’ which dominated American mainstream media. Later on that summer, I drove round-trip from New York across the American states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan on my way to an artist residency near Lake Superior. I stopped in multiple, smaller regional cities and observed clear evidence of a lack of public support for Hillary Clinton, strong enthusiasm for Donald Trump, and a widespread sense of despair, confusion, and disillusion amongst the working class / middle class Americans I spoke with. It became clear to me that Donald Trump would win these three critical states – easily. I became alarmed when I did not see this actual, tangible reality reflected in the news, in polling, on television, or via social media in online posts from friends and colleagues working in the arts sectors of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Portland.
It was somewhat fitting that later on that autumn, when I was working in Dhaka, Bangladesh viewing the U.S. election returns online that Tuesday, November 8th. What I encountered on the ground in Bangladesh working with women who survived the 2012 Tazreen Factory Fire stood in stark contradiction to my advance research reviewing news stories, documentaries, or the press releases and final reports of NGOs working in the garments sector in Bangladesh. In reality – nothing had changed for the women I was working with. None of them had yet to receive adequate compensation for their injuries and trauma, in spite of all the Facebook Likes, Youtube Videos, and Boycott Petitions perceived online. One could make the argument that these women were worse off in 2016 than they were in the immediate weeks after they survived the 2012 fire by leaping from fourth story factory windows. How is such a similar gap between our actual reality and what we perceive as reality possible in two different scenarios roughly 8,000 miles apart? What does it say about our contemporary moment? What does it say about how we process and receive information? Why are we incapable of not only mounting an adequate defense against a former reality TV star – but equally incapable of providing clear and genuine assistance to the most desperate in need?
These questions touch upon recurring themes that intersect with my current research and what I believe are the inherently flawed content and manifestations of the Hyperallergic article. There exists a gap between what we perceive as reality – the reality we perceive via our devices through compressed and consolidated formats – and what is actually transpiring out in the real world. There is a widening gap between what we perceive online – and what is actually happening. In my work, I continue to see evidence of a vast consolidation and compression of human experience into more narrow and predictable terms. As human expression, language, and information becomes compressed into these narrow terms, we are becoming incapable of formulating responses to complex problems or issues. It is a vicious cycle – one we prefer to avoid acknowledging. This avoidance only fuels the entire compression even more. At precisely the very moment when the arts are urgently needed to tackle these issues – to address this gap – the Hyperallergic article magically appears in our social media feeds only to broaden and widen the gap. The Hyperallergic article’s content, combined with how the article is shared by North American and European artists and arts leaders, only renders us more incapable of resisting the consolidation, interrupting this compression, or significantly confronting the glaring contradictions permeating through the arts.
A few clicks on links embedded within the Hyperallergic story reveals gross misrepresentations of data and dollars contributing to our flawed knowledge obtained via social media. The Hyperallergic story is based upon a March 6, 2018 press release that appears on the website for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. The source material cites data from a 2015 report compiled by the NEA and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that ‘tracks the annual economic impact of arts and cultural production from 35 different industries’ across the United States. While I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the researchers or the accuracy of their data, a deeper reading of the source material erodes the ‘goldness’ of the Hyperallergic article and its staggering dollar figure.
In actuality, there is a disturbing conflation of terms combined with a false equivalency between artistic disciplines and industries. The most glaring is the grouping of commercial, for-profit artistic endeavors that are either connected to mass media delivery systems – (like Hollywood films or NetFlix shows, for example) – or are artistic-oriented businesses rooted in producing tangible commercial products like furniture, musical instruments, architectural services, or jewelry – all items easily adaptable to mass production, or which operate on salary scales that have no comparison to your average arts worker. When ticket sales to live performing arts events are calculated in the NEA/BEA data, there is no differentiation between a $150 ticket to The Lion King – an obvious for-profit commercial enterprise on Broadway owned by the entertainment behemoth Disney – and a $15 ticket to an experimental dance performance mounted by recent college graduates at a small venue in Philadelphia, PA. Increased contributions to the gross state products of Georgia and Louisiana from movie productions are celebrated in the billions, but do not take into account the losses in each state’s tax coffers due to the generous tax breaks given out to attract movie companies in the first place. I fail to see how the construction of ‘new cultural buildings’ in North Dakota, or innovative trends in ‘landscape architecture’ in North Carolina (do they mean golf courses?!?) – has any relation or correlation at all – to an emerging media artist struggling to complete a video installation about plastic pollution, or an aspiring composer trying to finish a new symphony based on the accounts of genocide survivors, or an actor struggling to pay her rent this month because she had to give up several bartender shifts to perform in a new play that scored a fairly decent New York Times review.
