Art, Politics & Society

Developing A New Understanding Of Art’s Role In Civil Society

 Header Image: “Ode” by IAMFAKE – NDSM AMSTERDAM

“Whenever I hear the world ‘culture’ I reach for my revolver” – Friedrich Thiemann

In a context of uncertainties particularly touching the artistic industries, one can wonder how the post-COVID-19 scene will look like for the arts. Since March, nearly “every element of the arts and culture landscape has changed […] including how art is created, consumed and monetized.” (American Artscape 2020: 1) In this new setting, it is interesting to go back once again to core debates on the role of art and its relevance for civil society.

What should the arts contribute to a democratic society and what is the proper role of government with respect to the arts?

Let’s unfold three long-standing polarities at stake in the art world: Government vs. Market, Freedom vs. Authority, and Provocation vs. Decadence. 

Government vs. Market

The first ‘raging war’ when looking at the role of the arts for civil society is the function of government funding. The classical argument of its proponents highlights a tough reality: many deserving and talented artists and organizations do not have the necessary means to survive without the help of public administrations. As a civic mission, it is perceived to be a fair investment in priceless intellection creation – which should not be subjected to Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market economy.

However, this point of view is largely contested by actors with a more ‘social Darwinian view’. In fact, the market provides an efficient way to sort out which artists ‘deserve’ to survive and/or are worth investing in. Especially, an argument treasured by some of our Northern American counterparts questions the moral justification of art funding through tax policy (which could lead to the imposition of art costs on unwilling taxpayers without their consent). 

Both sides might have their pros and cons and finding an answer to this longstanding debate is highly dependent on time and place. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look at both with a critical stand. While government funding ignores a potential democratic deficit (which art should thrive and why - according to those that pay for it), the proponents of market efficiency tend to forget the cultural deficits of capitalistic economies favoring profit over greater diversity. 

Freedom vs. Authority

A second debate in defining art’s role in civil society is the question of freedom which reflects a larger shift in political, economic, and cultural terrain. 

Especially, to what extent government-administered projects, state-funded works, and publicly accessible exhibitions should provide full freedom of expression or support national/political values for greater social cohesion? 

Proponents of full freedom of expression couch their case in law and artistic rights where everyone has the right to pursue his/her artistic project. Yet, on the other side of the debating table, things look very different. Advocates of ‘traditional’ or ‘national’ values aim for the government’s art funding to promote an overarching public discourse for greater social cohesion. This is particularly vivid in the United States to this day with a specific emphasis on the government’s supposed role in inculcating moral standards or inspire religious devotion. For instance, the American National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) faced profound critic from cultural and government officials for supporting controversial arts challenging traditional values in the 1990s. (Zuidaart 2011:10)

Once again, this normative question brings philosophical complexities to the front and enhance the debate on art’s role for civil society: should it be seen as a mean of unlimited expression or as a platform to foster greater values of national/social ‘togetherness’ (the latter being highly dependent on its political, religious or philosophical definition)? 

Barbara Kruger, "Untitled (We Don't Need Another Hero)", 1987

Provocation vs. Decadence 

So far, it is clear that art advocates face many intertwined problems. But this takes another complexity layer in the context of the third normative debate: provocation vs. decadence.

In fact, images of arts — particularly contemporary arts — are seen as either a necessary provocative challenge to the status quo or as a ‘portrayal of decadence’ threatening the good conduct of civilization. Strong rhetoric supports both sides highlighting a greater normative wicked problem.

As highlighted by C. Carr already in the 1990s, unique works singled out by polemics are usually portrayed as proof of underlying "chaos, dissolution […] polluted culture left to fester and stink." (Caar, 1990:231)

On the other side of the table, the image of contemporary artists as provocative challengers of the status quo is widely present. At the cutting edge of artistic expression, artists are also perceived as question raisers to highlight the contradictions and taboos of our societies. By transgressing established conceptions, they open a “progressive pathfinder for the perpetual negation of established boundaries.” (Zuidaart 2011:11) 

Thus, core debates are still on the table. Developing a new understanding of the art’s role in civil society is a question that still needs to be uncovered and re-conceptualized as time and place shift and as social/political perspectives evolve. Because of COVID-19, new waves of innovation and ingenuity (but also experimentation) with digital spaces are taking place. It might be interesting to pay attention to these three long-standing debates and see what the next evolution in art’s role for civil society might entail. 



American Artscape (2020). The Arts in the Time of COVID, no.3,

Carr, C. (1990). ‘War on Arts’, Village Voice, June 5th, p. 231.

NAAPP. (n.d.). Art in Crisis: the National Endowment for the Arts vs. America,

Zuiderwaart, L. (2011). Art in Public: Politics, Economics and a Democratic Culture. Cambridge,the United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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