Luis Camnitzer Art of the State

Art of the State was first published in Fillip 4 in Fall 2006.

The national art Salon in Uruguay was a yearly event when I was an art student during the 1950s.1It took place in one of the wings of the old theatre and opera house in Montevideo. The rooms were in the upper floor and one could only get to them climbing an endless marble staircase with a hardwood handrail. The Salon was very conservative. Controlled by the Ministry of Culture, it was run by a committee and a jury formed by very old people with an academic taste.

One day my schoolmates and I had a terrific idea. The afternoon before opening day we bought several pounds of chewing gum. We chewed over night and produced a soft pliable mound of little pellets. Then, some hours before the ceremony, we went to the marble staircase and stuck our work along the handrail. We were delighted with our clever sabotage of such a bourgeois elitist reactionary event. However, it was winter. The unheated staircase was even colder than outside. Most of the pebbles fell off to form a trail of what looked like rabbit droppings. And, the few units that remained were far removed from the word “viscosity.”

More than anything else, the operation reflected our opinion about the State and State sponsorship. However, looking back, I would say that we were blaming the wrong people. The State could be accused of a lack of imagination, but the low quality of the Salon was not the fault of the government, but of the artists. If the government was to be faulted for anything, it would be for its lack of investment in art education and, mostly, for not ensuring that artists could survive making art. The State should have bought work or subsidized artists in a serious way beyond some once-in-a-lifetime little prizes. We hadn’t understood the real problem.

There is a difference between “art of the State” and “art subsidized by the State” although both may overlap. “Art of the State” takes over and usurps the expression of a community. “Art subsidized by the State,” facilitates the expression of the community. In the first case, we think about how the powerful, who finance and sponsor art production, co-opt or coerce art to serve their interests. But, as soon as we recognize the exercise of power, we come to see that the structure we call the “State” is only one of the entities holding power. Reducing the topic of power over art to “art of the State” artificially limits inquiry. Moreover, posing the issue as “art of the State” encourages us to see “the State” as a uniform, monolithic event in human affairs, a natural event, an act of God. In this way, when we blame “the State” for its influence on art, we are basically saying that solutions lie outside “the State,” that our project should be about finding alternatives, but not all states are the same, particularly with respect to their relation to the arts. The degree to which the State usurps the art agenda can vary tremendously, depending upon the particular regime currently holding the levers of state power. During the chewing gum incident, the agenda of the Uruguayan regime was actually quite harmless and not much more than trying to look like France.

From the point of view of the artists, at any time the question is whether or not any power, state or otherwise, should be allowed to “sponsor” art. There are questions that follow from this—for instance, who takes over the control when the State is uninvolved? What agenda influences sponsors? What are the advantages and the disadvantages of different types of sponsorship? And beyond these logistical questions is a deeper one, regarding cultural identity. Art production has consequences for cultural identity, and control over production is almost always accompanied by a predetermined notion of cultural identity; the agenda is more or less a program to reinforce a particular take on “identity” or to promote a new one. A community, on the other hand, evolves its identity, which comes to be perceived and named after the fact, not before. This form of identity, superficially put, is more or less the statistical median emerging from an accumulation of spontaneous individual expressions over time.

It is difficult to define what constitutes “individual expression,” since we are all, as individuals, products of interaction between our character and our environment, and even harder to clarify precisely the relevance of individual expression to community building. But, both of these difficulties are magnified tremendously in capitalist liberal democracies where confusion reigns about individuality and community. On the one hand, an ideology of individualism makes it hard to see the ways in which community is essential to individuality; on the other hand, the religion of markets makes it hard to recognize powerful interests for what they actually are—as antagonists of community, not just builders.

How art production is understood depends on the ideological vantage point of the viewer. One person’s “freedom of expression” may be another person’s “promotion of petit-bourgeois narcissism,” and a third person’s “blasphemy undermining moral coherence.” By the same token, the project in art ranges from boundless individual freedom, which often seems to serve no purpose beyond individual therapy, to rigid control with the goal of sacralizing a national power structure and eradicating dissent.

