Defending the freedom of artists

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Andrew Warburton continues his series on art and cultural policy by interviewing Theresa Easton and Pam Foley at Artists’ Union England, the union for visual and applied artists.

Artists’ Union England is a fairly new trade union, launched on May Day 2014, representing visual and applied artists individually in the workplace and collectively at “strategic decision-making events,” according to its website. It received its Certificate of Independence earlier this year, has over 600 members and recommends fair rates of pay for new graduates and more experienced artists. The union was established to address the representational needs of artists who work as sole traders, are often self-employed and who find it difficult to make their voices heard.

 

Interviewing Theresa Easton and Pam Foley, the union’s secretary and treasurer, about the political campaigns the union supports and its stance on arts and cultural policy, I couldn’t help thinking of Boris Groys’ The Communist Postscript, in which Groys argues that shortage of funds plays a formative role in all artistic projects. Painting, sculpture, poetry, an exhibition or a musical performance are never completely free to unfold after their own manner, says Groys. They are always, to a certain degree, determined by economic pressures—in particular, the funds the artist manages or fails to procure.

This is true not only of the arts but of everything that constitutes our cultural life — from the furniture we sit on to the art we hang on our walls. All of it has been shaped, in one way or another, by a paid designer or artist — the very people Artists’ Union England represents — whose work has been determined by an allocation of funds, no more and no less. Capitalist society is defined, in this way, “by the fact that [things]… are as they are because there is not enough money to fashion them differently” (Groys). According to this logic, the artwork, also, becomes what it is because at some point in time an artist must have lacked the finance to make it differently — perhaps on a greater, more visionary scale. Indeed, “the reason … things are finite,” says Groys, “[and] why they are present at all, why they have a form, why they are offered to the gaze of the observer as these concrete objects, is because they are under-financed.”

All this talk of “under-financing” might suggest that the issues Easton and Foley concern themselves with at Artists’ Union England largely relate to the Conservatives’ cuts to the arts and culture budget. However, the cuts are just one part of the equation. Although the funding reduction to Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and the Arts Council of Wales has undoubtedly exerted an important formative influence on the shape of the arts today — contributing, according to Artists’ Union England, to a “destructive, divisive and unsustainable” environment —artists contend with multiple economic struggles. The cost of private renting, the reliance of companies on unpaid internships, the underpaying of creative talent in various industries, university tuition fees and precarious labour, must all be overcome to defend and advance the creative efflorescence of art.

As Easton and Foley pointed out, Conservative changes to the housing market are among Artist Union England’s biggest concerns. “The Conservative government’s recent introduction of the Housing and Planning Bill 2016 will only exacerbate current housing difficulties for many of our members living in London and will expand to members outside London,” they said. “The Bill will diminish council stock, while pushing up private unregulated rent prices. This has a knock-on effect and will make renting a studio even more precarious, expensive and difficult. Plans by Deputy London Mayor Justine Simons to develop dedicated ‘artists' zones,’ will only make the opportunity to work in the arts even more exclusive and elitist.”

With all these factors determining the nature of art in our society, we might follow Groys by suggesting that it isn’t the ability to make funds available that accounts for capitalism’s “formative power” over art, but rather its ability to deny, withhold or ration artistic funds. The flip side of this is the disturbing question: with the transformation of individual artists into economic competitors, and the subjugation of artistic goals to economic concerns, can art really be “itself” at all? One way to answer this question positively is to say that public investment frees art from subordination to private finance and allows it to “be itself” fully. Indeed, Easton, Foley and Artists’ Union England see public investment as an engine for social change: “Long-term investment should replace private sponsorship, ending leaving the ‘arts’ to the demands of the financial market,” they said.

However, practicing and future artists will continue to be affected by inadequate health and education, the Tories’ introduction of the Trade Union Bill (which Easton and Foley see as      undermining workers’ rights) and the need to increase access to art on the part of working class and minority groups. “Whether as participant, viewer or practitioner,” Easton and Foley said, “[access] has to be seriously addressed in order to tackle long-term discrimination and inequality. The culture of working for free, volunteerism and unpaid internships support this situation. Exploitative working conditions affecting all precarious workers should be addressed, allowing parity with full-time contracted workers.”

Much of this can be achieved, they suggested, through the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government. If that government stands by its promises, it will do far more for the arts than the current government, they added. The union’s response to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Culture White Paper was to point out that one of the paper’s findings was that “in 2014, people from more advantaged socioeconomic groups held 91.9% of jobs in the creative economy.” It also lamented the fact that despite the government expressing an enthusiasm for the arts, the Department for Education’s “drive to implement the English Baccalaureate, which does not include any creative subjects,” would have a disastrous impact on the arts.

“Unlike Labour, which has a stated arts policy, the present Conservative government doesn’t seem to have U.K. arts as a priority; indeed, there has been no public mention of support from the prime minister or the culture minister,” Easton and Foley said. “Corbyn’s Labour will in-crease the proportion of GDP government spending on arts and culture. [Corbyn’s] arts policy document gives specific figures, and if elected, Arts Council England and others will hold the Labour party to these high ideals and spending practices.”

Being grounded in economic reality isn’t necessarily a trait people readily associate with artists, despite the existence of such socially and politically engaged talents as Ken Loach. It’s per-haps the influence of Romanticism in Britain — the desire to behold the artwork as removed from economics, a concept that’s manifestly elitist.

Artists’ Union England is closer, it seems, to the socialist tradition, aiming to gradually resolve the conflicts that exist between the artistic impulses of the whole population and the rationing of funds in a capitalist economy. “Support [for the arts] is not only financial but ideological and political,” Easton and Foley said. “It’s important to support all the arts, not just the ‘Great Art’ referenced by Arts Council England and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but community arts, working class culture and heritage.”
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Andrew Warburton

Andrew Warburton is a writer and editor in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a member of Labour International (the international section of the British Labour Party) and Momentum.