Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture

By Phelps, David Michael | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture


Phelps, David Michael, Journal of Markets & Morality


Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture

Lambert Zuidervaart

Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2011 (338 pages)

To his credit, Lambert Zuidervaart acknowledges there is plenty of blame to be assigned to both sides of the public art-funding debate. Those concerned about the transgressive tendency of modern art often fail to notice or credit the social importance of art's unique contribution to cultural self-knowledge; many of those who produce modern art fail to respect their audiences or recognize the legitimacy of aesthetics. This balanced assessment is refreshing, especially from an arts advocate, but the contribution Art in Public makes to this debate beyond this is a more complicated matter.

The book's overall goal is to develop a justification for governmental funding of the arts that navigates the Scylla and Charybdis of much modern discourse on art and public arts funding. Understandably, one has to wait until the book's final chapter for the rather complicated argument to come full circle, but an unfortunate fact remains once the argument does so: we have indeed traveled in a circle, arriving nowhere different from where we began.

Zuidervaart's argument breaks down to this: Society requires what he calls imaginative disclosure, something like the consciousness-making power of art; art's ability for imaginative disclosure is threatened by both the administrative state and the market economy; in order to ensure what Zuidervaart calls democratic communication, cultural communities and institutions, especially those marginalized, must be able to speak in the public square and participate in imaginative disclosure; the state's obligation to safeguard public justice and democratic communication requires the state not only to protect cultural organizations and social institutions (such as arts organizations), but also to support them; this is especially so for arts organizations, since they are the primary way in which individuals participate in arts-based imaginative disclosure; direct subsidies do more to protect arts institutions than nondirect subsidies; therefore, direct subsidies are warranted both in terms of the government's responsibilities and society's needs. However, it must be noted that direct subsidies must uphold "cultural rights," and must uphold the autonomy of art.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to unpacking the concepts above, but the devil is in the details, and one will find that, in order for Zuidervaart's argument to hold much water, one must share certain first principles about art and culture, principles that are themselves debatable. For example, there is the idea that arts organizations deserve special protection from the government because (1) they provide the primary way by which people participate in imaginative disclosure, and (2) because, unlike religious organizations, they do especially well at breaking down cultural barriers. Both premises are specious, and unless you are inclined to agree, this is one point at which Zuidervaart's argument warrants closer scrutiny.

There is also the matter of what constitutes a threat to the arts. Zuidervaart regularly reminds the reader that these threats are both the capitalist market economy and the administrative state. Why governmental support and subsidy are the cures for the disease that is the administrative state remains unclear, as does the reason why governmental subsidy protects the public sphere any more than the rule of law might. It is true, as Zuidervaart asserts, that "contemporary economic and political systems put enormous pressures on arts organization to align art with the logics of money and power." Why exactly governmental subsidy would not exacerbate this matter is a point the book leaves mostly untouched. While the book does present an insightful explanation of modern deficiencies in art, it is less insightful as to the causes. …

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