Political Ownership and the Cultural Sector

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At the opening of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Summer Exhibition, July 28, 2019

It’s a well-know dilemma: the support of the State is almost always needed to establish and maintain cultural institutions, irrespective of whether these are part of the public sector or privately initiated, and of whether they are publicly funded, in full or in part, or merely get in-principle support and blessings. In Jamaica, public cultural institutions such as the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and the National Gallery of Jamaica might not have existed if there had not been a timely intersection of the cultural sector with State politics and some of the personalities involved.

But this history of State involvement is also the Achilles heel of the Jamaican cultural sector, especially as we live in an era when the business of government appears to have been turned into an ongoing campaign in preparation for the next elections. And in which some politicians appear to be increasingly driven by ego and a desire for personal glory, in ways which stray far from the foundational principles of equitable and selfless public service.

The threat of inappropriate political interference is ongoing and cultural institutions in  Jamaica, by virtue of their inadequately protective legal statutes, are acutely exposed to this. But an equally detrimental threat is the ever-growing desire to establish political and personal ownership which is evident in the actions of certain politicians — of wanting to attach one’s name, image and legacy (and one’s next election victory) to any initiative that is likely to have significant public appeal and visibility. In the cultural sector, it is certainly evident in the commissioning, unveiling and signage of new public monuments, in which the political patrons get almost as much attention as the figure honored and certainly more than the artist. This is of course not unique to the cultural sector, or to Jamaica, but it sure illustrates what our politics have come to, and it represents a deep and fundamental failure.

I am not suggesting that there should be no credit where credit is due but, in politically divided, deeply partisan environments such as Jamaica, politicians who mean the cultural sector well should think twice about having their names, or the names of those to whom they are themselves loyal, prominently attached to any cultural institutions or initiatives. Without disrespect to Edna Manley – and the others who were major drivers in the development of what is now the Edna Manley College, such as Robert Verity, Cecil Baugh, Vera Moody, or, somewhat later, Edward Seaga and Rex Nettleford – I am not convinced that it was a good thing that the College was named after her. I, of course, recognize that she was first and foremost an artist, and not a politician in any conventional sense, but her personal proximity to and involvement in certain political developments made her a political figure. Had the College been named, say, the Jamaica College of the Visual and Performing Arts, it may not have been totally insulated from political interference or ownership grabs, but the territorial stakes might have been lower.

Jamaica’s cultural institutions may have come about, at least in part, as a result of their foundational association with certain political figures and moments, but this has also turned them into political turf, into political trophies that are to be conquered and wrested away from the perceived “opposite side” whenever the opportunity arises. It has certainly hampered the development of the National Gallery of Jamaica, during its 45 years of existence and, if my count is correct, over seven different political administrations to date, as it has resulted in many starts and stops to initiatives that should long have been completed as well as abrupt changes in direction. The Edna Manley College has historically, by virtue of its governance and operational structure, been more insulated from such politics but there are some alarming signs that this is now changing. The point is that there are no real winners in such territorial contests, since these are negatively affecting the stability, independence, and, potentially even, the sustainability of these institutions as well as the public perceptions that surround them, to the detriment of the important public mandates that they are supposed to serve. Ironically, partisan political intrusion puts at risk the very political trophies that appear to be at stake.

Taking political ownership of cultural initiatives can also backfire on politicians. I am sure that the Jamaican Minister of Culture Olivia “Babsy” Grange by now deeply regrets that she so publicly and enthusiastically facilitated and defended Kanye West’s “free” Sunday Service performance at Kingston’s Emancipation Park on October 18 — quite coincidentally, of course, one week before the scheduled release of his new album. Controversy about West’s political affiliations and history of problematic utterances about Slavery, and the incompatibility of these with the significance of the venue, Emancipation Park, or the provision of State facilitation, erupted as soon as the news about the impromptu, “pop up” concert broke. This was followed, on the day after the concert, by another volley of social media outrage over the unauthorized use of Jamaican national symbols in merchandise that was being promoted and sold through the Kanye West website.

