Giving money to the arts enables capitalists to launder their ideology. But, asks Gordon Downie, what effect does this have on creative output?
There has been much discussion recently of the need to encourage people with lots of money to give it away - to charities, cultural organisations and assorted recipients. There is clearly recognition that militant capitalists are so bloated with spare cash they may as well give some of their loose change away to some deserving cause.
The most popular causes seem to be those associated with health provision, medical research or so-called disadvantaged children: donors can look really saintly holding a starving child with Aids and their giving can be recognised in perpetuity if they establish a cancer ward named after them. For the religious capitalist, there is also the bonus of ensuring their safe passage in the afterlife. After healthcare, culture is also a good bet, as Peggy Guggenheim and a long list of other personalities with fat wallets have realised.
In the US, philanthropy has increased from $100 billion to $300 billion per year during the 40 years from 1969 to 2009. The US government allows philanthropic donations to reduce taxable income by 50%, which is clearly a significant incentive for the concerned capitalist. And in June 2010 Bill Gates and Warren Buffett attempted to place this process on a more secure foundation by establishing the 'Giving Pledge', an appeal designed to encourage billionaires to give away their money to solve "grand global problems".
To understand better the philanthropic mind, the Financial Times's 'How to give it' column is a useful source of enlightenment. Healthcare and underprivileged children are prominent in the capitalist conscience. Thus, asked what the first charity he supported was, Steve Berger, vice-chairman of investment company Weld North, replied: providing "toys for underprivileged children, especially at Christmas". And asked when she made her first substantial donation, Christina Domecq, a member of the Domecq sherry family, replied: "It was about half a million dollars to develop an orphanage in Tanzania. I was about 23. I wondered if I could do something local and people said I should go see this place. I was floored by the expression of joy on the children's faces - you think how unappreciative we can be, and these children were just happy to have a loaf of bread. I now support five orphanages."
For those responding to Bill Gates's and Warren Buffett's call to action, the Giving Pledge appears to offer the concerned capitalist an unrivalled opportunity to 'make a difference', in order to remedy some of the world's pressing inequities. Warren Buffett summarises this process when he tells us: "My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I've worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate's distribution of long straws is wildly capricious."
The common thread here seems to be: leave the system alone and let kind and caring philanthrocapitalists pick up the pieces and heal the world's little inequities and problems. However, it depends what the problem is: an arguably unpalatable and media-unfriendly condition such as diarrhoea, for example, which is a major cause of infant death worldwide, attracts relatively little philanthropic attention. Thus, given the prevalence of self-titled foundations and the rarity of anonymous donations, the primary motive for philanthropists appears to be self-aggrandisement to increase their symbolic capital, public image, and historical legacy, and the further expansion of their control over personal, public and political affairs. It would appear that conspicuous philanthropy begins when conspicuous consumption ends.
But it is wholly grotesque to witness those who control, manage and benefit from the capitalist system electing to solve problems for which the system is directly or indirectly the cause. This, of course, is a neat trick, as capital accumulates further credit. In their defence, it is frequently claimed that such donors retain what is customarily termed a 'social conscience'. But this is of no significance. Lives and resources cannot be determined and managed based on the random and spontaneous largesse of a few well-off money-makers with an ego to service and a troubled conscience to salve.
This process mirrors the unadulterated and congenitally inane drivel propounded by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in their Philanthrocapitalism - how giving can save the world. In his foreword to the book, Bill Clinton states: "We have to transform [the world] into one of shared responsibilities, shared opportunities and a shared sense of community." The philanthrocapitalist manifesto informs us that we are "at the dawn of an era of mass philanthrocapitalism" and, while "Thirty years of market reform has been good for Britain's rich", unfortunately "our society has become more unequal". Despite this, there is no place for "populist bashing of the rich". Rather we need to "rewrite the social contract between the rich and the rest. The winners of capitalism have a responsibility to the rest of society, not just to pay their taxes, but to give back with their money and their skills", whilst "The corporate world, too, is starting to realise that business can 'do well by doing good'."
So that is the world in a nutshell. If you picked one of the short straws: hard luck. But if you are really fortunate, someone sitting on a cash-pile accumulated through creative accountancy, opaque financial instruments or tax-avoidance will give you a couple of quid to help you get by.
The current Tory-led coalition, as part of its programme to butcher public provision and bring the British population to heel, is in the process of substantially reducing state support for arts and culture, and is seeking to establish a "US-style plan to increase philanthropic donations by the rich". For this administration, the US is clearly the model to follow, though its proposals merely build upon and extend processes of privatisation pursued by successive governments during the last 30 years or more.
