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What is it with capitalism?

July 12th, 2009 by Charles Esche

A fascinating and enjoyable trip to west Germany to meet people from the world of commerce a few days ago. I have to admit that I rarely (if ever) meet people outside the art world. Is that terrible? Ignorant? Probably…but what emerged for me yesterday was timely and educational.

I suppose my lack of contact with the commercial world has produced a relative naivety about how it all works. Throughout my career in the public sector, I have been told that commerce and private, shareholding companies are the pinnacle of our institutional ecology – the kings of the jungle. They are efficient, intelligent, responsive and sensitive to society and they can prove all these qualities because they make money. In contrast, we who are guilty of not making money are lazy, unproductive, wastrels (i exaggerate here) who should be grateful that efficient private companies tolerate our existence (and sometimes even sponsor us). They do this partly because it could be a good marketing opportunity for them to associate with  lazy creative types, and because they are so efficient as money machines that they have produced enough excess cash to pass some of it on directly or in taxes – and finally there is still a vague, old enlightenment expectation that ‘good’ societies should have ‘free’ artists and therefore our contemporary, ‘free’ market society must also have its cultural corner.

Nevertheless, art institutions, according to the logic I have been taught from the people who run our public services, should seek to be as much like a commercial enterprise as possible. To do this they need a bottom line to follow, like the simplicity and beauty of a profit and loss report – and so they should be made accountable to the magic market through something. Given that visitor numbers are the only quantifiable fact available from museums, and populist exhibitions are usually less troubling for the status quo, this has become one of the key ways in which arts bureaucrats judge us – usually applying the crudest but most politically dominant ‘free’ market model we have.

Now, yesterday’s experience did not change everything in this analysis but it turned round a few naive assumptions, gave me some pride back in what we do and reduced my cynicism in the above analysis – a cynicism that seemed the only response to Thatcher-Reagan economic fundamentalism and its ultimate victory in 1989. What it made clear above all, was that people in the commercial world are also questioning and serching for new patterns of behvaiour beyond the economic crisis and climate control.

I think there were three moments yesterday when things shifted for me. The first was a statement by one of the dinner guests there that basically money is made by buying things cheaply and selling them expensively and that most management is simply there to ensure this existing state of affairs continues. In other words, the majority of managers do not create value or even cash but maintain what exists through the nature of the business they are in. This statement, blatently obvious though it is, had the “wizard of oz” effect on me, suddenly seeing the small man behind the huge edifice. From the all rhetoric of conquering masters of the universe that managers had developed over the past 20 years, they are mostly cogs in bigger wheels – shifting gear from heroes to zeroes as the market itself dictates. ‘why do we have so much respect for management then’, I asked. The answer that came that managers are there to tell a good story when things go wrong suddenly seemed convincing.

This decline in my estimation of private company business was confirmed in different discussions throughout the evening. Two other points in particular stood out for me. At one point I started to describe the way many artists or curators (including myself) come to art through a moment or moments of critical reflection. This often amounts to an initial stubborn refusal to believe what is handed down to you as ineffable truths (such as the goodness of the free Market) but can also be about an ambivalent contact with art that simply made you ask questions further. I asked my new found friends whether this was recognisable in their experiences of teaching and working and none could really answer postively. Does this mean that managers and economists are essentially conformists? People not willing to confront the critical questions in favour of following the herd? It seems, at least as a postulate, worth considering that it is this lack of what Irit Rogoff would call ‘criticality’ (rather than creativity) that distinguishes the manager/economists from the artist/curator.