The Minister responded with a public statement that was released in the evening on October 19, in which she condemned the unauthorized use and announced that the vendor had agreed to pull the merchandise (a process that actually took until this evening to complete). In this statement, and in an all too characteristic move, the ultimate blame was deferred to the Opposition, for allegedly not following through on a committee that was apparently established by Minister Grange during her previous tenure, to regulate the use of national symbols. This partisan spin notwithstanding (which in itself amounted, seemingly irresistibly, to a personal and political ownership claim), what may initially have seemed like a golden PR coup has become a political liability.

The association between State propaganda and the arts has, generally speaking, been a troubled one in the Caribbean, and has only rarely led to productive, forward-moving artistic outcomes. The sort of arts that have been propagated in and sanctioned by official events such national independence festivals and CARIFESTA have been hamstrung by fixed, formulaic and propagandist ideas about the arts in the Caribbean as well as stifling bureaucratic processes, and, of course, personal favoritism and political alliances. All too often, what is highlighted and promoted in such festivals is out of touch with the most dynamic and inventive cultural developments in the region, and represents a stagnant and even redundant cultural vision.

Much of this is about the State wishing to control the cultural narrative, and the ideological, personal and financial interests it represents, and about being afraid of letting in those cultural products that elude or defy those prescriptions, or interrogate or challenge the social, political and cultural norms they seek to impose or promote. Much of the most interesting and compelling cultural production in the Caribbean however fits into the latter categories and has often emerged with little or no State support, and sometimes even against State opposition. The censorship issues in the Cuban art world of course come to mind.

This does not mean that there is no value in the official, national or regional festivals, or in the arts that are featured there, which has its time and place and sometimes genuine merit, and there have certainly been commendable efforts to open the conversation, for instance in the last CARIFESTA edition in Trinidad. But it is certainly noteworthy that those cultural institutions and initiatives that have made a real, tangible impact in the Caribbean art world and have changed its course in recent decades have been able to rise above those cultural and political prescriptions and limitations, with a healthy level of courage and independence in their artistic and intellectual direction, and a willingness to make room for what has emerged outside of the predictable and prescribed.

It is very sad, in this regard, to consider the National Gallery of Jamaica’s inaugural Summer Exhibition, as this exhibition, and the rather opportunistic spin about inclusiveness that surrounds it, suggests that the museum now operates at a level  typically observed in the aforementioned festivals’ official exhibitions. I am firmly convinced that this retrograde and divisive exhibition has done nothing positive for the Jamaican art world, and it suggests that the National Gallery has caved in to pressures that were always there but which the organization was, fortunately, willing and able to resist for most of its existence.

The exhibition was endorsed as a tremendous success by Minister Grange, who was the guest speaker at the opening, and is being vigorously defended by members of its politically appointed Board, so I assume that it is consistent with current policy directives, as well as their ideas about the desirable direction for the National Gallery. It certainly appears that there is no sense of failure in those circles but, somehow and self-defeatingly, of a major victory scored, with no internal review or soul-searching needed. As it stands, the exhibition is a tremendous setback for the entire Jamaican art world, in the National Gallery’s 45th year no less, and it raises many questions about the leadership and future of the organization.

State support is needed, yes, to ensure that there is a vibrant, adequately resourced cultural sector but, in modern democracies, those politicians who are at the controls of such support should refrain from using the cultural sector as a political tool and as something to be “owned.” It is a matter of vision, and of appreciating and genuinely caring for how the interests of the cultural sector and general public are best served. When it comes to cultural institutions and initiatives, the hand of politics should be supportive and well-informed, but light and thoughtful, with appropriate, mutually understood and honored boundaries, and a deep commitment to continuity and sustainability.

This includes ensuring that cultural institutions are provided with a governance status that shelters them against political interference and other detrimental power grabs, and the resources and tools for development, and allows them to operate based on appropriate professional standards and in keeping with a clear and sustainable sense of mission. It also includes ensuring that cultural institutions enjoy strong, intellectually and politically independent, and well-informed internal leadership, from professionals who are appropriately qualified and supported, as any failure to do so will inevitably be at the expense of those institutions.