The cultural terrain we have today has been in large measure generated by this process and the government's plans are aimed at taking it to its logical conclusion. Indeed, as Christine Lindey has remarked, many cultural events take the form they do because of the "symbiotic relationship between the mainstream media, major institutions and the corporate sponsors upon which the latter are financially dependent". She continues: "Tate Modern's Gauguin exhibition is sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and its media partner is The Sunday Times and its Turbine Hall displays are named the Unilever Series after their multinational sponsor." She concludes: "institutions must court sponsors and convince them of potentially large audiences and this leads to a domination of safe themes".
So what model is this? What happens when it is applied? How does its application affect the process of cultural production itself? Can cultural producers and organisations be sure that the relationships they develop with corporate and private philanthrocapitalists will continue to be beneficial, as the true nature of the capitalist system enters popular consciousness at a deeper level? There can be no better illustration of what happens when capital gets its grubby hands on culture than the artistic and programming policies of large-scale cultural organisations such as symphony orchestras.
In the UK, both the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) offer a wide variety of sponsorship options. To attract corporate donors, the CBSO tells us: "Whether it's about showing your commitment to the community, looking after your employees or thrilling your clients, the CBSO can engage with your business to provide a mutually beneficial relationship"; while "Our corporate partnerships are based on shared aspirations, values and culture". Current corporate sponsors include Barclays Wealth, HSBC, RBS and Ernst and Young.
On the LSO's website meanwhile, we are enjoined to Donate now! For the Patron's Scheme, levels of donation range from the modest Bronze at £1,000 to the slightly more adventurous Diamond at £10,000. Corporate members are lured by a similar, but pricier range of options. LSO Premier, starting at £20,000 plus VAT per annum, is a "top-level client entertaining and business networking forum, offering corporate members a high-calibre international events programme, aligned with world-class performances by the LSO". In addition, "The event format allows significant client networking opportunity" with "previous events including a reception at the Bank of England, hosted by governor Mervyn King". In addition, the Employee Engagement scheme offers "corporate teambuilding workshops on the Balinese gamelan", whilst workshops attempt to draw "parallels between orchestral and business leadership and communication, offering the exclusive experience of sitting within the orchestra".
Meanwhile, in the US, this process is rather more advanced. The existence of the New York Philharmonic (NYP) is in large measure maintained through the injection of corporate capital and private philanthropy. Reflecting this, the begging bowls - significantly extending those schemes used by the orchestra's British counterparts - come in a variety of sizes to entice both small and big capitalists. Patrons can donate at a variety of levels and get a variety of perks in return, including cocktail receptions, post-concert dinners and opportunities to "meet the artists". But at any level the patron's "name will appear in subscription concert programmes all season long and in our annual report. So even when you can't attend, the audience will see your name and applaud your generosity."
By joining the Leonard Bernstein Circle, donors are offered three membership schemes: Concertmaster, entitling them to an "Invitation for two to salon evenings"; Maestro, offering a "Personalised concert dedication with concert tickets and dinner for eight"; and Virtuoso, complete with an "Invitation for two to a dinner with the chairman of the board". In addition to these programmes, donors can choose a variety of other sponsoring routes, including donating stock, endowing an orchestral chair or, in the case of the Yoko Nagae Ceschina Chair, funding the salary of the orchestra's music director, Alan Gilbert. In response to Mrs Ceschina's generosity, Gilbert effuses: "Yoko is more than a remarkably generous supporter of the New York Philharmonic - she has become an integral member of the Philharmonic family."
In the case of corporate sponsorship, the orchestra states that it has "cultivated longstanding partnerships with many leading corporations in our region and across the globe. From enhancing brand awareness and visibility to unique client entertainment experiences, sponsorship at the New York Philharmonic provides our corporate partners access to: co-branding and visibility through our extensive marketing platform; our highly desirable audience and patron demographics; and one-of-a-kind Philharmonic entertaining events. We would be pleased to customise a sponsorship plan to fulfil your business objectives." Corporate sponsors include Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and JPMorgan Chase and Co.
How to spend it
This process has a devastating impact on the artistic policies of the NYP, as its programming and subscription series have to be of a kind that big capital and corporations find acceptable and ideologically compatible - and of a kind that maintains the grins of private donors and sponsors whose images adorn the orchestra's website.
