Opinion: art and commerce – never the twain shall meet

Posted on February 21, 2011 by

In the Economist this week, the columnist Schumpeter turned his/her focus to the relationship between business and the arts. Perhaps surprisingly for a business columnist at the uber-capitalists’ weekly, the article dealt with what the former can learn from the latter.

Business, said Schumpeter, can learn from the presentation and selling acumen of visual artists like Damien Hirst. Corporate communications can rise above cliché by referencing writers like George Orwell and advertising should learn from literature to tell more meaningful stories.

For those who worry about the pervasiveness and power of business and the ability of hard cash to manipulate and deaden the arts, this all sounds faintly alarming and firmly soulless. Hard capitalism – the worshiping of the bottom line in cathedrals of corporate uniformity – doesn’t sit easily with the arts.

Business is vital, the heartbeat of most modern societies, and where the arts doesn’t depend on business money for survival, a functional relationship between the two is possible. Herein lies the problem. With public subsidy certain to disappear, London’s arts organisations now need business like never before.

They’re all needy now
Most arts groups have well oiled machines capable of wringing serious money from companies. Yet not everyone has an output shiny enough to attract big business. Last week, I interviewed the director of the Spitalfields Music Festival. A community outfit, Spitalfields promotes winter and summer festivals, and a year-round education programme, in Tower Hamlets.

Spitalfields is not an international cultural festival but it brings a brilliant music programme to east London twice a year and adds to the diversity of an often neglected area of the city. Public subsidy makes up only 20% of the Spitalfields budget. If public subsidy bottoms out, which it will, Spitalfields will have to lean even harder on private sources of income.

Where does this money come from – big companies from the nearby City of London? No, its “local businesses and loyal patrons” that fund the festival. Spitalfields is undoubtedly not sexy enough for corporations. That pretty much sums up the problem with business and the arts. It’s an uneven relationship that never rewards the little guy.

Schumpeter’s last paragraph caught my eye particularly:

“If businesspeople should take art more seriously, artists too should take business more seriously. Commerce is a central part of the human experience. More prosaically, it is what billions of people do all day. As such it deserves a more subtle examination on the page and screen than it currently deserves.”

Here, I feel, the writer gets close to a good point, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Yes, the depiction of business is in the arts often over-simplistic, but it is the role of the arts to question endlessly the motives and actions of companies and industries. Business doesn’t understand that and it never will.

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Posted in: Opinion