A blow to the art
When an artist bites the hand that feeds it, does he deserve that public funding?Paul Henry, meet your new fellow inmate in the public-opinion dogbox: performance artist Tao Wells. To further bedevil our sense of the balance between free speech and public decency, Wells has accepted public money to create an art installation in which he disparages working people, and exhorts them to ditch their jobs, live off the state and become minimalist consumers. Officials deemed it art for the 37-year-old long-term beneficiary to glorify the notion of slacking and bludging off one’s fellow citizens.
Besides the offence this will cause the many New Zealanders who have lost jobs in this recession, and the majority of workers who struggle to manage on lower wages than their overseas counterparts in large measure because New Zealand has such a welfare burden, Wells’s installation raises two eternally combustible questions: what is art, and what art should the taxpayer fund?
The first is a genie long out of the bottle. Art is what anyone chooses to say it is. Take it or leave it. Talent, creativity and, as Wells clearly demonstrates, profundity of intellect, are no longer prerequisites for art. You may as well try to nail a jelly to the wall as try to define art nowadays. Indeed, if you nailed it to the wall of an art gallery, it might win critical acclaim.
The second question is hardly less ticklish. Great offence has been taken that Creative New Zealand saw fit to fund Wells up to $3500 to carry out what in most people’s estimation is less an artistic endeavour than an act of political advocacy. Like the infamous Piss Christ photograph and the Virgin in a Condom, this, even if you grant it the title art, seemed more calculated to annoy and hurt the audience than do any of the nobler things art can do: challenge, inform, transport, inspire.
Yet British artist Tracy Emin’s outrage-provoking unmade bed installation, bought by art patron Charles Saatchi for £150,000, proved to have a resonance for many Tate Gallery visitors after the initial outcry at its being shortlisted for the world-renowned Turner Prize. It was a documentation of a period in her life when Emin was feeling suicidal, and it is impossible to argue that the squalid, debris-strewn bed does not vividly convey despair. It’s worth remembering that the Turner Prize’s namesake, the great English romantic landscape painter JMW Turner, was widely thought to be having a laugh when his paintings first appeared in the late 1700s.
Still, however strong and noble the artistic tradition for subversion of society’s norms may be, Wells’s effort was puerile. He has been, as art critic TJ McNamara puts it, biting down hard on the hand that feeds him for some time now.
There is no getting around the public sense of affront that anybody, be they artist or barbarian, should insist upon being kept by the taxpayer, and repay that beneficence by insulting those whose efforts pay their bills – let alone getting extra money to do so. Wells’ benefit was stopped when news of his art grant reached Work and Income officials. But actually, our policy framework is legally ambivalent about whether people who choose to be artists should be forced to do another job if they can’t make a living from their art.
The previous Government instituted an artists-on-the-dole system, which allowed artists to refuse other work and still keep their benefit. And although artists might disagree, the arts are well-supported publicly, with funding that was boosted considerably under Labour and not subject to cuts under National. Or not yet, anyway. British arts funding is being cut by 25% and, in a second blow, the BBC, a major patron of the arts in that country, faces a 16% funding cut.
Creative New Zealand must be left to make its decisions free from concerns about politics, but it does not exist in isolation from the current difficult economic climate in which the Government, businesses and householders are examining every dollar they spend. The most common questions of the day are “do we really need this?” and “is it value for money?” Tao Wells’s latest work falls short on both counts. The risk for CNZ if it continues to make similar funding choices is that soon taxpayers may not be asking the question of the artworks, but of CNZ itself.