Who gets to be an artist? An interview with cultural theorist Hans Abbing

Just why are artists so poor? Hans Abbing explains. 

Arturo Desimone
19 April 2016

Hans Abbing is a Dutch painter, a sociologist and a cultural economist, concerned with exploitation in the arts economy. His 2002 book Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts addresses the equation of art with un-payable and unpaid work as a recent phenomenon, from a socialist economist’s perspective.

He poses challenging questions as to how arts councils are controlled by business interests, leading to conservatism and financial impoverishment among artistic creators. But Abbing is not a mere defender of artists’ interests—he also wants to encourage artists into being more aware about money. 

His inquiries are intellectual, searching, often scientific, but his quest and social consciousness inevitably touches on the personal, proceeding from his own experiences as a painter confronted by the poverty of other artists.  

Holland is known as a highly progressive country. Yet this may be an outdated image (take for instance, the current right-wing political atmosphere, austerity measures, or the fact that Marina Abramovic no longer lives in Amsterdam, among other omens). Part of the notion of progressive, liberal Holland was its facility with granting cultural subsidies—today a relic of the past, as austerity measures have hit the arts and higher education massively, promoting the privatization-society which is described by the government and the monarch as ‘The Participation Society, where everyone works hard’ (in corporate drudgery, that is).

Long before austerity measures, Hans Abbing was critical of the Dutch subsidization policy, but addressed it from the left, from sympathy with artists in precarious circumstances—the opposite of the current cadre of politicians, who describe the arts as a ‘left-wing hobby’ (linkse hobby in Dutch).

AD: Do you worry about being misunderstood by artists, of being accused that you are trying to create a rationale for society to deny them necessary support?

HA: When doing this work, I am aware of the implicit, political dangers. Being a socialist or from the left, means being aware that many artists are poor, many are living in precarity, exploited or even oppressed. So to criticize the subsidization system requires a lot of rigorous thinking, I don’t want artists to think I am trying to make their lives more difficult economically! 

My intention is quite the opposite. I am an artist and a sociologist, as well as a ‘cultural economist’. For years I was only a painter. But at some stage I cut my losses, I could not sell or exhibit as much as I needed to have the feeling that I had voice, that my activities mattered in society, and therefore I went into research. I saw that other painters I lived with could not fall back on interesting and better paid second jobs. They were less free than I was, and this is what motivated me to inquire as to what socio-economic forces and what type of mentalities are responsible for reproducing and consolidating the immiseration of artists.

AD: Your book Why Are Artists Poor? first published pre-crisis, insisted that subsidies are often damaging to the arts, and an ineffective way of spending that may end up helping the elites who are already in possession of cultural capital. Since then, we have seen a decade of centre-right Dutch governments slashing subsidies, along with higher education and the welfare state.

Many intellectuals and artists had this idea that art and education are the fields that do well during a financial crisis, taught by the memory of the 1920s in Europe or the fin de siècle. That did not add up. 

How has the economic crisis in itself led to anything good in terms of stimulating art or fulfilling your predictions that art can do well with less subsidization and a general gift culture?

HA: The main argument I make about subsidies is how they encourage entry into the arts. There is a belief that given the subsidization culture the arts could be lucrative. I think the argument I initially made about subsidies for individual artists remains valid after the crisis. However, when it comes to the present rise in tuition fees for art education —the same as university education— I worry about the decreasing accessibility of the art profession for low income groups: and since we’re speaking in English: in the US, this will often mean black and latino people. In the case of (art) education I would therefore plead for subsidies which serve extreme forms of so-called price discrimination: i.e. no fee for people from low income groups. This is even more necessary given the fact that there are already many other factors which hold back the entrance of poor and non-white people from becoming artists within art worlds which almost exclusively serve relatively well-to-do and well-educated white audiences offering them “white art”. 

It is also true that the subsidization and gift culture promotes the belief that artists can never be substantiated monetarily for their art, the belief that being financially successful in the market is shameful and harmful. Living even meagrely from one’s artistic work gets casted as an impossible fantasy. These are often false beliefs that reinforce a subsidy culture which in turn keeps artists poor, holding the valves on moneys that are managed by committee treasurers, while providing a justification for the artists’ vulnerability, and deep down is an implicit message that art does not require remuneration.

AD: What you say about the political context of large scale subsidization of individual artists in the Netherlands, goes totally against the idea that subsidization is about equality…

HA: Up to the 1950s subsidization of artists and art organizations was to do with the (international) prestige of the nation state. This justification never disappeared, but presently (international) economic benefits have become more important. Subsidies to art organizations rather than to individual artists are still strongly in place, despite the debates about their disappearance. 