I have always tried to be modest and reluctant to priveledge art or other disciplines but this evening made me reassess if we should be so apologetic about our existence. This latter especially in view of the statements of the Dutch minister of culture in relation to art’s necessity to be relevant and welcome sponsorship with egregious gratitude. Is putting culture in such a weak, dependent position really good for business, let alone wider society.After all, as I was told in the car travelling to dinner, there is a basic mistake in the “free” market analysis. It is that three terms “open markets”, “free markets” and “perfect markets” are constantly confused. The first is, more or less, worth striving for (at least if it is not a natural monopoly), the second is ideology and the third is an academic fiction that has no relation to management decisions. The problem, my informant said, was no so much ecnomics as a discipline, but economists who believe their our soothsaying rhetoric. I guess every society needs its priests, but it is worth questioning why they the secret knowledge of our economic clergy is about something as mundane as money.

My final short observation was simply the degree to which I recognised similar degrees of uncertainty between art and business about where we are going. As the initial effects of the 2008 crash work their way through the system, it seems we are simply desperately trying to return to the status quo ante. This is as true of Basel as of Wall Street. The art field is simply not producing any vital new thinking yet. However If we don’t respond to this crash then, as one of my companions said, what happens in 5 years from now will be terrifying – with the continuing deterioration in the climate combining with a yet deeper financial collapse. What art can do about this is difficult to say directly, but throughout the next period of probable slow stagnation, we should try to imagine the future otherwise in the way that only art and artists can  – a need which it seems we can all share whichever discipline we come from.

6 Responses to “What is it with capitalism?”

  1. Steven ten Thije Says:

    Hi Charles, I’m glad you finally lost your fate in market capitalism and can see something positive in that inefficient art field… But serious, I completely agree with you that artists and art institutions should consider how they relate to the current system crisis and where within the current organization of society they (e.a. ‘we’) are positioned and where we like to be. However, I would add that our possibilities are specific. Art is not a replacement for political debate – for that is what is necessary if the crisis is to lead to a change of practice – but is, and allow me to phrase it dramatic, constitutive to public debate. Of course it is not the only constitutive element, but it is one of them, an independent press being another for instance, and independent academic research being yet another. Where art can be of value in the re-evaluation of the system that has stranded is in demonstrating how it’s located within our everyday experience; how insignificant aspects that are perhaps nothing but visible, somehow are part of world that made possible this system crash. The task of the institute would be to create a situation in which a community can investigate these questions looking at works and realize how their own experience is constructed. This is not intended as a plea for art that takes this crisis as it subject, for I believe, and I write this down with considerable doubt, every art can be questioned in this manner. What is however important to realize that I don’t understand art to be a mirror of its time in a sense that ‘its time’ is something that lies before or behind it, but that we can only obtain an image or idea of ‘where we are’, by being aware that such idea exists in the end in forms which are experienced. So, the debate that is necessary to address the issues of the crisis needs to take into account the form of this crisis.
    Writing this response I feel that there are many issues unresolved and that I have perhaps more questions than answer at the moment. However, it seems that the aim of this blog is also to allow these questions to be visible and open to debate. So, if someone feels like correcting, augmenting or disagreeing, please be very welcome.

  2. e110 Says:

    isn t art always related to some crisis why dictate this one

  3. Leo Bakx Says:

    Dear Charles,

    This is a fascinating post on many levels :-)
    If I may, a question for you: given your new insights into the corporate world, do you consider yourself artist or management?

  4. Charles Esche Says:

    Hi Leo, I am definitely management, but maybe striving to realise a slightly different form of management that can take advantage of art’s critical ways of thinking, and share them with our visitors (physical and electronic).

  5. Leo Bakx Says:

    Hi Charles!

    Thanks for your reply.
    I’m confused now. Confusion is good :-) Stimulates critical thinking, right?

    Your observations about business are fascinating.

    Taking a critical look at your observation about what making money is, I’d like to propose that money is waste in that consumers pay more for a product or service then it is worth. Business calls this profit, in the real world it is called waste.

