Who and what are the arts for?

Thursday 2 November, 21:3023:00, Maus Hábitos, Rua Passos Manuel 178, 4º PISO, 4000-382 Porto, PortugalBattle of Ideas Europe


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‘Art is not a luxury, not an adornment of civilization. It is a necessity. It is one of the central purposes of civilization.’ So declared Foreign Policy magazine earlier this year, stressing the power of collective imagination while emphasising that ‘culture – the product of all of the arts within a society amplified and augmented and internalized by custom and social intercourse – is perhaps the most powerful force on the planet’. How then should we interpret a recent report detailing extremely low levels of public engagement in cultural activities in Portugal compared to elsewhere in Europe? As measured over a 12-month period across 27 European countries, Portuguese citizens are the least likely to attend concerts (just 19 per cent of people), the theatre (13 per cent) or a ballet, dance performance or opera (eight per cent). Portugal also scores second lowest for visiting a museum or gallery (17 per cent). Added to that, the survey found that people living in Portugal are less likely than citizens of almost every other European country to take an active part in cultural activities, like photography, painting, creative writing, singing or playing a musical instrument.

How should this seeming public disengagement in arts and culture be explained? And what action, if any, should be taken by Government and arts organisations? Some argue that current problems are rooted in the financial crisis when the Government slashed investment in the arts and briefly abolished the Ministry of Culture. But to what extent does reduced public funding and falling personal income inhibit cultural activity of artists and public engagement in the Arts? After all, some might argue that times of economic crisis and social uncertainty are often when experimentation takes place and when new movements are born – for example, the artistic laboratory that was Weimar Berlin or the music scene in 1970s New York. Artist Rui Mourão has condemned the recent co-opting of the arts into a market economic model while artist and writer Regina Guimarães criticises cultural industries that shape all artistic products to ‘commercial standards and imperatives’. But are the strictures imposed by the market any less invasive than constraints attached to state funding? Might the arts welcome being ‘liberated’ from the box-ticking criteria of the state? Or is endorsement of the market effectively amount to an apology for austerity and a failure to challenge lack of institutional investment?

In fact, this summer Minister of Culture, Luís Filipe de Castro Mendes, announced renewed Government commitment to funding the Arts including new cash for the performative, visual and cross-disciplinary artforms. No doubt new funds are welcome, but when Mendes cited the arts as important for ‘boosting the economy’ and ‘increasing social cohesion’, and then stressed that culture is ‘an essential pillar of democracy, national identity, innovation and sustainable development’, we are entitled to ask who and what the Government think the Arts for. Is there a danger that targeting political and social outcomes takes precedence over artistic quality? And if the arts are instrumentalised, will artistic freedom become limited and artistic quality compromised for the sake of meeting Government targets? Should we rely on the economic and social case for justifying investment in culture, or is it better make a case for art as a good in and of itself?