At one end of the spectrum is sponsorship as defined in Holland in the period from 1947 to 1987. At the other end are both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the latter as it developed after the demise of Lunacharsky’s policies in 1930. The Dutch project is interesting because it was mildly selective and relatively unconditional. The State defined itself as an enabler for the expression of the community. Holland funded its artists at a rate of twenty percent above the cost of living and the condition for participation in the program was to donate three works per year to the government.2Interestingly, the severest criticism of the program was that it “disrupted the open market.” The project was terminated in 1987, not for ideological reasons, but because the government was unable to manage a collection that by then counted over 200,000 pieces.

Close to the Dutch project was the Cuban approach of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of a salary, Cuba gave artists a subsidy for materials and guaranteed employment in an art-related occupation. Graduates from ISA, the Higher Institute of the Arts, could look forward to jobs such as working in a gallery or teaching. The selection process in this case was strict and protracted. In Cuba, tracking in all courses of study starts at an early age. This assures that by the time of graduation there is an artistic elite that does not need to be reevaluated.

During the first phase, institutions would request artists donate work for their walls. Later on, the State would buy pieces from the artist and then deliver them to the institutions.3After peaking during the 1980s, the subsidy program ceased due to the economic crisis in Cuba caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the shrinking capacity of the Cuban state to support services. Both the Dutch and Cuban systems are remarkable insofar as they recognized that art is not only an important component in the life of a society, but also that artists without proper support must seek unrelated employment for survival, recognizing that their time represented a valuable resource in danger of being wasted. Unemployment in art was treated as a social negative, to be taken as seriously as unemployment in other forms of production. Moreover, neither the Dutch nor the Cuban system predetermined the content or direction of artistic output. The Cuban example was particularly notable, because during its more liberal phase in the decade of the 1980s, it led to an unprecedented flourishing of the arts. In fact, one could say that because there was no explicit identity agenda, it generated a form of national artistic identity.

The other end of the spectrum—what we can call the totalitarian extreme—failed completely. Individual creativity was disregarded when not outright punished by pre-determining a desired cultural identity and selecting artists to implement it. Proof of the failure of this project was that as soon as state sponsorship ceased, the imagery it had promoted ceased with it. This was not the case in either Holland or Cuba, where the removal of subsidies was not accompanied by a demise of particular forms of expression.

The rest of the world seems to be operating between these two extremes. The US case is especially interesting because of its glaring contradictions. On the one hand, government financial support for the arts is meager and structures of public support for culture are thin. On the other hand, both domestic public discourse and national foreign policy starkly emphasize American cultural identity and promote export of American cultural products.

Take first the issue of financial support for the arts. Finland, the most generous country with respect to the arts, invests $91 per capita per year in the arts; the US invests only $6—including the financial support from state and federal governments, as well as all private donations and expenditures. Of this $6, less than one percent (or six cents per capita) comes from the federal government through the National Endowment for the Arts. As a consequence, the number of artists actually able to survive from their work and/or from related jobs in the arts is appallingly small, and the subsidy that could remedy that situation is completely non-existent. Given the financial precariousness of the profession of artists, it is very difficult to differentiate in art production between freedom of expression and mercenary compromise. One must live.

Meanwhile, culture is prized as a part of foreign policy. Federal subsidies for the export of American culture, begun after World War II, have continued to this day. During the 1950s, when the Cold War was consolidating, the US government subsidized exhibitions abroad of American Abstract Expressionists and tours by jazz musicians to promote a national image of freedom and racial equality. The US still uses culture as a dimension of foreign policy, maintaining radio stations specifically targeted to audiences in “enemy” countries and promoting sexual abstinence.

The official justification for minimal government subsidies for the arts is that a hands-off policy is the hallmark of a free society. Yet, in practice, the freedom part of the formula is not always honored. Under President Reagan in the 1980s, the government felt seriously threatened by pornography. Congress demanded and the executive branch agreed that recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts should be forced in advance to sign a commitment that they would not produce pornographic work. Many artists found this censorship unacceptable and refused grants from the NEA rather than defer to the NEA strictures. Its rule against pornography did not survive constitutional challenge: in 1990, a federal judge forced the NEA to retract it. Artists had performed righteous grandstanding and got their money. It was like eating fat with sugar.