    That ‘management’ ensures the continuation of the existing state of affairs suggests that the modern economy is a steady state. I put it to you that it is a process. Because the modern capitalist economy is driven by the need to “make” money (read: waste) it needs to expand without limit. The “state” is one of continuous expansion – a process. If the economy stops expanding at a steady pace of at least 2% annually, it collapses. Managers have to come up with ever more creative ways to convince everybody that they need more and newer products all the time. They could be conforming to the current view of capitalist economy, but they need to be very creative about it. Capitalist economy needs to move at an ever increasing pace to stay in the same place. It can only do that by consuming more resources and creating more waste in the process at an accelerating pace.

    The creative solution would be to ‘let go’ and just enjoy life. Of course there is no profit in happy people and business would need a serious attack of inventiveness. Managers may come into their own yet and have lots of good stories to tell before this is over ;-)

    As a museum director you say to be eager to share art’s critical ways of thinking with your visitors. That seems to suggest that art would be a form of entertainment and education, rather than L’art pour l’art of the modern era. You could say that the museum becomes a platform for performing (interactive) arts, rather then a place for preservation of autonomous (untouchable) art or a showcase for applied arts (industrial design & multimedia communication).

    In some recently commissioned work and acquisitions in the Van Abbe this shift seems to be in evidence. However it also seems clear that this transition is not without its challenges with the museum organisation, its funding (bodies) as well as visitor satisfaction. You will need to have some good stories to tell too.

    No doubt the Play Van Abbe project will explore this in further detail in the coming years. I’m looking forward to it :-)

  6. Leo Bakx Says:

    The Edge Effect?

    Hi Charles, I happen to be translating a (free) Permaculture brochure by David Holmgren, one of the founders of the Permaculture movement in Australia. I’ve just come across a section that you may find relevant in your considerations about capitalism, economic models and the place and function of art. Art as a productive edge effect of our economy? I’d say this is a fairly convincing argument based on systems ecology.

    ‘Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path’

    The icon of the sun coming up over the horizon with a river in the foreground shows us a world composed of  edges.

    Tidal estuaries are a complex interface between land and sea that can be seen as a great ecological trade market between these two great domains of life. The shallow water allows penetration of sunlight for algae and plant growth, as well as providing forage areas for wading and other birds. The fresh water from catchment streams rides over the heavier saline water that pulses back and forth with the daily tides, redistributing nutrients and food for the teeming life.

    Within every terrestrial ecosystem, the living soil, which may only be a few centimetres deep, is an edge or interface between non-living mineral earth and the atmosphere. For all terrestrial life, including humanity, this is the most important edge of all. Only a limited number of hardy species can thrive in shallow, compacted and poorly drained soil, which has insufficient interface. Deep, well-drained and aerated soil is like a sponge, a great interface that supports productive and healthy plant life.

    Eastern spiritual traditions and martial arts regard peripheral vision as a critical sense that connects us to the world quite differently to focused vision. Whatever is the object of our attention, we need to remember that it is at the edge of anything – system or medium, that the most interesting events take place; design that sees edge as an opportunity rather than a problem is more likely to be successful and adaptable. In the process, we discard the negative connotations associated with the word “marginal” in order to see the value in elements that only peripherally contribute to a function or system.

    In rural development work, the focus on staple crops, prime agricultural land and clearly articulated aims and values within communities frequently leads to undervaluing, ignorance and destruction of wild species, marginal spaces, along with the less visible needs of women, the disadvantaged and the landless. Similarly, in economic policy the focus of big business and thriving cities ignores the fact that these systems apply the fruits of past innovation, and that small business and smaller and less affluent places and systems are the sources of future innovation.

    This principle works from the premise that the value and contribution of edges, and the marginal and invisible aspects of any system should not only be recognised and conserved, but that expansion of these aspects can increase system productivity and stability. For example, increasing the edge between field and pond can increase the productivity of both. Alley farming and shelterbelt forestry can be seen as systems where increasing edge between field and forest has contributed to productivity.

    The proverb ‘don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well-beaten path’ reminds us that the most common, obvious and popular is not necessarily the most significant or  influential. ” (Essence of Permaculture by David Holmgren)

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