What if the artistic were also in a state of crisis?

What if the artistic were also in a state of crisis?

When I wrote my previous blog post I realised that many of the issues needed to be examined in greater depth. The problems involved and their complexity called for further analysis. Accordingly, I now want to look more deeply into what I came to call artistic obsolescence.

In recent times talking about the artistic has become something strange, unusual and sometimes uncomfortable. Policymakers shy away from the topic as if it were Mephistopheles himself. Managers take refuge in objective cultural data to avoid involving themselves in the swampy waters of the artistic. As for artists-authors, they are generally characterised by their uncritical and self-absorbed attitude.

With this background, what analysis can we make of the artistic in these times of crisis?

My point is that in our country the artistic are also in deep crisis to which we have all contributed to a lesser or greater extent. In my argument I rely on a distinction that is essential for understanding this reality: the artistic, involving talent and creativity; and the cultural, involving the socialisation of art.

But how I can sustain that claim that the artistic is in crisis without resorting to opinion? What is the basis for this categorical statement?

First of all, I would like to clarify that my approach does not question the existence of talent. In this country there has been, there is and there always will be a great deal of talent and creativity to channel it. I want to turn the spotlight on these cultural structures and institutions that modulate and model talent and creativity in order to reflect on the current status of the artistic. I say «modulate and model» because they seem more neutral concepts, when we could often say distort or pervert instead.

I would like to add too, and perhaps as a result of this intervention by cultural structures and institutions, that today the artistic essentially takes refuge on the margins of the cultural system. And although I pick up on this topic below, I mention it briefly here to avoid causing impatience in the reader.

And to support my approach on how the cultural is transforming «the artistic» to be able to qualify it as «obsolete» I would like to quote some statistics.

 1/ Cultural isolation.

We are often told by the different cultural policymakers and also certain representatives of the culture industry, that Spain has great export potential and cultural assets. However, the figures clearly belie this claim. Not only do our cultural products arouse increasingly less interest abroad, but the balance of foreign cultural products is becoming progressively unequal. No sector seems to escape from this trend.

AEC_2012_GRAFICOS_ 01_ a_08.xls
Chart taken from the 2012 Cultural Statistics Yearbook of the Spanish Ministry of Culture.

The graph highlights that the decline in foreign sales is a trend that began in 2003; therefore it is safe to say that this tendency is not associated with the current economic crisis. Foreign sales in 2011 were almost half those of 2002.

However, this situation can be explained by appealing to the argument of reduced export subsidies raised by gallery owners; a fact which has doubtless made an influence. But what fundamentally concerns me is an underlying lack of artistic competitiveness of the products we want to export.

Foreign competitiveness is not linked exclusively to artistic originality, but also to a cultural dialogue with other cultures. I mean that we must take part in a cultural system that transcends political boundaries, because art always aims at being universal. This, for example, is the case of music and books with Latin America, or the performing, visual and plastic arts with Europe. And we are increasingly isolated in these cultural areas, more withdrawn in our own borders, more entrenched.

Accordingly, I believe that our cultural industries should reflect in depth on what kind of cultural products they want and which artists-authors to support and help sell abroad. And in parallel, this reflection includes ministries and regional authorities with their caricatured and manipulative vision of cultural dissemination abroad.

And of course, there is a need for urgent and intrepid artistic renewal.

2/ Distortion of the domestic market.

One of the most crucial elements in art is the structuring of its distribution markets. The domestic markets are quite peculiar and respond to the country’s administrative policies: Fragmentation, geographical breaches and increasing tension between production and promotion.