It also means moving away decisively from the scourge of politically appointed public boards that change with every change of government, which is a problem throughout the Jamaican public sector. We have been promised public board reform for quite some time now, most recently by Finance and Public Sector Minister Nigel Clarke in June 2018, with clear commitments that future public boards would no longer be politically affiliated but based on clearly articulated criteria and good governance principles, but this summer’s spate of reappointments, at least in the cultural sector, has once again been almost entirely political, with none of the promised changes evident. That is a major letdown.

It should speak for itself that politically appointed boards are not in the best interest of the public sector, or the country, and that such appointments should be based solely on professional competence, personal integrity, and the ability and disposition to contribute. And board appointments, too, should not be about personal power and glory, but about a genuine willingness to serve in the context of a sound and well-understood governance structure. It should certainly not be seen as a license to “lord it” over anyone, or to engage in any other power machinations or self-serving agendas. Other than opening the door wide to political interference and inappropriate board micromanagement, of which there is an epidemic, political board appointments are also problematic because they shelter such appointees from repercussions, in case of any actions that breach the standards of good governance.

Politically appointed boards also set the stage for political appointments and other politically motivated or empowered interventions into management and staff positions. Key posts are more likely to go to the socially and politically affiliated, and not necessarily to the most qualified, or to those who display a “survivalist” or opportunistic willingness to comply unquestioningly. And those who are not so affiliated, or not willing to play along, are likely to leave or may even be forced out. Needless to say, this erodes the quality and integrity of the public sector, and the mandates its entities are supposed to serve, and it also contributes to Jamaica’s brain drain, as the government sector, which also still offers below par salaries, especially in the cultural sector, is seen increasingly as an employment of last resort instead of a viable career choice.

But to return to the specific instance of the cultural sector: in the modern world, cultural institutions and initiatives rarely thrive in a context where there is significant, partisan and self-serving political intrusion but, right now, that seems to be the detrimental direction in which Jamaica is moving, full speed ahead. I can only hope that this unfortunate tide will eventually be reversed, before it is too late, and that the cultural sector will be more appropriately and productively supported by future governments. And finally, since the lack of private initiative has been a contributing factor, I hope that too will be addressed, with a larger number of relevant and ambitious initiatives, for part of the problem has also been an excessive dependence on State initiative in the cultural sector.

6 thoughts on “Political Ownership and the Cultural Sector

  1. A very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it.

    We can all agree that state sponsored art goes all the way back to the Egyptians. Nothing new at all. In fact, one of the most cited state sponsorship of the arts occurred in the earlier half of the 20th century. Every American scholar will beam with pride when they tell you of the “WPA federal art project” and all the good it did for artists during the 2nd plunge into the abyss. Essentially, the American government decided to set aside funds during the worse economic calamity and military uncertainty of a generation, in order to protect the arts (imagine that). Many of the “modern masters” were beneficiaries of the WPA fund as well as many institutions and other art organization.

    Other cultures, such as Mao’s People’s Republic of China, simply didn’t excise western art, they replaced it with their own art, and whatever state positions they held about their art were carefully managed and funded. The same occurred for all of the communist and socialist countries during the last century. Now, historically, we are educated to think that all state art should be considered as propaganda, and Germany of the 30s and 40s created the kind of art, generally, that led historians to doubt the beauty or aesthetic sophistication of “nationalized art”…(feminists and other inclusivity academics, of course, made a valiant attempt to save Leni Riefenstahl’s filmography)…Thus the damage of “kitsch” and its repercussions. Funny enough, While one set of historians were chiding state art in other parts of the world, Clement Greenberg was using the WPA to produce American state art. We often forget that “American” art was forged out of the wasteland of Europe and its emigrants, and “American” science was no different.