The contradictions in the American official version of its “hands-off ” policy are laid out surprisingly clearly in the following statement made in 2002 by Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA. Even more surprisingly, it was broadcast to Cuba on Radio Martí. In an updated profile of the Endowment and his views about its role, Gioia makes two major points. In one place he argues that the NEA “never has operated like a centralized ministry of culture. It has never possessed resources to impose its will on the American arts world. It cannot command or control the politics of individual institutions.”4And yet, in another place, he says, that “although the Endowment represents less that one percent of total arts philanthropy in the US, it nonetheless remains the nation’s largest annual funder of the arts […] Just because a system is decentralized doesn’t mean that it lacks leadership, trends or direction. Consider the stock market, where a single company’s earnings can trigger a rise and fall in overall market results.”

The US is probably the only rich country in the world that treats culture as unworthy of a national ministry. The implicit policy seems to be that if the market cannot bear it, art should not be produced. This does not mean that art production is treated as equivalent to the production of corn, but actually places it far below on the ladder of value to the life of the country. Accordingly, art is either profitable business or a selfless hobby. (A tax auditor inspecting my return once advised me to change professions.) The official creed is that the market is apolitical and lacking in any agenda that could compromise artistic freedom. However, in the US, where there is a lack of strong support for a critique of capitalism, and where markets operate shrouded in myths, economic fairness is seen as “class war” and the mainstream definition of democracy is “free markets.” In this context, it is not surprising that private sponsorship of the arts is perceived as disinterested generosity and called “philanthropy.”

Control of the arts in the US is centred in the private sector. While it is assumed that a democratic state is accountable to its citizens, the private sector lacks this accountability. Corporate power is very interested in public image and accountability to the public is conceived as a task for advertising and public relations. Given the close relationship between business interests and government at all levels of the political system the choices made in corporate public relations offices are shaved and edited to fit dominant ideology. In 1970, a majority of the artists participating in the First Printmaking Biennial of Puerto Rico signed a manifesto dedicating their work to the “liberation of Latin America” and demanded that the text accompany the exhibition throughout all the venues. It was too late to cancel the show, so Phillip Morris, the sponsor of the event, bought all the pieces so that they could circulate as a collection, without the text.

When the philanthropic gesture is made by an individual, accountability is to the taste and/or vanity of the collector. With foundations, greater rigor is possible because of the role played by technocrats who possess the training and experience to make professional judgments. Still, most foundations are driven by the goal of gaining and maintaining respectability, which basically translates into doling out restitution money for past buccaneering in the building of fortunes. The examples of Rockefeller, Ford, and Guggenheim in the US is today being replicated in Latin America by Colombian drug lords, who, undoubtedly, will benefit in time from the same amnesia about their exploits and achieve the same degree of acceptance in the public eye.

It would seem irresponsible for any national government to hope and expect that the vitality of cultural life will be taken care of through the natural sprouting of private foundations. In enlightened countries, governments act like foundations, without waiting for the sprouting to begin. In its modest way, the National Endowment in the US tries to function like a foundation. Like government museums in other countries, the NEA functions autonomously, to the extent that in the lower ranks of staffing care is taken to appoint technocrats with experience and credentials in cultural production who are not ciphers of political taste. Even though the higher ranks of the organization are political appointees and rotate with every change of government, the same as in Mexico and other countries, the NEA manages to achieve some significant degree of independence from political fashions and favoritism. The downside is that the NEA has nowhere near the funding level, political clout, public visibility, or networking possibilities that a Ministry of Culture would have.