The Great Detachment: betraying the source code
Whether these are unintended discrepancies or accidental misrepresentations from authors with good intentions – one must ask the question: why is the National Endowment for the Arts doing a study like this in the first place? Why are NEA staff spending so much time and resources compiling data to satisfy proponents of the great “Economic Impact Argument” – when the NEA itself was founded on the basic premise that arts and culture deserve public support in defiance of all economic pressures? A quick reading of the original 1965 legislation (Public Law #89–209) that created the NEA contains twelve concise justifications for the public funding of the arts in the United States. These justifications became settled law after nearly two years of public debates and hearings in Congress. None of these twelve points posses any mention of economic impact arguments, or for-profit commercial endeavors; nor do they promote the ‘artist-as-entrepreneur’ angle, or make appeals to reason based upon financial data.
The 1965 legislation (which is still the law) is based solely upon what cannot be measured by economic data – the value and contribution of art to a successful democracy. It establishes the public funding of arts as a right that citizens should expect from their elected government. In Section 8, it clearly states that the United States must not rest upon that which is quantified by economic data – ‘power, wealth, and technology’ – but that the nation’s success is based upon that which cannot be easily quantified – like the arts, culture, and ideas. Section 6 and Section 9 not only guarantees arts education in American schools, but recognizes that diversity is a strength warranting support through artistic expression. Section 10 guarantees public financial support to artists and arts organizations, while Section 7 – in perhaps the boldest language utilized in the entire law – proclaims that ‘it is necessary and appropriate’ for government to ‘help create and sustain not only a climate’ encouraging the arts, but commits itself to providing ‘the material conditions’ to make the arts possible.
This bold, clear language from 1965 is now so foreign to the language employed by authors of the 2018 NEA/BEA report, that the 1965 law may well have been written by aliens visiting our planet from a distant galaxy. It represents a shift at the molecular level in the vocabulary employed by American arts leaders. The pressure from this shift has increasingly been felt by arts leaders in Australia, Canada, and the European Union over the course of the last decade. These changes in language and vocabulary have seen the original, bold narratives for public funding of the arts in multiple countries wither to such a degree they resemble mere shadows of their former selves. Impassioned arguments from a previous generation have been displaced and replaced with a simulacrum of public arts funding arguments based upon appeals to gross domestic products and job creation.
In Australia and several European nations, this shift has already resulted in the realization of warnings the late Serbian scholar Dragan Klaic expressed in his 2012 book, Resetting the Stage: Public Theatre Between The Market and Democracy. Market values have displaced democratic values. Market values cannot be justified to a citizenry by twelve simple, clear points. Market values can only be justified by inventing new vocabulary words clothed within an obtuse vernacular only an expert economist can comprehend. This explains why the arts sector has been defined in the 21st Century by the proliferation of market-based terminology like ‘vibrancy’ or ‘creative placemaking’ or the classic ‘Creative Class’ from Richard Florida. One actual economist, Daniel Fujiwara, is quoted in the original Hyperallergic article as stating: ‘If this stuff doesn’t get measured, it’s going to be forgotten.’ And yet, in a bizarre and tragic twist of epic proportions – it is precisely the trends represented by Fujiwara’s own study (and how it is spread and shared across our social media landscape) that contributes to the erosion of our cultural memories. The original justifications for the public funding of arts, the bold structures argued into existence across multiple Western nations during the post-World War II era – have now all been nearly forgotten by arts workers and arts leaders struggling to save their own sectors. They are erased from public view and replaced with narratives and languages more suited to blockbuster superhero movies and Star Wars remakes. It is as if the concept of public funding for the arts was vacationing in some sleepy coastal resort, and was unwittingly devastated by a tsunami.
When the tsunami recedes, it reveals the…
Those of us working in the arts sectors of Australia, North America, and the European Union represent the delusional survivors of this tsunami. The arts still exist. The arts and culture still assumes something resembling a form. But we are all still in a state of shock. The entire culture budget of the Netherlands is slashed by nearly 25 percent in 2011. The government of South Australia, plans $31.9 million in cuts to arts spending over the next four years. Arts and cultural organizations in Flanders try to figure out how to deal with a 7.5 percent budget cut in 2015. Virtually the entire downtown New York performing arts sector funds itself via a rotational merry-go-round of seasonal Kickstarter campaigns comprised almost entirely of identical donors. We stumble about upon the desolate beach, tripping over the debris, wondering what happened to that incredible arts residency we once attended in Switzerland; wondering if that edgy downtown NYC venue which closed from rising rents, will ever find a new home somewhere else deep in the outer reaches of Bushwick, NY. The arts still exist, but many of those who remain in the arts operate from a series of interconnected delusions. Yes, of course, we can still sit in that beach chair – even though it only has one leg remaining. Yes, of course, we can still catch some waves with that surfboard – even though it is broken into three pieces. And yes, of course, we can still consume what is left of our fish sandwich and margaritas – its only a little sand to dust off, a little sand and some plastic bits of debris; just some bits of plastic amongst the tsunami-induced devastation.
