Doing it for the greater good: volunteerism in arts and culture

Just recently, in the midst of hysteric austerity measures and in light of radical cuts to state funding of cultural production, the government – in an act of good albeit dark and twisted humour – published a call for artists to participate in this years Statehood Day commemoration without getting paid for it. Supposedly it is an honour, even a privilege and besides that also a convenient way to promote oneself on the market.

Cukrarna, the 19th century sugar factory which still stands on the banks of Ljubljanska river, housed many artists and writers in slum conditions. Photo from wikimedia, open license.

As artists create best when hungry and poor, this offer also figures as a vehicle to push the countries artistic output to a whole new level. You know, the one best witnessed in times of the abandoned sugar factory slash residential slum called Cukrarna in Ljubljana where residents, many of them artists and writers who were later recognised as historically important, lived and died young in appalling living conditions. Such as friends and pioneer Slovene poets Dragotin Kette  [1876 – 1899] and Josip Murn [1879 –1901] who died impoverished at aged 23 and 22 respectively in Cukrarna on the same bed two years apart. A time when an artistic path was heroically paved by tuberculosis and public despise. Which, it must be said, has lately also been one of hegemonic discursive approaches towards artists whose lack of entrepreneurship spirit makes them unable to fill the Stožice hall.

But, sarcasm aside, the (media endorsed) outburst by a number of artists about the government’s arrogance concerning their call for nationally conscious volunteers is somewhat misguidedly aimed and more than a bit late. Forced volunteering, precarious labour, social insecurity and the practise of “investing (time, knowledge, money and youth) for later profits (recognisability and social network ties)” [sic] is the prime disposition upon which the artistic community has been able to create for the last two decades. For every regularly paid member of Slovene Philharmonic Orchestra there have been countless jazz, rock and electronics musicians who were only able to survive through the institution of Hotel Mama, combined with a series of underpaid gigs and occasional grey economy involvements. Even more, for each million of the 40 million Euro odd investment into the extension into the Opera building, there have been countless free-of-charge architectural interventions into Metelkova and Rog autonomous cultural zones (to limit ourselves to just two obvious Ljubljana examples).

Laissez-faire? Ad hoc architectural intervention at Metelkova autonomous cultural precinct in Ljubljana. Photo from free image bank under free licence

Voluntarism is a the prime mover of artistic happenings among peripheral (in other words, contemporary) artistic currents and forms. In part it is so by the mysterious metaphysics of state funding allocation, according to which contemporary artistic forms are not entitled to a comparable treatment as the older, more honourable and bourgeoisie friendly arts (which, if one agrees with a definition that was recently proposed to me, of opera as a machine that for the price of suffering and boredom transforms peasantry into bourgeoisie, are sometimes friendly in a somewhat ambiguous way). But, to leave this digression aside, what the government call implies is a kind of symbolic institutionalisation and even appropriation of voluntarism. What the artists and we, their media support and extension sector, have been doing in good faith of collective gain is gradually being transformed into a somewhat differently accentuated concept named private initiative, which effectively is a complement to the thin (starved) state imaginarium.

Alongside the state upheld apartheid beween the arts and the pervasive market logics there is the third force that needs to be taken into account  – the internet pirate sieges on the 20th century concepts of author’s rights. Although they (well, to be truthful – we) starved out the concept, a new one has not yet seen the light of day, and in the meanwhile the collateral damage is being produced both in terms of fair compensation as well as in terms of quality. In a way, we are destroying professionalism and full time involvement by structurally limiting artistic creativity to amateurism as the dominant mode.

A public discussion was recently organised by the online music magazine Nova Muska, which addressed these three structural dimensions in the context of music journalism. Nothing radically new was discovered, however it was not expected it would be, as the discussion more or less served as an accompaniment to the release of a CD (which is freely available, in Slovene only, via Torrent here), which speaks volumes in itself. It is a collection of 13 years of articles from the Muska [Music], a magazine that featured most of the best music theoreticians, journalists and other writers of its time (1996 to 2009). It was funded by Glasbena mladina Slovenije and it actually paid its contributors; it is said it even was a decent amount. The quality of the articles, the versatility of the writers, the breadth and depth of the whole approach, all of this makes Muska a unique phenomena that one can now look back to with a good amount of nostalgia. It was a sad day when it was replaced with Glasna Magazine and its structural place was – if I may allow myself this harsh judgement – abducted by 19. century arts.

Making 13 years of divergent, original, meticulously crafted and abruptly ended content freely available is in a way a zeitgeist thing. The persistence of the (invented) traditions and their hegemony in popular culture, the free availability of content which denies the categorisation of author’s activity as work and them as workers, and the rabid attack of market lunatics on what many place amongst the high civilisation points of the 20th century; the collision of these three forces with the structural remains of the century past has not yet been resolved and I like to think of the present in terms of “interregnum” – a contested and open-ended time in between.

Voluntarism will probably for at least some time prolong the cultural forms as we know them now. The long term prospects are something else – while an optimistic scenario is still inconceivable and has not yet been formulated in any realistic operational schema, the alternative (the one which does not have an alternative, as they say) can be much more easily imagined. It is embodied in the government’s call on proposals for statehood day commemoration that are “regionally pristine” and represent cultural (folk) customs. It can be seen in the sparse research I’ll be able to commit for the unpaid reviews and interviews which I’ll have to squeeze in between three different jobs in the upcoming month. You can read about the future in Glasna, where portraits of musicians from the past long gone are still being made. And you can suspect it from the associations that come to your mind when I write the phrase ‘degenerate arts’.

Anže Zorman

Our present is a bit more subtle, that at least can be said. The image shows a poster for Entartete Musik (Degenerate music) exhibition of the same name in Dusseldorf, 1938. Wikimedia commons

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