Art In Whose Context? (Private ‘Versus’ Public)

Art and culture are often dismissed as peripheral to public life; but private investment in the arts is serious business. There is a strong case for the position that what’s good enough for private investment, is also good enough for investment in the public sphere.
Looks like we’re all a bit muddled about what the arts are ‘for’…. Revent news stories have revealed that a Cheshire Member of Parliament is up in arms because the North West Development Agency has over the past few years spent a seven figure sum on (mostly very large-scale) public art; and there’s another rumpus about money being ‘wasted’ on engaging professional artists to do work in hospitals (see Is Art good for your Health?); and the list could go on….
Conflicting perceptions
If ever there was confusion, you can find it when people debate the arts. That is, if they debate at all. For some, there’s no need to debate, they just know – usually, that it’s all a waste of time and money.
And, perhaps even more worryingly, often the arts are not even considered when people look at plans for the future. Arts and culture are add-ons which can happen later, if someone remembers to get around to it. Certainly no need to seek professional advice or make sure there’s an outline arts strategy in place from the beginning.
Yet the same folk who berate public art often have no objection to the private sort. To parody, maybe a little unkindly, old masters in oak drawing (or international corporate board) rooms are one thing; vibrant work on accessible public display is another.
The cost factor
An underlying theme in this seems to be that arts and culture are O.K. as long as nobody publicly accountable has to shell out for them now. Perhaps this is why Museums seem to be able to make their case more easily than the Performing Arts – the less unrelentlessly labour intensive, and the more thematically linked to ‘tourism’, i.e. ‘business’, the better.
Ideally, we gather, the arts should be delivered by volunteers (amateurs) who ‘give something back’ – whatever that means – whilst people who are paid should concentrate on careers in the basics, treatments, training, tarmac, tills and the like; and of course everyone understands these are all essentials of modern living. But would that life were so simple…. though I wouldn’t like it to be so boring.
Missing links
There are two immediate snags with the ‘do arts for pleasure not pay’ argument.
The first is that, if no-one takes a proefssional role in the arts, there will soon be no-one left to show the next generation how to do it. The arts demand high levels of skill which take a long time to acquire – if anyone is to invest this amount of energy and time, they need a reasonable assurance that there will be a professional pay-back later, whether this be as a painter, a performer or even, say, a public parks and open spaces artist and animateur.
Secondly, art in all its forms can be the ‘glue’ which attaches a community to its various and infomal formal structures. The arts offer opportunities for local pride (think of Newcastle’s Angel in the North, or Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall), they can involve people directly (street theatre, music, film projects etc) and they provide ‘real’ reasons for communities at every level to come together and to share a common interest and identity.
Private or public?
Maybe the context/s of art and culture are what define how we perceive it all. Perhaps if we recognised the various posturings and positions from an underlying ‘private vs. public’ perspective we can begin to make sense of them. The confusion then drops away, for me at least. If art and culture are good enough for private settings, they are good enough for public contexts too.

Posted on November 13, 2005, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Equality, Diversity And Inclusion, Liverpool And Merseyside, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, Sustainability As If People Mattered, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. A nice insightful read, I am currently writing a thesis on public sculpture as part of my degree and shall take some of the points on board. Contemporary art should be visible and promoted in every uk city,raised awareness and involvement, breeding acceptance and understanding.

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