On the consequences of privatizing culture.
IN DAVID FOSTER WALLACE’S 1,100-PAGE NOVEL Infinite Jest, calendar months have been sold to corporate sponsors as a part of the Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time™ initiative. The novel begins with “The Year of the Whopper” and most of the story takes place during “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.”
Wallace finished Infinite Jest in 1996, but it has proven to be disturbingly prescient. New Yorkers, for instance, don’t think twice about running in the “ING New York City Marathon” or taking the subway to “Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center” or riding “Citi Bikes.” Or more simply, Anglophones say Dumpster, Kleenex, Frisbee, and Xerox without reflecting on the corporate hegemony these proprietary eponyms imply. We haven’t quite gotten to calling shoes “nikes” as in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas nor do we swap out “God” for “Ford” (“Oh Ford!”) as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And yet, it doesn’t seem entirely impossible.
The ideological force of American and British neoliberalism means that when something popular needs funding, you can count on a corporation sweeping in to lend its money and its name. The Metropolitan Museum’s corporate sponsor list is laughably long with names like Alamo Rent-a-Car and the Gilman Paper Company butting up against multinational enterprises like AT&T and Bank of America. American sports are also mired in sponsorship: the San Diego Padres baseball team plays in PETCO Park and New York City’s soccer team is named the Red Bulls after the energy drink.
France, however, has long prided itself on escaping cultural sponsorship. Their culture budget is one of the highest in the world. Throughout the whole country and all of her territories, France reports a 2013 budget of 7.6billion euros (or 9.5 billion dollars) on culture and the arts. By contrast, the United States’ most recent budget called for 1.6 billion dollars towards culture — the same as Italy’s budget. To better compare, France spends about 146 dollars on culture per person while the U.S. spends about 5 dollars per person.
And yet, France’s public cultural institutions are still at risk of being privatized. Aurélie Filippetti, the youthful French culture minister, resigned in August 2014 amidst complaints of a slashed budget. In an open letter to President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls she cited an “unprecedented decline in the budget of the Ministry of Culture,” as her principle reason for leaving the French government. Tellingly, her replacement is Fleur Pellerin, a woman educated exclusively in business (she attended the École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et commerciales and the École nationale d’administration). Pellerin has been quoted assaying she “reads very little” and has been oft-critiqued as the antithesis of culture in France’s highest cultural position.
No culture is of course entirely immune to private sponsorship. Multinational corporations like Dow, Total, and Deloitte sponsor the Louvre, and the Musée Picasso courted corporate sponsors after going 22 billion euros over budget in its restoration. Yet, corporate sponsorship has been kept to a minimum in France with the help of government funding. And, when private funds have indeed been needed, their use is kept relatively quiet. At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, you’ll find large signs like “This exhibition is made possible by The Tiffany & Co. Foundation” and the “Bank of America Sponsor’s Forward” precedes the Director’s Forward in the exhibition catalog. The Louvre, on the other hand, has no such programs.
Although it seems inevitable that a globalized, open market ethos will eventually take over European culture, the French have recently expedited the process. At a two-day gathering in August at a chateau in Jouy-en-Josas, Prime Minister Valls demonstrated just how much France wants to work with the private sector. “I know that it’s customary to oppose the left and business,” he said to a group of powerful businessmen, “but France needs you.” To great applause, he added, “I love business.” This sort of rhetoric is a far cry from Hollande’s famous quote as a candidate less than three years ago when he said, “Who is my adversary? It is the world of finance!”
Only two months after Valls’ speech, France cultural privatization hit its landmark moment. The Louis Vuitton Foundation opened in late-October, and the museum, which cost 135 million dollars to build under the direction of celebrity architect Frank Gehry, will serve as a place for the public to view the private collection of Bernard Arnault, the billionaire CEO of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. Its opening was met with great fanfare, and yet one must wonder what the ramifications of a public museum under a private sponsor’s name really are?
Culture is sacred because it is one of the few remaining realms typically free from branding and sponsorship. Walk down the street of any major city and you are immediately thrown into a web of consumerism: advertisements on walls, billboards, and telephone booths; storefronts with familiar company names and logos; people carrying brand-name bags, wearing brand-name clothes, coming out of brand-name stores. Often it feels like the only way to escape brands and advertisements is to put in headphones and stare down at the ground. The space where this madness is relieved is in art galleries, at the ballet, the orchestra, the museum — in the sacred realm of arts and culture.
The privatization and sponsorship of culture is therefore disturbing because it is emblematic of a future where even our most sacred realms can be co-opted by corporations. Thus it feels like an attack on the culture that we hold dear when a building billing itself as a collection of art can be exclusively controlled by a company best known for its “LV”-branded bags and suitcases. It should be said, of course, that Arnault and any other art-loving billionaire has every right to open a museum to the public. In many ways, it could be seen as a charitable contribution. And yet two problematics arise.
Firstly, private museums are set up for, perhaps, charity but also for vanity and for tax breaks. As long as formal ownership is ceded (even if de facto control is retained) large tax breaks and financial implications come the owner’s way. When the owners of private museums would rather not cede control — such as with Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi, the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, Shanghai’s Zendai Museum, and La Colección Jumex in Mexico City — the collections often come to represent a single-minded interest rather than the universalist impulse that is the basis of the encyclopedic museum.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, as private museums become more popular in France and other nations with typically state-governed arts and culture, the private influence on museum practice — de-accessioning, reciprocity in loans — will only increase. Although private museums are required to meet the same standards and policies of public museums, one must wonder whether private owners will simply view their museums as an extension of their own private property and will therefore run them as such, changing or ignoring important, preexisting laws?
It would be naïve to believe that the public would be willing to pay higher taxes so that corporations and private sponsorships are kept out of the cultural equation. In the U.S., for instance, Americans have made Wal-Mart a corporate superpower by prioritizing lower prices over the ethical downside of corporate hegemony and the death of small businesses. To think that Americans, and with the economic troubles and austerity plaguing Europe, Europeans as well would hold arts and culture in a higher esteem would be a misunderstanding of what makes humans tick. And yet we must be weary of the slippery slope leading to the privatization of all arts and culture, where there is truly no escape from corporate hegemony and sponsors’ names.
The private sponsorship of culture and the arts is, at its core, good business. And yet it is business just the same.
This article originally appeared on Medium for Human Parts
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