Here as in many countries, the large majority of the state subsidies go to top theatres, top orchestras, a ballet with the oldest reputation, the purchase of a Rembrandt painting for 80 million euros to wrest it back from France, and so on. Cultural funding has an ironic flow: mostly towards those venues and artists who already enjoy the support of an affluent audience that includes the economic elite. 

AD: So there is still subsidization going on, but it manifests differently. How differently? And why then are artists often coming together in public statements and demonstrations expressing a solidarity against the cuts to arts funding, without specifying what kind of funding they want, without articulating demands?

HA: The changes have not been radical. Ever since the second world war, major art companies receive subsidies. The arc of subsidization increased well into the 1980s. After that time, subsidies still increased, but only to cover rising costs. What has changed and caused shock in the Netherlands is the disappearance of subsidies for individual artists and for small scale (or “fringe”) activities. A strange solidarity is being expressed between artists, when it comes to the rain of austerity measures and the scissoring to subsidies. There is this persistent, amazing notion that all art is good for everybody, and that everybody involved in art production must be good.  A critique of some art producers in large art companies, is experienced as a critique of all art.  But the real interests and expectations of different groups of artists and art organizations are so different, often conflicting.

Both in the US and Europe there is an unfounded belief in the goodness of the art worlds. But when it comes to decisions on the spending of public money for the arts, there are differences. In the US people trust the rich and the management of corporations who work together with art establishments. In Europe, people trust politicians who work together with art establishments. In both cases, it is indeed public money being spent. But in the USA most people are little aware of this. There, even more than in Europe, subsidization of the arts is a secretive affair.

In the US, rich individuals, foundations which are de facto run by present and former business people and CEOs of corporations donate to the arts, and in exchange get tax-rebates, which thus go at the cost of public money to be spent on art or other causes. These tax-rebates make “giving” profitable to them. It is true that a few of the more recently established foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google sometimes support art that is slightly more experimental. But they hardly form a majority.  

In the visual arts, artistic quality is believed to largely correspond with the high prices, which follow from the expenditure of rich people. That differs entirely when it comes to technically reproduced popular culture and in a lesser degree also literature. We don’t trust Madonna as the best singer. But of the people who donate and buy at the top of the art market, it is assumed they make the best choices. 

AD:  Does money laundering play any significant role in the official world of arts- subsidization?

HA: Absolutely. Only a tiny segment of donor, sponsor and public money is being discussed in very heated debates. The rest is not up for discussion, it is a forbidden territory. Meanwhile most of the flow of funding is obscured, and ignored entirely. It is only recently that artists —rather than art lovers— become aware that banks that endanger our economies and oil companies which endanger the future of the earth, use the high reputation of art companies such Tate Modern in Britain, to improve their worsening reputation as they go about white-washing their harmful activities. But until recently this is not the kind of corrupting effect that audiences, critics and art-lovers seem to worry about. The consternation is usually about controversial art that turns out to have been publicly-subsidized and sponsored. Moreover, even apart from white-washing, the frequent debates are also not about the influence on the content of art exerted by sponsors and governments.

But it can be very different. In the United States, there is the example of Detroit. The city declared bankruptcy, and the government then made programs to forgive the debts because of the urgent situation: the rising poverty in an already poor city. They then started community art programs which have little to do with the real interest of poor and little-educated youngsters. Art can be an important factor in developing voice, but it must be their own art. It is sad to notice that commercial companies are better aware of these needs than good-willing charities. 

AD: What do you think of the case of the deported Indonesian pianist Harimada Kusuma? (Kusuma was living in the Netherlands since 2003, and after finalizing his conservatory studies in Rotterdam made a living giving concerts and teaching music. When he attempted to renew his residence permit, the Dutch Immigrations and Naturalizations Department (IND) told him that because he is not an EU citizen and because he  ‘cannot prove’ he is an artist, he was to be deported. One of the requirements for proof of being an artist for the IND agency is to show that you have obtained subsidies from an official state-related cultural fund. Kusuma could not prove it, because he was able to get by through performance. He has already been deported to Indonesia despite protest by his students.)

HA: This is the worst imaginable case: subsidies defining what is art and who is an artist. And yet the latter is, sadly enough often a good proxy: exceptions form a minority. But instead of encouraging or at least treating exceptions fairly, certainly when they are immigrants, the opposite happens.

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