An Artful Business

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Review of 'Privatising Culture', Chin-tao Wu, Verso £20.00

The immediate appeal of this book is that it has the nerve to look behind the glossy facades of modern high culture and see what's going on in the murky backrooms. Better still, Chin-tao Wu tries to use the insights she gets to work out what high culture is for in modern capitalist society.

She puts the privatisation of culture into the context of the rise of neoliberalism. Wu shows that from the early 1980s Reagan and Thatcher had conscious strategies to get business more engaged in the art world. They changed tax laws so that buying and donating art to museums would be tax deductible. This helped to create the art market boom--capitalists could force up the value of a particular artist's work virtually for free. Thatcher held a series of high profile parties for top executives at which they were asked to make financial commitments to the arts. At the same time she put in place a new pro big business management at the Arts Council.

New Labour accelerated the process, and by the end of the 1990s business was in the driving seat. Organisations like ABSA--the Association of Business Sponsors of the Arts--were key policy references for government departments, culture quangos like the Arts Council and even the state-run galleries.The big question Wu tries to answer is, what's in all this for the corporations and the executives? On the evidence of hundreds of interviews and questionanaires she did she has two main suggestions. First she reports that business executives themselves are conscious that owning 'quality' art or even just playing the art market buys some kind of kudos or status. Apparently some US executives call it 'incorporated pocketbook'. This seems to be particularly important for executives who have come up through management school rather than being born directly into corprate families. She calls this status 'cultural capital', a term used by Pierre Bourdieu, and argues that it can transfer directly into measurable advantage. The story of the Saatchi brothers shows just how tightly linked cultural patronage and hard headed business sense can be.

At the same time the art world has become an important point of social contact for different parts of the establishment. Sponsorship parties and openings are one of the main places where business people can meet policians, top civil servants and members of the royal family. Art galleries have become sought after venues for high power parties and gatherings. As Wu says, 'Art, the business world and politicians have entered into a clandestine symbiotic relationship in which the unelected and the nominated join forces with those elected to govern.'

Creeping corporate control of art spaces obviously affects the art in all sorts of insidious ways. There's some straight censorship--direct criticism of the corportions is taboo. But much more important is the general climate that big money generates. Artists are made to feel insecure and at the same time they are subtly inhibited. One corporate gallery manager admits that his bosses would get very nervous if he purchased anything that was 'issue led'. So he doesn't.

This book is like a blast of fresh air into the fusty world of cultural studies. It is based on research which was met with real hostility from business and the arts establishment. This suggests that Wu's aim is pretty much true. She believes the corporate grip on academia is now so tight she wouldn't get funding for this kind of project if she applied today. Maybe because of this kind of pressure you sometimes feel the book's focus is a bit narrow. Everything is explained as a kind of convergence of interests within the establishment and there are some bigger questions the book skirts around. Wasn't the attack on public arts funding part of an ideological agenda as well? What do artists think of what's going on? Mightn't the relentless commercalisation of the art world be creating the very cultural dissent the corporations fear? But these are quibbles about a brave and fascinating book.