Austerity art and destruction

Burnings of art across Europe in protest against austerity, if they gathered momentum, could generate hostility to modern art and more public awareness of the coddling of mediocre artists and art venues with vast sums of public money. 

The BBC reports: “A museum in Italy has started burning its artworks in protest at budget cuts which it says have left cultural institutions out of pocket. Antonio Manfredi, of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in Naples, set fire to the first painting on Tuesday. Mr Manfredi plans to burn three paintings a week from now on, in a protest he has dubbed "Art War". Artists from across Europe have lent their support… Welsh sculptor John Brown said the loss of his artwork had not been particularly upsetting -- We work in a fairly contemporary manner so the process of making art, and the interaction with people, is more important than keeping it as a precious object."

I thought of something the American sociologist Talcott Parsons wrote about a society's response to the great depression of the 1930s; how it did or did not cope with crisis.

It is a generalization well established in social science that neither individuals nor societies can undergo major structural changes without the likelihood of producing a considerable element of ‘irrational’ behavior. There will tend to be conspicuous distortions of the patterns of value and the normal beliefs about the facts of situations. These distorted beliefs and promptings to irrational action will also tend to be heavily weighted with emotion, to be ‘overdetermined’ as the psychologists say. On the negative side, there will tend to be high levels of anxiety and aggression focused on what rightly or wrongly are felt to be the sources of strain and difficulty.

Parsons might have added the Naples example to his notebook of irrationalities. He was right, of course, but in a rather clinical and detached sort of way. Let’s imagine what Nietzsche  would have thought. He will have said something hard-to-understand, angry, passionate. And he is bound to have been both for and against the incendiary artist.

For starters, art is no longer the preserve of a cultural elite:

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The wearied and slow-breathing worker, good-natured, letting things take their course is now encountered in all classes of society laying claim even to art -- how much more to the beauties of nature, to Italy… In ages like this, art has a right to pure folly as a kind of holiday for the spirit, the wits and the heart. Pure folly is restorative.

I suspect Nietzsche’s slow-breathing worker would not have in mind the art on show at the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum. I could be wrong.

Nietzsche suggests nothing excites the artist more than a sense of his own decline.

For art to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication. Intoxication must first have heightened the excitability… Nothing is beautiful, only man. On this piece of naivety rests all aesthetics. Whenever man feels in any way depressed, he senses the proximity of something ‘ugly’. A feeling of hatred then springs up; what is the man hating? The answer admits no doubt: the decline of his type. It is the profoundest hatred there is. It is for its sake that art is profound. The struggle against purpose in art is always a struggle against the moralizing tendency in art, against the subordination of art to morality. [But wait a minute] art is the great stimulus to life: how could it be purposeless? Schopenhauer taught that the whole object of art was to ‘liberate from the will’, and he revered tragedy because its greatest function was to ‘dispose one to resignation’. Bravery and composure, great hardship, a problem which arouses aversion -- it is this victorious condition which the tragic artist glorifies. In the face of tragedy the warlike in our soul celebrates suffering, the heroic man extols his existence by means of tragedy...

The layman critic or the moralizing or intoxicated artist will interpret as he chooses. You could be warlike against the dark powers of finance or of politics, or heroic and composed as you suffer a reversion to standards of living that prevailed 6, 12, or 18 years ago. As you choose.

Let’s assume 1) it is high time for new art, and 2) economic crisis itself cannot be understood purely in economic terms.

Schumpeter stated the obvious; today’s artists are the product of capitalism. Before capitalism artists survived only on flattery and subservience to patrons. Schumpeter questioned the real necessity of public funding in the arts. If one creates true capitalist market conditions that allow people to earn and save, they will have money to invest in production and consumption of art. He used the opportunity to take another dig at the Keynesians.

Keynesians are within their rights, logically, when they aver that the capitalist mechanism that tends to equilibrate ex ante saving and investment is weak and apt to stall; but if they aver that it does not exist, they are simply committing a definite and provable mistake.

Schumpeter considered the inevitable cycles of innovation and crisis in lead sectors of capitalist economies to be deeply influenced by factors which “exist outside the purely economic sphere [and] act upon the latter from outside”, simply forcing “economic life to adapt itself to the new conditions”. The effect of crisis is similarly broad.

No therapy can permanently obstruct the great economic and social process by which business, individual positions, forms of life, cultural values and ideals, sink in the social scale and finally disappear.

Our cyclical schema stresses that kind of economic change that is particularly likely to break up the existing patterns and to create new ones, thereby breaking up old and creating new positions of power, civilizations, valuations, beliefs, and policies.

Art lies within these categories.

If it is the case that creative destruction during economic crisis encompasses entire valuations of life and culture, then the bonfires of paintings in Naples this week might unintentionally be the smoke signal of socio-cultural and intellectual creative destruction.

Personally, I don’t place great value on art work that is transitory and which the artist will be eager to destroy for political performance. I don’t want to pay for it in taxation.

Schopenhauer’s views on the true value of artistic contemplation:

Art plucks the object of its contemplation from the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated. It pauses at this particular thing; it stops the wheel of time. Only through pure contemplation which becomes absorbed entirely in the object, are ideas comprehended. This demands a complete forgetting of our own person and of its relations and connections. Genius is the capacity to remain in a state of pure perception, to lose oneself in perception, to discard entirely our own personality for a time in order to remain the clear eye of the world, to enable us to repeat by deliberate art what has been apprehended.

That experience cannot be repeated if the art is disposable or superficial and light. When I visit the national or regional gallery every few weeks or months I must know the painting which has withstood the passing of countless economic crises is still there, waiting for me to pause before it and lose myself in contemplation. That collection I gladly pay to see either in taxes (if the public budget is in surplus) or entry fees.

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