    In the 21st century, most governments around the world are willing to cut funding for the arts at the first sign of economic trouble. Believe me, many folks up north are watching the next general election keenly to decide what moves to make in the very near future in the event of an economic downturn. With that said, I do take your point that governments are needed (sparingly) for supporting the arts, and we can all see that the current government has unveiled more art in one term than previous “generations”. We clearly cannot say that these unveilings are simplistic political ploys, since the visual arts are not “bread and butter” issues for the average Jamaican voter. Nor are they stomping grounds for political rallies and other political points of ownership….I can be wrong, but my instincts say otherwise.

    Yes, there will always be problems with political boards and the parties that appoint them, but I suspect that some of the criticisms that you have leveled agains these factions could easily be said of the the art community itself. To pretend that the art community is devoid of our own political factions is to half state the issue. To my mind, it is not an issue of the actual political parties, but more so, it is the ways in which we go about dividing our resources. Again, that pressing question keeps coming up for me….”how do you raise your kids in the ghetto”….let us pretend, for a moment, that the Jamaican government simply gave the art community the funding and “got out the way”. Can we rightly think that the various resulting boards, committees, panels and awarded commissions will miraculously be devoid of art community politics? Of course not….perhaps it’s even more vicious, since a political party lasts for a term but sanctioned art can last an epoch. A side note, I have always been curious of the Jamaican artists that were not sanctioned by our “Medici”, the Manleys. There must have been a whole generation of undiscovered artists that were tossed in the dust bin of Jamaican art history. Perhaps…..

    The up side for artists is that there are new values being placed on the visual arts in this country. Not so long ago Jamaica only seemed to have one art, and it was music, and it was one genre of music…and if that is not state sponsored art then I don’t know what is lol. Now, the argument has shifted, slightly…yes, but shifted none the less and that is a very important change. You are correct to worry about what the politics will do to our institutions as a result. However, left or right, the artists of this country do have many internal battles, and one proof of this is that the board of the gallery isn’t made up of just politicians, there are several professions represented. So in the end, whatever happens, we can’t simply say “it’s the caustic nature of our politics” we must ask some other fundamental questions about us.

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    • Thanks, Phillip. An interesting and provocative response, as usual. Let me first make it clear that I have no issues with State patronage of the arts per se. What I have issues with is with politically partisan State patronage of the kind we get here in Jamaica, and the ways in which politicians and their affiliates insert themselves into it. And be careful with making comparisons to Pharaohs and Medicis, lol, as this feeds into fantasies which some of our politicians and art patrons already seem to have. I still have not gotten over the fact that about half of the plaque on the Miss Lou statue was dedicated to the politicians who commissioned and unveiled it, or that all recent commissions have gone to the same, quasi-official artist. But the point is that we live in a modern democracy where State politics are supposed to serve the people, and not the other way around. And yes, I am aware that the factionalism in the art world is in many ways more nefarious and destructive, and very personally vicious and toxic, and echoes the political factionalism. The lethal part is how this aligns and intersects with partisan politics, as the recent developments at the NGJ well illustrate – the Summer Exhibition is, in my estimation, conceptually a product of that, even though there are many unsuspecting participants. And yes, there is a troubling social dimension there, not only in the factionalism itself but also in how easy it is for the power-hungry, in politics and in the art world alike, to manipulate these instincts, to the detriment of all of us, even those who temporarily benefit. A lot is lost in the process.

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  2. I was using the Egyptians and the Medicis with the desired intent lol. Here is the issue, for me at least. Remember, Michelangelo was being juxtaposed to Raphael by the Pope and the Pope’s intention was to use their egos against each other for the commission of the ceiling. In the end, Michelangelo had, let’s call it advantages, in the eyes of the Pope and those maneuverings is not unlike many artists today. Artists are in bed with power, that’s how it has been since it’s inception and I am not sure if separating our aesthetic church from state is the final answer.

