ArtIssue 13

Brexit Through the Gift Shop

With the Brexit debate raging largely on economic terms, across a political battlefield, one wonders whether something is being overlooked: the impact which leaving this quasi-supranational state would have upon the UK’s cultural landscape.
Art has, in fact, been employed (or shoehorned) as a propaganda tool in the debate by advocates of both sides, with the well-known German-born contemporary artist Wolfgang Tillmans creating an online platform specifically encouraging the younger generation to register to vote, and then to vote ‘Remain’. To Tillmans “The big issue concerns isolationism and the rise of rightwing extremism in Europe and beyond. The extremists are diametrically opposed to the EU’s founding values. We forget that this is something that binds us and protects us and that, as one of the posters puts it, is ‘the largest peace project in human history.’” This digital venture contains his attempt at pithy thesis on the matter and an extensive panoply of moralising posters – for art groupies to print out and promote on campus, one presumes. But it’s hard to take seriously the sentiments of a man who omits both question marks and the letter ‘c’: “It could prove to be a one-in-a-generation moment. Can you imagine the years of renegotiations for undoing treaties, and all the negativity that would surround that.” Sic.

That is not to say that the ‘Leave’ campaign is propagating its viewpoint through art any more gracefully; in fact they have decided to adopt the same marketing campaign as the budget super­market chain Morrison’s. The 54-meter wingspan of Antony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’, the sculpture near Gateshead in Tyne and Wear, was commandeered by Morrison’s in 2014 when they projected an image of a baguette onto its 54-meter wingspan. To the artist’s more recent fury, the ‘Leave’ campaign has projected the message ‘Vote Leave Take Control’ with a picture of a red ballot box. He has, apparently, had his lawyers send a letter to those responsible. ‘Strongly-worded’, probably.

Both campaigns leave one with a sense of grave disappointment regarding the poor standards of innovation and execution; one would have hoped that artistic efforts supporting either side of the campaign would attempt to showcase either the proud individualism of British art, or conversely, to emphasise its place within a European artistic tradition. Art, moreover, requires taste and subtlety, and one would also have hoped that the ‘artistic’ contributions to the campaign would be less heavy-handed than the rest of it.

But to assess the effects of the possible departure upon the art scene properly, perhaps the main consideration concerns the opportunities and influence that the EU presents us with; and as with more objective economic judgments, a cost-benefit analysis still reigns supreme.

An independent commission within the European Union focusing upon the arts was not established until the adoption of the Article on Culture (Art. 128) in the Maastricht Treaty and later incorporated in the Lisbon Treaty as article 167 in 2007. Its aim was to “contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore”, which manifested as the ‘European Culture Programme’. Initially, the UK benefited greatly from the programme with 46 UK organizations receiving financial support in 2013 and 34 as partner organisations, and that year the UK saw compensation of around €5.7 million. But the executives deemed the goal of the treaty too ambiguous and the following year the European Commission Framework Programme by “Creative Europe (2014–2020) was formed.

Their most recent publication as to the cultural and artistic developments that they would like to see within the EU was highly criticised for its economic jargon. Ronald Grätz, the Secretary General at the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations noted that “terms such as ‘competitiveness’, ‘service’, and ‘added value’ suggested that not only a new support programme was being presented, but at the same time, a new concept of culture was being manifested, which measures the value of culture in terms of market mechanisms.” A number of member states were aggravated by the terminology used, noting that the non-commercial value of culture was not expressed. And they have a point; it is the fluidity of movement and change possible in the art market that permits it to be a market for art. Regulation by a non-elected governmental body supports neither artistic nor economic freedom.

Since 2014 the UK has benefitted from a smaller number of financial support structures in place. This year the Shetland Amenity Trust have had a €1.96m project to ‘Follow the Vikings’ funded, but one wonders if we’re missing out on brownnosing opportunities in the new commission; consider that a French organisation ‘Association Arty Farty’ (yes really!) received a grant of €1.92m for a project called ‘We Are Europe’. Perhaps we are too po-faced. But the real question concerns whether Britain is profiting in this exchange. Bureaucracy subsequent to the 2014 changes has created a statistical backlog of two years for total funding data; considering that our EU membership costs us, according to recent figures, £350 million a week (excluding rebate), and that Britain has one of the largest economies of member states, it seems implausible that we are benefiting in the arrangement. Would it not be better to redirect the arts funding more directly to British artists, rather than sending it through the EU to come back lesser?

The ‘Stay’ faction constantly reiterates the same point: a borderless Europe is a safe one and the lifting of geographical and political boundaries allows for greater innovation and stimulates growth in the region. Perhaps it obtains in relation to other industries, but the pure senselessness of the EU bureaucracy tasked with development of art in culture speaks for itself. The new, newly labyrinthine European art commission will do nothing but dishearten future artists who, for economic success, would have to attune their art to grants as they would to commercialism in a free market. Free cultural capitalism? For that the answer is ‘Leave’.