We debate the nuances of these gritty details and we delude ourselves into thinking that our debates transpire within the public realm. They do not. Debates in the arts sector now transpire within a closed loop – operating elsewhere – beyond the reach and participation of the general public. The discussions artists and arts workers now engage in transpires within an ‘elsewhere’ realm speaking in the veneer of some ‘elsewhere’ discourse employed to attract stakeholders for ‘elsewhere’ endeavors. I don’t know where this ‘elsewhere’ space truly exists – I will leave it up to the practitioners of ‘elsewhere’ language to define it for themselves. Personally, I suspect it resides somewhere in a new ‘elsewhere’ land positioned between the annual trade shows of Basel/Miami/Venice and the PhD programs of Brussels/Berlin/Helsinki. We have sacrificed our boldness at the glitzy altar of ‘goldness’ to satisfy the blood-lust demands from conservative activists wielding wedge-politics, and the pleasantly implied pressures from neoliberal administrations discussed over cocktails during a post-show reception.
When an aftershock strikes and the tsunami returns to claim another treasured arts institution, the arts sector screams out for aid from the general public. We are stunned and bewildered when the general public does not hear us. We cannot believe it. How can this be? Our calls for help are not manifested in the public realm. The general public do not hear us. The shock at discovering that our calls for help were ignored, only leads to further outrage. But this expression of outrage does not manifest itself in a public space for public impact. We forgot that long ago we abandoned any attempt to involve the general public, in exchange for the comfort of our ‘elsewhere’ terrain. The entire expression of our arts outrage only takes place on Twitter or via Facebook – in the private realms of wealthy corporations speaking to wealthy corporations. We delude ourselves into believing we are making our case to the general public. When in reality our efforts only amount to the sound of money talking to money.
On the replicating impotence of social media
The mechanics of how and why the original Hyperallergic article is spread, shared, and discussed via social media is replicated again and again across other arts publications. Whenever Germany or France announces their semi-annual massive boosts to their cultural arts budgets – the figure is quoted in dollars or in euros, then placed into a catchy headline on FRIEZE or Hyperallergic or via the IETM – and the entire viral process begins anew. Whenever a leading arts figure surprises the field with a bold proclamation – like Frie Leysen’s brilliant 2014 acceptance speech for the Erasmus Prize – the juiciest quotes are excerpted, pasted above the URL link, then shared via social media to expectantly await reactions from the finite spectrum of pre-approved reaction icons. Whenever a new arts controversy arises, the responses are always the same, operating within the confines of the same predictable system. Whether it be religious conservatives in Poland attacking a theatre production, or religious conservatives in France attacking an exhibition – whether it be an Australian culture minister proposing a 28 percent cut to the Australia Council, or artists unjustly arrested in Norway in connection to a political scandal – the social media players are always the same. It is the same arts leaders, the same arts workers, and the same practicing artists sharing the same articles to their preferred social media platform. Maybe others invest the time to engage with us via witty or contemplative comments, but most seem satisfied with choosing between the angry emoji or the shocked emoji.
What is entirely absent from this repetitive process is the general public. It is the general public who do not view or engage with our self-evident social media posts – because we are not ‘friends’ with the general public on social media. We have abandoned attempts to expand the reach of our field to a broader general public. It is much easier now to simply construct artistic projects, or write arts policy papers, or petition a new PhD thesis, or conceive of new arts initiatives, or program an upcoming arts season – all of which are tailored and targeted for a pre-existing audience of peers: our fellow artists, arts leaders, arts workers, or arts students.
To speak of this phenomenon as a bubble is inaccurate, because a bubble would eventually burst. Our predicament is more like living under an enclosed dome. The structure of this dome is clear and transparent – light does get through and we can see outside – but its surface is unbreakable, several times harder than glass. We are all trying to realize our lives in the arts under the confines of this enclosed space. There is not enough fresh air to go around. We are all struggling to breathe the same stagnant air and there is no place else to go. Most of what passes for new proposals in our field, transforms to be revealed as just one more bridge to nowhere. What makes life under the dome all the more precarious, is that the dome is contracting – ever so slowly, year after year. We yield our arts terrain to market values. We yield our arts terrain to distorted systems of measurement. We yield our arts terrain by compressing logic and elevating false equivalencies as fact via a bizarre process of comparison. To build upon a quote from the original Hyperallergic article – the blockbuster Black Panther movie is not the same thing as a play by August Wilson; the Captain Marvel movie is not the same thing as Caryl Churchill, Maria Irene Fornes, or Lynn Nottage; the Bohemian Rhapsody hit film is not the same thing as an exhibition by the late artist David Wojnarowicz; and Avengers Endgame does not function the same way as Lucy Prebble’s Enron, or David Hare’s Stuff Happens, or Michel Vinaver’s A La Renverse, or Yhdestoista hetki by Esa Leskinen and Sami Keski-Vähälä. These are completely different things with radically different starting points and goals. We yield vast tracts of our own terrain when we group them all together under one golden quote. Time and space are running out for all of us in the arts; irrespective of whether we wish to acknowledge the dome, or not.