An interesting case is that of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. Venezuela is presently going through a centralization process with respect to art and the State. Technocrats are being appointed at lower levels of staffing, where they are expected to apply to some extent professional standards of judgment. Meanwhile, all the government arts venues (known as “foundations”) are being consolidated into a single administrative body. The new Venezuelan policy has been criticized on a number of grounds: loss of initiative by the museums, growth of suspicion and distrust regarding traditional museological criteria, and a relaxation in standards in the acceptance of art for national competitions. Parallel to all of this, there is also a marked neglect in the upkeep of public sculptures, including some national glories, such as Soto, Otero, and Cruz-Diez. One would think that these Venezuelan kinetic artists had given Venezuela a form of visual identity. Today, however, this image is considered as reflecting the international market and not local reality. The Chavez regime speaks the language of populism and class identity. Yet it is not what new cultural forms this may generate, or whether in the process, a rigidity will develop that may stifle cultural vitality.

I am reluctant to express a blanket condemnation of state agendas in sponsorship, because if a pre-set style is not commanded, the results need not be stultifying. Art is a form of problem solving, and projects and commissions are problems to be solved. As long as we as artists are allowed to find “our” own solutions to the problem, there really is not that much difference between designing an art-advertisement for Absolut Vodka, painting a mural for the Mexican Revolution, or producing work intended to fit the market profile of a particular gallery. Post-colonial societies, in particular, need to develop an iconography that can anchor community identity. It is the use and abuse of authority and dogma employed in this enterprise that may invalidate the project. Just as self-absorption and self-indulgence can invalidate individual artistic expression, chauvinism—the social equivalent—can invalidate art supported by the state.

Ultimately, the degree of state interference in art is a minor factor in truly artistic language. Much greater is the impact of state policy on the market for artistic products. When the state commissions art for public use, it influences the direction of artistic work. Demand, in other words, influences supply. Artists competing for commissions are working within the narrow parameters of the project on offer.

Art projects, whether publicly commissioned or privately “demanded,” can be defined by the constraints posed for the artist. Art expression ranges widely. At one extreme is the unintelligible monologue, which functions chiefly as therapy for the artist; at the other extreme is the stilted declaration that is totally programmed and chiefly satisfying to insecure power-holders. Art at these two extremes almost always generates nothing of interest. Even when it possesses an artistic rigor, therapy-art rarely contributes to the development of community. Total programming, on the other hand, even if it consciously addresses community interests, produces work much too predictable to inspire interest. Somewhere in the middle, between therapy and empty repetitiveness, lies art that offers the kind of dialogue that builds an authentic culture.

It is to the support of this middle ground that art subsidy should be tailored. The goal is as much as possible to free art workers both from market pressure and from fashion. When artists have freedom to set up projects, creativity is maximized. Unfortunately, subsidies are not as wisely administered as they could be. There is a marked preference for short-term subsidies, which provide insufficient time for major innovation. The dominant cultural discourse privileges consumption by fetishizing objects. This strongly affects cultural subsidies: much more money goes to museums than to artists currently engaged in creating new work. And, even in those preferred venues, the percentage of space reserved for the exhibition of art is getting smaller as more is invested in reception areas, shops, and food service.

The utopian society might be defined as one in which every person is ensured survival and is paid to live, instead of paying to be alive. While this ideal seems ever more distant, we might try to find ways to stall and reverse the process of destruction. In culture, what we need is the time and space to research who we are—to discover community through dialogue. The modern State has been perceived as the primary foundation of collective identity, but State and community are not the same thing. The State is a vehicle of power, designed to police boundaries, collect revenue, and preserve the peace. A State is not the same thing as a cultural identity. States work hard to propagate an identity because it’s an efficient and relatively cheap way to secure obedience and promote loyalty. The question is how the vehicle of the State can be put in service to community in ways that are wise and healthy, not short-sighted, enervating, or worse. This question, of course, is much bigger than things pertaining to art. It encompasses all of those things—in fact, art is a big part of the answer.


  1. 1. This paper was first presented at “The Art of the State” panel at the University of British Columbia for a symposium of the same name held April 8, 2006. It was edited by Selby Hickey.
  2. 2. Virginia Hollister, “Visual Arts Industry Guidelines Research Project,” June 2001.
  3. 3. Reference given by Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) during the “The Art of the State” panel discussion.
  4. 4. National Endowment for the Arts, “How the US funds the arts,” October 2004, prepared for Televisión Martí.

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