Prologue: Goldsmith’s College, London, is 122 years of age. While Slade, an equally mature London art school is 145 years old. The School of Fine Arts, Canterbury, has been in continuous operation for 130 years.
The globally omnipresent mythos of ‘not enough’ and its just-as-ubiquitous economic-nostrum (the austerity-cure) are widely subscribed-to dogma. Pure belief: unassailable faith in the primacy of monetary capital creation - over and above every other human enterprise. I would suggest the monomaniacal pursuit of statistical GDP, expressed as the one-eyed reapportionment of existent public capital, to things exclusively charged with creating yet more monetary capital, willfully disregards a raft of historically valued things - things such as social/cultural capital. The big lie, the god of, Not enough and its philosophical disregard, or write-down, of the historically high value, appreciated to the arts and culture, heralds an ideologically blinkered period of social engineering. Or, rather, a Dark-Ages 2.0, of social/cultural dismantlement to come.
A reactionary, faith-based, belief, that wills such wanton dismantlement, requires blind faith, faith that a fictionally over-spent (actually reapportioned) public purse is the root cause of, and rationale for, reducing whatever corporate-captured politicians want to characterize as budget-stretching cultural frills. Rather than viewing time-proven arts as the foundational public good they have historically been and are. As if forgettable business enterprise, with its mostly symbolic, ephemeral, financial transactions are how generations, now and in future, will ‘bank’ who they were, are, or may wish to be remembered. And, perhaps, respected as something more than money-changers.
Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, suggests the not enough dogma is, in footnoted fact, the professed evangelical belief of self-serving privateers - their synod being the ‘free-market’ Chicago School of economics. Privateers for whom austerity is a religion and for whom the efficient, tax-structured, unregulated-and-tax-subsidized, movement of publicly-underwritten wealth - from public to private hands - is an article and act of faith.
My use of the trope ‘publicly underwritten wealth’ alludes to publicly financed infrastructure such as: education, transport, government funded and regulated public health & safety regimes, and government facilitated international trade … among others – without which private business, high-income individuals, and international corporate elite would not so easily prosper and accrue the massive cash reserves they currently hoard.
Hard statistics show the cost-burden of public-infrastructure – in the past number of decades – has shifted dramatically from wealthy (corporate and private, high-earners) onto the middle-class and working poor’s increasingly skinny shoulders. However, oddly enough, the relative scale of received benefits, to the so-called middle class, and working poor, from public infrastructure (affordable tertiary education, affordable housing, public-health maximization, subsidized arts) have hardly been commensurate with the shifting tax-burden they bear.
What has increased, however, is the volume of sermonizing and numbers of sermonizers preaching the religion of public austerity as catalyst for private profit. Preaching self-righteously of reduced expectation, shared burden, hard realities and hard choices. Those preaching are rarely, if ever, on the receiving end of tough-love prescriptions they propose.
In today’s silo-shaped, business-modeled, universities there are austerity-pulpits aplenty – staffed by ambitious executive administrators. The reallocation of public money in the tertiary sector has similarly moved. Shifting from the long-admired public good of humanities, to academic sectors populated with private profit-takers (or makers) depending on your ideological point of view. Making universities, in essence, the exclusive research and development arms of corporate manufacture and business.
The public’s money has been, and continues to be, business-purposed away from the perceived ‘soft’ subjects of arts and humanities. Intellectual disciplines, long-esteemed (in the course of human history) as historically uninterrupted public testament to, and stores of, intangible, but socially effective, human, virtue. Public education dollars – diverted, re-purposed, reallocated, into amoral ‘business friendly’, hard subjects; such as engineering and science. ‘Hard-discipline’ vocational areas, at Canterbury, are awash, as I write, with actual, un-spendable surpluses - while just across campus, programs and students, of arts & humanities, go to bed ‘hungry’. Colleagues in Engineering, I should note, are just as scandalized by the economic disparity and surplus.
City centers, municipalities, regions, and nation-states (driven by the power-elite’s appetite for the arts-as-entertainment and as civic status-symbol) still budget, subsidize, and vie with geopolitical rivals, for ‘the arts’. But now, our universities - originally designed as a kind-of creative castle-keep, sanctuary, for creators of intangible but recognizably valued ideas and objects - increasingly seek to divest themselves of their historical charge, and, in the place of so-called pure-knowledge-creation, seek exclusively to harbor, and further, what executive administrators (and their political overlords) see as bankable, mercantile, technical enterprise.
Of course some skeletal ‘core’ arts and humanities will be retained; served to the student body, as a side-dish, as a garnish, as a way to provide jumped-up ‘wealth creators’ with a ‘core’ understanding of socially recognized cultural markers of class-gentility … providing future ‘masters-of-the-universe’ with a feel for the arts. For even the university-as-a-business understands the importance, or at least class-desirability of, gentrifying, with the help of the arts, the scions of commercial wealth it helped nurture. Nurture with public money.
University-as-a-business understands, of course, that at the end of a long day of business enterprise, even a self-starting, hard-charging technocrat, or captain of light-industry, wants to let his (mostly His) hair down … with a little help from (in proper time-and-place, of course) cultural ‘long hairs’. I mean, really, what would all the toil of business-innovation, and its attendant commerce, really amount to without the house on the hill. The hard-earned place in the world where one repairs: to regard one’s trophy plastic arts – on one’s expansive white wall – to thumb an anthological volume of verse, purchased in one’s youth for the Uni. literature-survey course, to cue the Schubert impromptu one became familiar with in music appreciation 101.
Now what is this essay, so far, but a collection of allusive generalizations, without specific, local, examples? Or, for that matter, international examples.
Here’s now is a regional specific. Something plucked, from an overgrown farm-service town, on the Canterbury plains – laid up against two, much more metropolitan, examples: Goldsmith’s College, London, is 122 years of age. While Slade, an equally mature London art school is 145 years old. The School of Fine Arts, Canterbury, has been in continual operation for 130 years.
130 years of unbroken existence would have had The School of Fine Arts’ generationally-sequential overseers – our Aotearoan ancestors - seeing fit to preserve, to allocate, truly scarce resources to, an art school (no less) through two world wars, countless nation-state police actions, domestic political regimes and social upheavals, at least one (if not putatively two) great depressions and inestimable numbers of financial recessions and economic reversals.
Given the current faux-austere Canterbury University, and ruling government, mood, the institutions’ managers may well be thinking, here and now, that our feckless forerunners – generations of responsible art school preservationists - were simply naïve, antiquarian in thinking, forever, somehow, behind the times, out-of-step, devoid of forward-thinking, hard-headed business ambition and business-drive. Or we might consider that in the place of purchasing yet another bloody, cold, potato (or artillery shell, for that matter) the preservationists thought to buy, instead, a fucking paintbrush.
Kiwis are preternaturally interested in the Mother Country, in its doings. Now, one might ask, what do you reckon the U.K., London, its good Burghers do, if a passel of Neo-Liberal razor-boys sought to slice away – with all the finesse of a whale flensing gang - at the health, prestige, and prominence of its longest-lived (Slade & Goldsmiths) art schools. Of schools, who like Ilam, are thought to be, in significant part, responsible for the nation’s most recognized names in national and international visual arts?
Shall I make another comparison? Or will that one do?