In consequence, attending a NYP concert (in common with almost all other orchestras worldwide that are dependent on private donors: ie, the majority) is the equivalent of visiting a museum, where physical artefacts and antiquities are replaced by their aural equivalents, the so-called established repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, with a dash of pop-Bernstein thrown in. The mind-numbing and intellectually stultifying tedium of this is only matched by the enthusiasm exhibited by the orchestra's bourgeois, Manhattanite patrons, for whom concert-going is just another accessory or asset to add to their real-estate and investment portfolio, and their fine wine and modern art collection. And there is always a healthy supply of maestros willing to service this corpse that passes for musical culture.
At first glance, it may therefore be surprising that the orchestra has recently established the post of Marie-Josée Kravis composer-in-residence and a new music competition prize of $250,000 - both funded by a $10 million gift from the financier, Henry R Kravis. In addition, it has initiated a new music concert series with the arousing title of 'Contact!', which illustrates - it claims - its "dedication to the music of our time", though the series - comprising only two concerts - is separate from its mainstream concert programmes.
Henry R Kravis seems to be very enthusiastic about culture. Like other philanthrocapitalists, he clearly considers it important that, in conformity with the philanthrocapitalist manifesto, he gives something back to society and the needy, such as cultural organisations, composers and hospitals. And Mr Kravis would appear to need no advice from the Financial Times's 'How to give it' column or the 'How to spend it' weekend supplement. On the contrary, Mr Kravis - a fundraiser for George W Bush and John McCain - has already determined that one of the best ways to spend it is by commissioning for his wife, Marie-Josée Kravis, a birthday gift of a new orchestral work from the British composer, Judith Weir (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), recipient of the 2007 Queen's Medal for Music. The work was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2000. Henry R Kravis is ranked the 201st richest person in the world by Forbes, and his net worth - amassed in part from his application of the leveraged buyout, which frequently leads to the sacking of workers in companies targeted by the practice - is considered to be $4.2 billion. Mrs Kravis is an economist and member of the neo-con think-tank, the Hudson Institute. As The Independent reported, "Kravis is a product of the 1980s, the whirlwind of deregulation … that funnelled huge fortunes into the pockets of a few financiers and bankers on Wall Street."
But the NYP's commitment and dedication to the "music of our time" is in name only - it is merely part of a wider marketing, branding and promotional strategy. In content, such a policy has to maintain the interest and support of its corporate and private donors, who have to be confident of a profitable symbolic return on their real investment. This being the case, any new music that is programmed must be of a kind that reflects, or offers no challenge to, the ideological horizons and mindsets of the donors that keep the orchestra in operation. We should be unsurprised, therefore, that the new music that is featured in the orchestra's 2010-11 concert season is selected from the conservative and right wing of the aesthetico-political spectrum: creative product that evokes little or no controversy from corporate sponsors' shareholders. It is thus a commitment to an ideologically vetted sector of "music of our time". Thus, the efficient operation of this process is predicated on the willingness of composers to subordinate their creative aspirations to those market-driven priorities that ensure the maintenance of philanthropic support.
He who pays the piper
The new Marie-Josée Kravis composer-in-residence at the NYP is Magnus Lindberg. Given Lindberg's recent statements, would appear a suitable choice for a cultural organisation that needs to be alert to the needs and requirements of its corporate sponsors.
Lindberg traverses the centre-right and soft-left wings of the aesthetico-political spectrum. Marketeers find this a particularly useful aesthetic fraction, as it enables them to enlist categories of promotional language that can signal the market competitiveness of the organisations for which they are agents, whilst avoiding the necessity of managing or representing the types of product that such language objectively denotes. This includes terms such as groundbreaking, cutting edge and innovative. No cultural marketing campaign is complete without such language and its usage is ubiquitous. Attributes of operational and strategic agility are assigned to any organisation that employs them, and they are characteristics that all modern corporations seek to display - and if their application has a grain of truth then the process is all the more effective. The representation of such a fraction also enables cultural organisations to feign inclusivity, while in reality operating a closed-door policy toward cultural product of a genuinely critical comportment. Through such a strategy critique and dissent can be effectively managed or neutralised.
The first requirement for artists working within such a context must be a willingness to jettison creative autonomy. It is this very autonomy that challenges those ideologies seeking to force all phenomena to conform to the priorities of capital, and such autonomy is a primary political goal and operational feature of a long series of 20th and 21st century avant-gardes, including a significant fraction within high-modernist music. But Lindberg tells us: "We can't afford to work that way any more. Music is about communication between human beings, and in that sense the audience really matters." However, what Lindberg actually means is that, as an employee of the NYP, he is not allowed to work like that any more.
