Retort#6 Subsidised sponsoring

The fact that the renowned American weekly The New Yorker, less than five months after the death of Aaron Swartz, is using the tool he developed, Strongbox – an open source dropbox in which anonymous ‘leakage’ can be made to the editorial staff – is a good reason to go into the work of this young computer programmer and writer. Swartz committed suicide in January of this year at the age of 26. After illegally downloading millions of scientific articles – which he believes should be accessible to the public, but which in reality can only be seen after payment – he was followed by the FBI and an army of lawyers and was confronted with a 35-year penalty and a fine of $1 million. These disproportionate consequences of his action are directly linked to the suicide of the young internet activist. Whereas the impact of his action was previously overshadowed by the personal drama, we are now – with some reluctance – going over that personal and legal side of the drama in order to be able to discuss what Swartz’s action means to us as visual artists, to the cultural climate in the Netherlands and to the discussion about its subsidization.


"As artists, we also create work and generate knowledge that is financed with taxpayers' money." 

Aaron Swartz fiercely fought for open access, for universal access to knowledge – as the basis for an open and critical society – and certainly if that knowledge is paid for with taxpayers’ money. As artists, we also create work and generate knowledge that is financed with taxpayers’ money. This applies to the cultural sector in the Netherlands, of course to educational and knowledge institutes, but also to health care, for example. The special distinction that Swartz revealed with his action: the separation between ‘types’ of knowledge on the basis of their financing, with public or private money, also appeals to us. And raises the question of what would happen if these flows of money were to be intertwined, a question that is currently emerging from politics?

As artists, we ourselves have carried out artistic research within our work with great passion and dedication. The result is knowledge and aesthetics, most of which have been financed, directly or indirectly, by public money. The results did not end up in a public library, but in our studio. They are available to anyone who wants to pay to buy or borrow the work for an exhibition. Just like in the scientific articles, this work is actually behind a ‘payment wall’. Although this lack of publicity was reason enough to call into question subsidization and support for the individual artist, this public funding can be legitimized if the cultural subsidies are seen as a financial breeding ground for a general cultural climate. In this sense, the individuals and the knowledge they create contribute to a greater whole: the construction of the knowledge that serves society.

Accessibility to a single scientific article is not necessarily relevant to the layman, because it is too complicated, too much technical language, too detailed. This is particularly interesting for colleagues who want to further develop a discipline. The same applies to the accessibility of a single work of art, which is also surrounded by jargon, elitist, difficult to fathom, and especially intended for colleagues. It is only in the second instance that the ‘average citizen’ shares the benefit of the development of the work of art. That is, if the knowledge and aesthetic innovation acquired is made transparent and is given a place in the public domain by means of a trickle-down (or trickle-up) effect. In short, a subsidy system serves the general interest.

"In this sense, the individuals and the knowledge they create contribute to a greater whole: the construction of the knowledge that serves society."

Private financing, on the other hand, mainly serves a private interest. Whether it concerns the purchase of a ticket at the counter of a museum or theatre, a commercial interest in sponsoring or the enjoyment of private ownership of a work of art by a famous artist of which you are one of the discoverers. When it comes to private financing, the first question in the light of this article should, of course, be: is the knowledge financed in this way also generally available? And in the event that a project has been financed partly privately and partly publicly? What proportion of the knowledge generated is then available and what proportion is not?

Where cultural subsidies support the generic art climate, the commercial market focuses on one chosen party and thus picks out the currants. There is nothing wrong with that. Both positions, however opposite they may be, are indispensable. The fundamental question here is whether it would not be better for the two to continue to operate as separate forces.

Aaron Swartz just saw that. His action to download millions of articles shows that scientific work cannot be financed on the basis of the individual needs of citizens or companies alone. That rich citizen, or that company, is never sufficiently wealthy to adequately support an entire field, be it scientific or cultural. For the common good, we need the massiveness of the taxpayer. Just like science, art and the cultural field require a critical mass in order to arrive at sensible reflection. That is easy to justify to the taxpayer. The taxpayer must be able to continue to see the results of our thoughts, while the collector or patron must continue to believe in our exclusivity. That is a split, but an indispensable one.

"Just like science, art and the cultural field require a critical mass in order to arrive at sensible reflection." 

The unforgivable legal wrangling against Swartz and his fellow-sufferers makes it almost impossible to continue to see the content of their work, and to be able to translate their actions in a serious but light tone into something as socially relevant as the Dutch art subsidy system. The battle over accessibility versus ‘payment wall’ and public versus private must be fought openly and not by lawyers and the judiciary. Science and art used to be something to die for, but in today’s society there should be better solutions for that.

Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum

About Esther Polak & Ivar van Bekkum

Esther Polak is an artist who works in the field of new media. Together with Ivar van Bekkum she forms the artist duo Polak van Bekkum.