The Deal of the Art

May 06, 2017

Multiple Pages
The Deal of the Art

Like most governments these days, the Irish government is a patron of the arts. The problem is that most governments know as much about the arts as I know about how to select camels for a camel race.

Naturally, therefore, governments rely on advisers to advise them on artistic matters, in effect delegating to them the disbursement of funds. Here the problem is that the art world is now so corrupt morally, intellectually, and aesthetically that the advice it gives is more likely to resemble Mr. Madoff’s advice to investors than Lord Duveen’s to Henry Clay Frick. There has always been bad art, of course, but rarely has it been so heavily subsidized; and when we see work of which we are inclined to ask, “But is it art?” we should perhaps be asking instead, “Is it government-funded?”

The Irish Arts Council, however, recently came up with a novel, even transgressive idea (“transgressive” is the highest term of praise in current art criticism, incidentally), namely that the artists they subsidize should show some sign of artistic endeavor. It is true that the council’s choice of word, audit, was an unfortunate one, as if artists were accountants having their accuracy checked; and the eminent Irish writer Colm Toibin said that the council’s terminology—for example, “working artists engaged in productive practice”—had a North Korean ring about it; an exaggeration, no doubt, given that the North Korean regime subjects its artists to something more severe than mere audit, but one knows what he means. These days it is increasingly difficult to distinguish, stylistically, between an official circular and a page from The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung. (The only one of those communist leaders worth reading, by the way, is Enver Hoxha, who had a wonderful natural gift for poisonous invective and insult. As by the end of his life he had fallen out with everyone, he also had a lot of practice at it; his principle was never to speak well of the dead, especially if he had killed them himself.)

“There has always been bad art, of course, but rarely has it been so heavily subsidized.”

But Mr. Toibin was exercised about the very idea of demanding of artists that they actually produce something in return for the money they receive. After all, many a great artist in the past has had a fallow patch in his life, sometimes lasting decades; you can’t just go to an artist and insist that he be inspired, any more than a photographer can insist that his subjects be natural in front of the lens. His logic appears to be:

Great artists a and b had fallow patches

Artist c is having a shallow patch

Therefore artist c is great and indefinitely worth subsidy

Now, I’m not against patronage as such; sometimes I even wish I had had a patron who had relieved me of the necessity to earn my daily bread (and jam). Then, surely, I would have written an imperishable masterpiece; I would have had time for le mot juste instead of having to make do with the le mot approximatif that mere journalism, as against literature, requires. But the government doesn’t have the taste or discrimination to act as patron. It can’t even choose its advisers well.

It does not follow from this that every private patron is a paragon of either good taste or discernment. But at least he wastes his own money rather than that of the entire population. Moreover, there is a better chance that a private patron will either have good taste or choose an adviser who does. An individual is more likely to choose well than a committee. The best patrons, of course, from the point of view of taste if not of morals, have been kings, not the pretend-king type such as an English king (Montesquieu understood that England was a republic with only a thin veneer of monarchy), but a proper, off-with-his-head-type monarchy, preferably with a dependent and parasitic aristocracy as well. Charles I collected Rubens and Van Dyck; George V collected stamps.

While I am at it, let me here mention that censorship is a precondition of the greatest art, at least if history is anything to go by. I mean a negative censorship, in which there are things that you can’t say, rather than a positive censorship, in which there are things that you must say: The latter is deadly. Preferably also the censorship should be light-handed, capricious, and unpredictable: The perfect recipe for the production of art (though, as every cook knows, some recipes go wrong even when you stick to them) is absolute monarchy with incompetent censorship and religious belief.

But surely, you say, you cannot be advocating the return to such a regime, not in the second decade of the 21st century? Indeed I am not, for I do not believe that the production of the highest art can now be the most important goal of our existence, partly because so much art of the highest type is in existence already, more than enough to satisfy everyone if he did but appreciate it. In any case, great art is not like the bull’s-eye in an archery competition, that with enough practice can infallibly be hit. And censorship would now be worse than the disease it pretended to cure. Where art and literature are concerned, we shall have to reconcile ourselves to the production of the second-rate, at least until we have learnt to program computers to produce first-rate art on our behalf.

There is worse than the second-rate, however; there is art so bad that it is not worth the effort of giving it a rank. But this is the first time in history, I suspect, that, thanks to government subsidy, artists have to aspire neither to excellence nor to popularity. Indeed, the failure of any public, except the administrators of the subsidies, to understand their work is some kind of guarantee in their mind that their work means something. I have read quite a few catalog essays in my time by artists of this ilk, and they always bring to mind Byron’s satire on Coleridge’s metaphysical speculations:

And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,

But like a hawk encumber’d with his hood,

Explaining metaphysics to the nation—

I wish he would explain his Explanation.

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