Category Archives: economics

Arts pricing and public funding

Have you ever liked a work of art (and here and here) very much but felt that the community, museum or government that had commissioned it paid too much for it?

This exactly what happened to me when I learned about the 750,000 euros the Flemish people paid for the 2006 water sculpture Diepe Fontein which reflects the façade of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts when full.

A fraction of the money spent (I cannot remember the exact details but if I remember well the proportion was about 10%) was used for the actual production of the piece. The majority of the money went to Spanish contemporary artist Cristina Iglesias (1956, San Sebastián, Spain) who was primarily rewarded for her intellectual property.

This article by Prof. Paul Ilegems (born 1946, curator of the Friet-museum in Antwerp) has the best description of the work. It mentions that the idea to invite Iglesias to design this work was by architect Hilde Daems, together with Paul Robbrecht and Marie-José Van Hee who had been at that time responsible for the re-design of the Leopold De Waelplaats. Ilegems mentions how the work is huftervrij, which is a Dutch term that translates as shitheadproof and denotes vandal proof. Vandalism is a big problem in public space art and it has been of recent interest in Antwerpen. Cel Crabeels’s article on the destruction of Dan Graham’s public space artwork Funhouse for Children (1998) on the Antwerp Sint – Jansplein documents this.

As I mentioned before, the main gripe I have with the work of art is not necessarily the price of it, but the fact that only a small fraction of the cost was for the actual production of the work. I specifically want to compare Diepe Fontein to another 2006 work of art, even if the work I am referring to was ‘only’ an ephemeral performance by a French company who is called Royale de Luxe. They produce the best piece of street theatre I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing: The Sultan’s Elephant. Its performance cost the Antwerp municipality 800,000 euros but the majority of it went to the actual performance (which lasted three days and were extravagant and deeply moving), not just a concept. I saw grown men and women weep with joy and awe. Watch it here if they did not come to your town last summer.

See also the sociology of art and on government funding of art.

Government funding of film

I pity the French Cinema because it has no money. I pity the American Cinema because it has no ideas. –Jean-Luc Godard

Ever since high school, I have been pondering the uses and disuses of government funding of the arts. With regards to film the different policies in Europe and North America have engendered two types of cinema: European art house films and American blockbusters. A quote by a certain David Carr, a libertarian:

Many years ago, not long after I had graduated from law school, I briefly succumbed to a rather silly conviction that I was a cultural barbarian and this state of affairs could be addressed by becoming an afficianado of European cinema. I should admit that this conviction was in no small measure driven by the belief that being au fait with the work of European film-makers was a surefire way to impress the girlies.

So I started to spend much of my free time ferreting out art-house independent cinemas (of the kind that sold organic brownies in the foyer instead of popcorn) and sat through endless hours of turgid, narcolepsy-inducing, state-funded, navel-gazing about the tortured psychological relationship between a middle-aged sub-postmaster and his trotskyite revolutionary girlfriend in the seedy hostel they share with a couple of Vietnamese refugees on the outskirts of Hamburg. Or something.

These films have all amalgamated in my mind and I cannot remember the name of even a single one. After about six months, I decided that no woman was worth this level of constipation so I threw the towel in and went back to watching simplistic sci-fi blockbusters and gangster movies.

While I find Carr’s position particularly barbaric, I can understand his irritation at some European directors who excel at pompousness, seriousness and pretentiousness. Also, there seems to be no popular European cinema. Dyer and Vincendeau have argued in the early nineties that the only European popular cinema is US cinema. But surely, there has been a European popular cinema in the sixties and seventies?

On different note David Lynch is someone (whose films I like) who seems to be working within this paradigm of European artsiness and I wonder: are his films making money? Where does one find this kind of info. Here?

Also, government funding is tied in with the concept of cultural significance, the rationale being that a government can fund the cultural significant products of tomorrow.

The cinematic Losfeld

Anatole Dauman: Argos films : souvenir-écran (1989) – Anatole Dauman, Jacques Gerber
[FR] [DE] [UK]

One aspect of the history of the art of filmmaking remains largely unwritten. The financial aspects of filmmaking, namely the history of producers and distributors of films. Compared to the book industry, the film industry is infinite times more capital intensive. So while it is easy, almost risk-free and relatively cheap to write a novel that satisfies minority tastes, to produce a film that caters to minority audiences requires much more money and is a much riskier undertaking. Tyler Cowen was the first to point out this rather obvious but often overlooked aspect of filmmaking in his book In Praise of Commercial Culture which deals with the economics of culture production and consumption.

But what is a film producer? A film producer’s job is analogous to that of a publisher in the book industry: he finances the final product, a cultural artifact. But what is a film distributor? A film distributor is someone who buys the rights to a certain film in order to distribute it in his own country or region. Typically, he will have to market the film, provide subtitles for it and find screening opportunities. The analogy in book publishing is the role of a foreign publishing house that translates a book and distributes/markets it in its own territory.

Both a producer and a distributor try to reconcile the art of commerce and taste. In matters of taste I always embrace the heady nobrow cocktail of high art, eroticism, horror, philosophy, experimentalism, counterculture, subversion and avant-garde. This mix is a minority taste, I am well aware of that but some people have tried to cater to people of my (but more importantly their) taste. In publishing, this person is best exemplified by French publisher Eric Losfeld.

So I wonder: who is the Eric Losfeld of cinema?

In search of Losfeld’s cinematic alter ego I want to highlight the careers of film producers and/or distributors such as Anatole Dauman in France; Antony Balch and Richard Gordon in the U. K.; Roger Corman, Ben Barenholtz and Radley Metzger in North America. These entrepreneurs ran businesses that have provided us with films that mix high and low culture or have financed their high art productions with the proceeds of their more commercial and exploitative ventures.

Consider then the entrepeneurs listed above as the beginning of an ongoing quest for the cinematic Losfeld which I hope to continue over the coming months. One name that comes to mind is Germany’s Bernd Eichinger, who has produced cinematical adaptations of literary fiction by well regarded authors such as Süskind, Umberto Eco, Ian Mc Ewan and Houellebecq as well as more exploitative films such as Christiane F. and Resident Evil. Eichinger has also announced he would be making a film about the left-wing terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF).

Please feel free to comment if you know of distributors/producers who fit the ‘cinematic Losfeld’ description.