Phil Brett shows how art has often been about power and prestige, argues that art should be not only for but by the many.
The history of Western art has been dominated by artworks created for and by the few. Paintings and sculpture have been associated with power and privilege. In the twenty first century, liberal capitalist democracies may have tinkered around with that fact, but essentially it is still true.
Leon Trotsky wrote, "Every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art." This can be seen throughout history, from ancient times to the present leaders have liked to have statues, friezes and buildings to show their own glory. Rulers have always loved having their images captured for eternity. There are many examples, like Titian painting the Hapsburgs, oor Henry VIII appointing Hans Holbein the Younger, as the English King's Painter, whose iconic 1536 portrait depicts a powerful and athletic king. Even today, the paintings of Prime Ministers line the staircase of 10 Downing Street, and if the reigning monarch's portrait is being painted, it always makes the 10 o'clock news. Though, with no disrespect for the artists involved, we're not talking Holbeins or Titians here.
Battles have often been a popular subject for the rulers to use art as propaganda. They meant pain and agony for the poor folk actually involved in the fighting, but victory in them gave the rulers added authority and legitimacy. Two examples will suffice: Maria de'Medici commissioning Pieter Paul Rubens to paint a series of paintings depicting her dead husband's (French king Henry IV) victorious battles. In World War I, the Government wanted painters such as Paul Nash and Percy Wyndham Lewis to promote the cause of Britain. Whether their stunning depictions on the horror of trench warfare do so, is open for debate, because good art often exposes the truth and questions dominant ideologies - something the ruling class find troubling.
Even with religious painting, power and prestige are there. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may be a stunning tribute to the glory of God, but it was also for the glory of Pope Julius II. Sometimes, the link is far from subtle. The Medici family were an example of a new class of people, powerful financiers, who used art to help the status of Florence (and themselves). In many paintings they had themselves painted in. In Sandro Botticelli's 1475 painting, Adoration of the Magi, the Medici family are actually the Magi. Keen takers of selfies should take note, that's quite a high bar to beat.
Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi.
It hasn't always been monarchs and God. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Gainsborough painted the landed gentry, keen to show off their fine clothes, homes and grounds, demonstrating their position and class power for all to see.
Governments of the twentieth century were aware of the power of art. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led to many artists, such as Chagall and Malevich flocking to its support. Many in the early Soviet regime embraced the avant-garde (October 1917 - the spark for great art). However, it did not see its role as to pitch one school against another. Both Lenin and Trotsky argued for the relative autonomy of art and artists, although in practice there was significant state sponsorship, support and influence over art and culture. A fundamental change occurred in the late Twenties and Thirties, with the art of ‘socialist realism’, designed to promote the Soviet model of socialism. In an ironic twist, in the late 1940s, the CIA promoted and funded Abstract Expressionist exhibitions - unknown to the artists themselves - to show just how free and exciting the USA was compared to Soviet Russia.
Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm
In the private sector, profit joined prestige and power in the mix, leading to the rise of the collector/dealer. The names of Frick, Guggenheim and Sainsbury are familiar names of galleries. There are others such as Benjamin Altman, with his collection in the New York Metropolitan and Joseph Duveen, who made a fortune from art. Controversies about tax avoidance or the authenticity of paintings he sold did not stop him becoming a Lord and having a gallery named after him in Tate Britain.
This group of people may not have their names on the credits on the paintings we see, but they were very influential in modern art. With eyes and wallets focussed on the market, they helped the growth of isms, serving as brand names to help the sales. One such dealer was Ernest Gambert, the influential art dealer for the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti nicknamed him 'Gamble-art' for his interference and keenness for the artists to paint in the Pre-Raphaelite style. He once argued with John Everett Millais that the horse’s head was too large in his 1857 painting A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford.
Picasso's paintings from his Blue Period stayed in his studio for years because influential art dealer Ambrose Vollard dismissed them as being unsuitable for the wealthy buyers, with their depictions of beggars and street urchins. The few may have got slightly larger than in Holbein's time, but it was still only a tiny minority who could see, let alone own, such art. Ownership conferred status and privilege - and of course profit to the dealer.
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
The art world started to balloon in size, after the war. In 1955, Fortune magazine advised its readers to look to art as an investment, suggesting De Kooning, Pollack and Rothko as good to start with, being between $500 and $3500 each (they're worth a whole lot more now). Today, the art market (not including the illegal sector, which Interpol have in their top five financial crimes) has been estimated as worth a cool $63.8 billion. In 2015, the UK accounted for 21% of this (behind the USA with 43% and ahead of China with 19%). A growth which has given people like Charles Saatchi enormous influence (and a few bob too).