  • Fragmentation. Our national cultural market has gradually developed into a puzzle of regional markets. The circulation of artistic production between Autonomous Communities is declining. This trend means that markets are becoming smaller, the art circuit is reduced and therefore products are more fragile. Consequence: we produce artistic products that are increasingly focused on these «local» markets.  In performing arts, the artistic model that can least take advantage the digital age, large format events are the exclusive domain of public production units, thus causing a strong dysfunction in the market. Accordingly, theatre and dance productions are becoming smaller, cheaper and more modest to adapt to this reality. They lose their brilliance. They lose their strength. In short, the productive framework is reduced and so is the artistic framework.
  • Geographic fragmentation. Contrary to what has happened in other European countries that have decentralised the production and dissemination of art, in Spain there has been a gradual concentration around the centres of the big cities and particularly around Madrid and Barcelona, leaving the provinces and rural areas even emptier. Artistic proposals increasingly compete to be exhibited in major cities and forget the wasteland that the rest of the country has become. This fierce competitiveness has artistic consequences: job insecurity, forsaking provincial audiences, futile struggles for visibility, mimetic effect (repetition of successful formulas, especially musical)… This trend is common to all disciplines as outlets of artistic expression are vanishing throughout Spain: theatres, festivals, art centres…
Compiled using data from the 2012 Cultural Statistics Yearbook of the Spanish Ministry of Culture
Compiled using data from the 2012 Cultural Statistics Yearbook of the Spanish Ministry of Culture
  • Tension between production and promotion The example below concerns audio-visual arts, but it is also common to other disciplines.
Compiled using data from the 2012 Cultural Statistics Yearbook of the Spanish Ministry of Culture
Compiled using data from the 2012 Cultural Statistics Yearbook of the Spanish Ministry of Culture
Compiled using data from the 2012 Cultural Statistics Yearbook of the Spanish Ministry of Culture
Compiled using data from the 2012 Cultural Statistics Yearbook of the Spanish Ministry of Culture

The trend is very clear: fewer and fewer companies are getting bigger portion of the pie (commercial) and more and more companies are getting a smaller portion (alternative). Artists and managers pay homage to the mother of success: broadcasting and marketing know-how. But this is a deception arising from the data. Disseminating artistic output in Spain has become a daunting task, especially if it is not commercial and/or media-friendly.

3/ Structural deficit in artistic knowledge.

Following the announced shutdown of Alta Films, we have read a great deal about the problems of film distribution in Spain. A lot has been said and written, but here I turn to a comment made by Pere Gimferrer: «This is the country in Europe that has the least cinematically prepared filmgoers. We are dragging the consequences of very old pedagogical problem. Only 10% of major film output reaches us, and not just independent films. This includes American films. […] We don’t have the cinephile tradition of France, Italy or Britain and our filmgoers have appalling taste».

Therefore, what is valid for the cinema is valid for the other disciplines. The cultural baggage of society and the accommodating structuring of the different artistic dissemination and production markets have led to artistic collapse. It’s easy to blame the teaching curriculum to explain the ills afflicting us, but I fear that even if we acknowledge its importance, we are using it as a pretext for assigning responsibilities that are internal rather than external. Many professionals with insufficient cultural and art history knowledge or criteria have been responsible for constructing local cultural narratives: film cycles imposed by distributors, mannerist photography or painting competitions, literary contests that ignore contemporary literature, stage and musical programming in towns and cities organised with the TV audience meter in mind,…

So we are effectively weighed down by a structural deficit of artistic knowledge and, I believe, historical knowledge. And these deficits have translated into an attitude of anything goes and what matters is entertainment. There are few professionals in this country, let alone at the front of relevant cultural structures, who share the rigour and demands required from working with the artistic. As I already reported, this elite is chosen based on political criteria rather than professional criteria.

And finally, the icing on the cake: the paradox that art schools have more students than ever; which doesn’t fail to result in a decadent image that is difficult to escape from.

Future conclusion 

In short, it seems as though we have yielded to the with market rules imposed by commercial products, which are often artistically soulless. It also seems as though we have abandoned our artistic responsibilities (to reach everyone) that include political responsibilities (ensuring that all citizens have access to culture).

However, as I said earlier, there is something moving at the margins of the system. And so it is. The artistic does not die with a systemic crisis like this one, since it is part of what defines us as humans and therefore will accompany us to our extinction as a species. What is changing is the way it is socialised, or to put it another way, the culture we produce with it. We must pay attention to what is happening at those margins because those margins will provide solutions to many of our problems.

If we want to be relevant in today’s global cultural systems we must support artists-authors who are already working at that scale, with renewed languages and with the themes and tensions of their time, which is also ours.

If we want to recover the education of audiences, spectators and the general public, we have to make way for curators, managers and intellectuals who have the knowledge and criteria to adequately implement this task.

If we want to correct market distortions and their effects on the artistic, we need good lawmakers and instruments of cultural policy and above all, we must relinquish a part of the past. I think «relinquish» is key word here. Because we have to discard out-of-date structures (starting certain subsidy configurations) but also irresponsible and short-sighted visions. Produce less, but produce better. Renounce artistic status and assume more humble roles.

And above all, now more than ever, it is necessary for artists-authors to engage in an artistic dialogue that is more open, international and intercultural, rich and diverse, controversial and contradictory.

David Márquez Martín de la Leona

Traducción: Carolina López Traducciones


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