This repetitive process in the arts sector reminds me of what I experienced during the 2016 election cycle in the United States. People believed their mocking posts of Trump were self-evident and obvious to anyone. The same dramatic structure was employed all throughout 2016. Its origin point would be a 10–30 second excerpt of a Trump campaign rally. The excerpt would then be satirized during an episode from a late-night American talk show host. Then, both the excerpt and the episode would be posted and shared the next morning to our self-affirming social media networks. What everyone over-looked was not only the totality of these Trump rallies – the incredible sense of in-person social bonding between Trump and his congregations – but it also never occurred to us that a deeper, invisible transformation was affecting all of us who used social media as a replacement for public discourse taking place within the public realm. Similar to changes the late communications theorist Neil Postman discussed over the advent of frequent commercial breaks on television, or the simple invention of the remote control – we do not contemplate what is lost in our communication structures; we only celebrate the glistening wonder of The New. We forgot what it was like to physically talk and engage with other people by spending actual time with them in person. I remain convinced that if more social media warriors would have put down their slim devices and invested the time to engage with people living in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania – that Trump’s election could have been prevented. I remain convinced that if those of us working in the arts rededicate ourselves to communicating directly with the general public about the original source arguments for public funding of the arts and culture – then our existing arts institutions and ongoing arts endeavors can be salvaged. Possibly, they might even become stronger and improved via this renewed sense of public engagement.
The buried treasure: towards an unearthing of the public
The existing legislation in nearly every nation that possesses public funding structures for the arts and culture all share one common trait – the legislation was argued and debated into existence. These debates did not take place on social media. They took place in person. The legislative process was a messy and disordered one. It took an awful lot of time. It was far from instantaneous. It required a great deal of conversations and arguments in person. Sometimes people even wrote their thoughts down on actual paper, and then read aloud from that paper in public spaces where there were other people. Imagine that? It shouldn’t sound that complicated to replicate, because we’ve already done it once before. This is how everything we currently value about our modern social-democratic policies was built in the first place. Take a look around you in the real world – chances are what you truly value about contemporary life was not built by social media. All too often we feel the inevitable push towards new models and structures, new methods and approaches. Everyone working in the arts sector keeps pushing and pushing to discover the one new thing that will save us; as if we were working in Silicon Valley as tech entrepreneurs, instead of artists trying to express immeasurable aspects of the human condition.
To paraphrase a recent proposition for an open call from the Open Society Foundation, I don’t believe we need ‘new and radical forms’ to fight against this predatory and inhumane arts funding system. I believe solutions reside in returning to the extant arts legislation that is still the law. I believe we need to incorporate this original, bold language into our working vocabularies. I believe we should come together to discuss it and breathe new life into the arguments employed with success by previous generations. And then I believe, we should not keep this rediscovered knowledge to ourselves – but rededicate ourselves to communicating via clear yet innovative methods to the general public. I suspect the process will be a healthy one and over time prove of great benefit not only to the arts sector, but to all aspects of our lives that warrant government support – from health care and education, to transportation and public utilities. The alternative is a stifling environment. One can actually hear the dome start to contract again. Our terrain gets a little smaller; the air we breathe more stagnant.
The golden arm suddenly appears again. At the end of the golden arm is a clenched golden fist holding the same golden bag. It seems the golden bag might break from the weight of too many golden coins. One can hear the bag stretching from distress. The golden fist maintains its firm grip, however, and the golden arm does not tremble or shake. The rest of the golden body does not reveal itself. The golden arm remains alone – suspended in mid-air – clasping at its golden bag full of coins. Are we obliged to reach out and accept this extended treasure as an offering? Or is the golden arm taunting us with golden coins it intends to keep in its possession? There is no time to answer these questions. For no sooner does the golden arm manifest itself – then it vanishes one final time – without a trace.
This essay was conceived and written during my term as the 2018–2019 Saari Invited Artist at the Saari Residence for artists and researchers maintained by Kone Foundation in Finland. Several of the experiences mentioned in the essay would not have been possible without previous support from the Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology (Michigan), an Individual Artist Grant from the Asian Cultural Council (New York), an artist residency at ARC (CH), and the editors at Diggit Magazine in Tilburg University (NL).