Alongside the private collections, and following the Enlightenment, public museums began to emerge. The rich would have a monopoly of owning art but the common folk could be allowed limited access to gaze gratefully at masterpieces. As the art critic John Berger said: "Anyone who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity".
Museums may have grown very popular but there is still a separation of art and the majority. How many times have we heard people say, "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like"? Is that not an obvious defensive comment of a (usually) working class person, isolated from art and made to feel inferior to it?
But one might say, are not art galleries more popular than ever? In the 2017 list of Britain's most popular twenty attractions for the previous year, the National Gallery was at number 2; the Tate Modern at number 3; the National Portrait Gallery at number 11, with the Scottish National Gallery ay number 18. That's a total of 15.59 million visitors, without even considering adding the Royal Academy or Tate Britain or the hundreds of other private and public galleries. That's a lot of people straining to see the pictures.
However, all is not as egalitarian as it seems. There has been much criticism that the artworks on show are from a small (often white and male) clique. For black artists it was for a long time impossible to be shown. Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party Minister of Culture said, "The ghetto is the gallery for the revolutionary artist". Graffiti artists continue that tradition.
The Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist artists who confronted the sexism of the art world, estimated in 1989 that 5% of the Metropolitan Museum were by women whilst 85% of the nudes were women.
Curators might argue that there have been some attempts to address this, but the fact is that the people running them are still from a narrow social base. Look at the patrons of the Royal Academy and you'll see lord and ladies, with the common person occasionally represented by the likes of Stephen Fry.
The influence of the private art world ,with such figures as Saatchi in public galleries should not be underestimated. With the costs of art rocketing, most of the public galleries cannot compete, they feel that they have do deals with the private world. The Tate receives 70% of funding from non-Governmental sources. Public galleries have found one way to compensate this by getting sponsorship from big business. The Victoria and Albert exhibition of You Say You Want a Revolution included sponsors such as Levis, and the Royal Academy show Abstract Expressionism boasted the sponsor: 'BNP Paribas: The bank for a changing world'.
If that isn't ironic enough, then consider that one of the major sponsors of the Royal Academy's Revolution: Russian Art 1917 - 1932 was the Blavatnik Foundation. Its founder, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, may not be that well know, but he perhaps should be. In 2015 he was named as Britain's richest man, worth an estimated £17.1 billion. It is perhaps a brief look at his history: 1978, he emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. He built an international conglomerate, which entered the commercial stratosphere, when it made billions after the collapse of the Soviet Union from the petrochemicals and oil industries. Considering that many people were unhappy at the political impartiality of the exhibition - see Great Art, Shame about the Curating - one can legitimately ask how much influence, direct or otherwise, did the foundation have on the exhibition. See also Corruption of Art and Culture.
Poster advertising V. and A. exhibition - and its sponsors
So why do these multinationals get involved? The answer is from our old friends, power and prestige. Those attendance figures of galleries means that they are now goldmines for tourism. Bilbao used the Guggenheim Gallery, opening in 1997, to regenerate the area. It worked. One survey found 80% of the visitors at the airport had arrived to visit it. Big money then, which cannot but affect the direction of the museum - not only the acquisition policy but its display. In 2011, a BBC Freedom of Information request found that the Tate only shows 20% of its permanent collection. To be fair, that contrasts well with the international average of 5%. The removal of art has been termed, "deaccessioning". It is estimated that MoMA has thirty Picasso paintings 'deaccessioned'. Galleries are as much like banks, storing valuable assets, as museums to entertain, educate and interest people.
Curators wield considerable influence on cultural and art policy. So John Berger's view that, "as a professional group, their character is patronising, snobbish and lazy" should cause us to worry. Certainly, Royal Academy show on the art of Russian Revolution with its lack of historical and indeed artistic understanding, would give some credence to such an accusation. The concern being that, even in the twenty first century, curators, gallery directors and critics all seem to come from a very narrow social base.
In recent months, articles in the Guardian, the Morning Star, and various other professional periodicals as well as in the social media, have discussed the whole issue of the running and funding of arts. The Government body with overall responsibility for the arts is the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who in turn fund and oversee Arts Council England (ACE). ACE gets its funding partly directly from the Government and partly from the National Lottery. This is public money and there has been a concern that essentially it is still art for a few, by a few – but with the many paying for it.
Laura Barton, feature writer of the Guardian, raised concerns that 85% of ACE funding for music goes to classical and opera. A growing number of people have attacked the National Portfolio (basically the list of organisations which ACE funds) as being London-centric, biased against the working class, being too focussed on middle class taste and not diverse enough, e.g. in terms of gender and ethnic background. The balance between community and premier league art establishments leans towards the latter. ACE is institutionally biased towards the middle classes who see arts management as a good career path. Worries have been expressed just how transparent the decision process is, with the issue of a £2 million grant being given to as yet unformed theatre company, whose director appears to have links to senior figures of ACE.