Thus, within music, he who pays the piper literally does call the tune. In his defence, Lindberg states: "I'm not saying we should prostitute ourselves and think 'What do they want?'" What then is he saying? His statement seems to assert that there are gradations of compromise; that a partially compromised aesthetic object is not a totally compromised aesthetic object; that the creative artist can compromise a little. Whilst it may be true that part of a limb can be amputated, an aesthetic artefact either retains its integrity, autonomy and authenticity or it does not - there is no intermediary ground.
Though Lindberg's actions and statements are located within an aesthetic field of operation, they mirror with illuminating and depressing clarity those actions and statements of accommodation that characterise the political behaviour of soft-left or centre-left careerists and opportunists (in reality a fictional left) - a ubiquitous fraction that is no less responsible for the hegemony of capital than the neo-cons and far right itself. Indeed, by cleansing and occupying the ground that belongs to, and should be the site of, opposition and critique, they function as its suitably compliant and servile substitute or simulation. Indeed, there can be no more efficient means by which capital (and those forces of reaction that reflect and assert its interests in the complex ideological superstructure) can manage and neutralise dissent than by determining the ideological complexion of its opposition. It is through these processes of accommodation and assimilation - however complexly mediated they might be - that creative artists place their practice at the service of capital.
It may be conjectured that, within the relatively capital-poor aesthetic field, it is unreasonable or unrealistic to expect practitioners to deny themselves access to opportunities for self-development and career enhancement. This may be the case, and the history of art is in many respects a record of this process. But Lindberg - and several other British composers, such as Thomas Adès and Julian Anderson, who are featured in the NYP concert series - clearly perceive career value in an association with big capital. However, such an association offers capitalists yet another route by which to launder their ideology and a cheap way to legitimise their financial practices through philanthropic good deeds. In consequence, those in receipt of scraps from the rich man's table are complicit in those processes that maintain the hegemony of capitalist political and economic power, and all that flows from this domination. But, given the system's current internal crisis (and popular recognition of the extreme inequities associated with hyper-extreme concentrations of wealth and the power that it can wield), creative artists may need to reconsider whether such an association is quite the route to career success, fulfilment and CV enhancement they imagined.
We have to be continually aware of the effect this process has on the creative media and aesthetic objects in question, and ask ourselves whether processes we condemn within the political arena are processes we should tolerate within its aesthetic counterpart. To paraphrase Guy Debord, in a world that really has been turned on its head, success is a moment of failure.
1. 'Giving heaps' Financial Times December 11 2010.
8. 'Ministers push for rich to leave more money to charity and the arts' The Guardian December 8 2010.
9. 'Radical resolution' Morning Star December 30 2010.
26. Lindberg's reference to "the audience" makes an allusion to the 1958 essay of American composer Milton Babbitt, 'The composer as specialist', which the publisher altered to "Who cares if you listen". This essay and the position it articulates is routinely invoked by those segments of the music establishment that seek to remind us of what they perceive to be the creative and ideological misdemeanours of the high-modernist avant-garde: by this means younger composers can be alerted to the dangers to their careers of aligning themselves with it. In this essay, Babbitt outlines an alternative model for the creative artist, a model that views composition as a specialism on a par with other intellectual professions, such as physics, computer science or mathematics, requiring a similar level of preparation for its proper understanding.
Babbitt's diatribe was and continues to be a refreshing and inspiringly militant defence of advanced composers' creative rights, and a robust assertion of the possibilities of the medium unfettered by poorly and illiterately formed notions surrounding the creative artist's responsibility or obligations to the public. However, one of the problems with Babbitt's analysis is that it reduces the problem primarily to an opposition between composer and listener. As such, his model and explanatory framework is more or less devoid of any serious political content. It leaves unexamined more complex dynamics and causes that have their source in the very fabric and structure of capitalist society and the commodity form. The intellectually debilitating effects of extreme divisions of labour are not recognised here, and the problem and its solution are confined within the analytically constrained limits of the domain.
28. In a simplistic attempt to transfer strategies of political opportunism into the aesthetic realm, creative artists not infrequently believe that professional goals are obtainable by deploying creative product tactically. This is mistaken. While short-term realignments and tactical manoeuvring is not only common, but frequently essential in the realisation of political aims, such processes cannot be transferred to the aesthetic realm because creative products and professional goals cannot be decoupled without annihilating the former - process and product are not separable. This error is responsible for the muddled and directionless complexion of a large proportion of contemporary creative production in all media.
29. Guy Debord's original statement, "In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood", appears in his Society of the spectacle.