    Here is an example, as you state Watson has become the de facto state artist in Jamaica today. But is his state sanctioned art a factor of his politics? Or his aesthetics? Perhaps even more convincingly one could argue for his family lineage being the first trigger for his sanctioning. We cannot discount his ability as an artist and certainly with what is available in the country today. Remember, academic art, for a long time was being shunned at the collage. So there is literally no one to compete with those materials and efficiency. So a monopoly has ensued. On the second hand I can say that Mathew McCarthy has unveiled as many works as Watson. He has also secured a kind of public mural monopoly in his own right. Now, I am sure you are willing to state that one is sanctioned by the government of Jamaica and the other is not, but it isn’t that simple really. Because McCarthy’s sanctioning did come from the artistic authorities in our country and as a result secured the same kind of state sponsored autonomy….a contradiction in terms, yes….but this is how soft power works.

    The communist/socialist structures that I mentioned before uses state art in the obvious ways and it does not seek to convince the public otherwise. However, when unelected state powers ie panels, boards and committees sanction artists those art works seep into the minds of the citizenry in a very unsuspecting way. Another word comes to mind with this kind of soft state power art. Philanthropy. What was funny in the 20th century was the commissioning of philanthropic works using state sponsored artists of a different political persuasion. One legendary upheaval comes to mind. Diego Rivera’s mural on Nelson Rockefeller‘s wall.

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    • The question is more how,on what terms, and to what end, art is in bed with power and the answer to that has varied significantly over time. But to focus on Basil Watson, I am not questioning his abilities, or efficiencies, but the fact that the State has settled not only settled for a particular artist but also for a particular aesthetic, and set of ideas about public art. Sure, he knows how to use his name and his social access, and how to ingratiate himself to both sides of the political divide. But the fact that he now has a near-monopoly on public art is also at least in part in a response to past controversies about public monuments but what the latter had in common is that artists at least attempted to move beyond the safe boundaries. Now it is the most unimaginative academic bronze pedestal sculpture and nothing else – we could just as well order them in bulk in China. Not saying that there is no place for this but it also sends important subliminal messages about what is officially sanctioned and supported in art, it does not exactly suggest that artistic experimentation and other aesthetic visions are welcome or supported – another, very limiting example of the soft power you mention, to which Matthew McCarthy et al represent a much-need counterpoint, IMO. And it has important implications for the limited way in which art is understood by the broader public – narrow notions of what constitutes a “proper picture” and a “proper sculpture.” But even if we stay within the realm of artists with academic skills, there are several other choices – Kay Sullivan, Laura Facey, Chung Knight and even Nakazzi Tafarir or Jasmine Thomas-Girvan come to mind. But my concern is that there are so many other exciting, far more imaginative possibilities. Just imagine what could have happened if Jasmine Thomas-Girvan would have been asked to do the Miss Lou statue, and would have been given a free hand to move beyond the bronze statue on pedestal format – but I am dreaming. The imagination does not generally flourish when art and politics meet, at least not in our context.

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  3. I completely agree with you on the idea of Jasmine Thomas Girvan. I have no doubt it would be an impressive work of art anywhere. Yes, we also agree that separation of powers is not the correct answer to this problem, hopefully we will figure out a way to balance our situation. I am not sure, however, that counterpoints in state art should be the answer. The extremities of counterpoints in art and ideas proved to be a terrible problem as I suggested in my first response. Remember, it was the “degenerate art” exhibition of the late 30s that signaled to the public explicitly what good and bad art is, or at least what it ought to be. The resulting counterpoint to the opinions of the Germans was the expulsion of all German art, at least for a while. What I am saying is counterpoints often leads to winners and losers which is bad for art all round. I am not suggesting here that you are explicitly saying that we need “these and not those”, clearly not. But we must be mindful of the implications. Thanks for the post, it’s a very important discussion on Jamaican public art now.

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    • Thanks Phillip. Just one point: what I am arguing is exactly that there should be no winners and losers, but diversity and equity without compromising quality and integrity. Just think of all the public sculptures in NYC and the enormous diversity this represents, and then the depressing sameness here. The problem is that there are too many Pyrrhic victors in the Jamaican art world right now…

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