With the Government policy of austerity, money (for some areas) is tight. So such uses of public money are legitimate ones to raise and socialists should do so. However, the Tories use this as cover to attack the very status of art. In the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto did have a few words about the importance of art but set beside the fact that in the last five years money spent on the arts has been cut by £165million, they don't really amount to much.
Simon Wren-Lewis: Neoliberalism and Austerity
Tom Watson rightly states that, "Lottery money is plugging holes where Government funding has been cut". Tories will argue that hospitals and schools matter more than galleries (whilst cutting these in any case). Of course, money can be found when they want to: £7 billion for the Parliament refurbishment or £370 million for Buckingham Palace, for example. What they really mean is that art is for them, not us – for the few, not the many.
Here’s John Berger again: "the fundamental division between the initiated and the uninitiated, the loving and the indifferent, the minority and the majority has remained as rigid as ever." This is especially true in education. In primary schools, especially in working class areas, a major concern are the SATs results, which in turn lead to league tables. Failure to meet the school's targets set could lead to failing OFSTED and thus academisation. Fundamentally, even with some tokenistic nods towards child happiness and creativity, Government policy is all about reading, writing and maths (and mechanical versions of them at that). The squeeze is being put on the arts.
The same is true in secondary schools, with the focus on the EBacc, when students achieve Grade C or above in English, maths, history or geography, a science and a language. If budgets are tight because of education cuts, the curriculum is narrowed, with subjects dropped, and the arts get squeezed out of the curriculum. Ditto in further education and university. And of course, with tuition fees, the chances for working class students to attend university or art college are narrowing. Whatever the Tory manifesto might say, the policy is that we proles just don't understand, or need to understand, the arts.
As a result the social base of the artists is narrowing. To an extent the artist, certainly the successful one, has always come from a particular stratum of society. One of Britain's greatest artists, Turner, faced snobbery from his fellow Royal Academians because of his lowly birth. Damien Hirst is from a working class background but he is now in a very different world. His latest exhibition, in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is impressive. I was lucky enough to visit it and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I note that it cost Hirst personally £50 million to create it; not many artists could do that!
All gloomy then? Well, not quite. It is heartening that Jeremy Corbyn has launched a comprehensive arts policy, with a number of excellent initiatives which includes introducing an £160 million arts pupil premium, which would "support cultural activities in schools". Scholarships would be introduced. They would also "consider demands of those working to maintain our public museums to challenge corporate influence". The policy also promises to 'consider' including an art element in EBacc.
Labour Policy for Art: http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/arts
The policy is a good starting point art moving away from the few to the many. I think that any Corbyn Government should be bold. There does not have to be a choice between galleries or schools, museums or hospitals. Whatever indicator you use, Britain is always in the top ten wealthiest countries in the world. Britain can afford galleries and schools, museums and hospitals.
The choice in reality is tax cuts for the rich, or galleries, hospitals, and schools for the many. A Corbyn government can challenge the notion of art as a luxury just a for a few. He has committed to scrapping tuition fees - good. But there should also be a commitment to scrapping SATS, EBacc and league tables, to create a freedom to learn. Pump funding into education so the widest possible curriculum is offered, from the nursery to university and evening classes. Be totally upfront that art is important, it can enrich and change lives.
Labour could involve the public in decision making more. Not just in making ACE more transparent but also why not make regeneration projects, really that, regeneration and not just social cleansing? In areas such as the North East, housing could be built, with input from local residents, deciding on what they need and want. There are plenty of vacant industrial buildings - why not renovate them alongside the new homes and use the stored art collections of the Tate, RA, National and Imperial War Museum (which has over 200,000 paintings, most, yep, hidden away!) to create new wonderful galleries? Let's 'accession' them! After all, they are ours. Ask people what sort of gallery they would like. New schools and hospitals? Get local artists and community groups to decorate them. That is what an art policy for a Government should be: to fund, facilitate and support. It does not need to be prescriptive, we don't need instructions.
That would be a great start, it would be an arts policy which could help transform this country, creating a place for people to live in. I am a revolutionary socialist, and believe that people's creativity will only be allowed to fully blossom in a class-less society. Whilst we live in a capitalist society we shall still have the haves and have nots – those with power and those without. It is difficult to be creative when you are working long hours, paying the bills and looking after the kids. In a socialist society, in the words of Trotsky, "The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."
In other words - art for, and by, the many.
Phil Brett is a primary school teacher who has written a future fiction/crime novel, Comrades Come Rally, and is at this moment writing a sequel. He lives in London.
Latest from Phil Brett
- 'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy
- Wearing Civil Rights militancy on record sleeves
- Beyond the boundaries: A review of the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale
- The world was theirs to win: revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy
- You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels at the V and A