The arts are us

The reasons to reinstate the percentage for the arts in the architecture

Supporters of the law that would allocate one to four percent of the public works budget for the arts are convinced that quality contemporary art in the public space has positive impact on the social, economic, and mental development of the specific place. The Czech ministry of culture is currently discussing the law.

Initiated by the Skutek association that facilitates interests of Czech artists, members of the parliament and the ministry of culture are debating the possibility of reinstating the so called arts tax. The association’s primary political partners are the deputy Martina Berdychová and the Green party leader, Matěj Stropnický. As a result of this long-term initiative, the ministry of culture supports the proposal and the head of the arts department Milan Němeček said at the beginning of this year that passing the law is a prioritized part of the legislative plan of the ministry and simultaneously a state commitment in the area of cultural politics for the 2015 to 2020 period. But we are far from successfully accomplishing the issue.


Cultural heritage


The installment of arts in the public space is a cultural tradition since antique civilizations and has always been an important part of resident life since it reflected their esthetic, urbanist, political, social and representative needs and sentiments. The Czech capital historical heritage, for example, is regarded as a significant example of connecting the urban public space and fine arts worldwide, and it is its staged urban landscape that it is on the list of the UNESCO world heritage. But there were never as many arts competitions and commissions of the social character in the Prague history as in the period from 1960s through 1980s. The huge number of commissions was made possible by the subpart 5 of the act concerning the so called four percent tax on the arts. This mandated that every state building donated one to four percent of the overall budget to an implementation of arts as part of the building. After the church, the feudal, and the national bourgeoisie gave up their traditional role of sponsors, most western European states and North American cities adopted the same principle. Within this framework, about 2.500 arts projects were undertaken in Prague between 1965 and 1991. The vast majority of them are from some of the best regarded creators of the second half of the 20th century. After 1991 with the end of the state support of the fine arts in the public space, official commissions were significantly reduced. The withdrawal of state support, deregulation of urbanism and privatization of the public space reflected the neoliberal ideology while the West went on to continue in the tried method of percentages for the arts even after the end of the cold war. Between 1991 and 2915 only 59 official art works were installed in the Czech capital, most of them works of rather poor quality. The contemporary works of good quality include the sculptures of Kurt Gebauer in Prokopské údolí or Memento mori by Krištof Kintera under the Nuselský most, which must be said was pushed through and paid for by the authors themselves. There are almost no examples of good quality contemporary arts in Prague from the period after the Velvet revolution. Without qualified committees and public competitions, officials and politicians without adequate education make decisions to select works that fit into the conservative sentiments of uninformed political representation while at the same time visual arts have come a long way since the end of modernism.


Transparent tenders


We believe that the solution of this unfortunate situation is in passing a legislation that mandates a necessity to spend one to four percent of the overall budget of a public work for its arts composition or its space composition. The law does not concern merely material support of the arts. The main issue is that there are quality works. For that reason, a regulation, ordinance, law, depending on whether it concerns the city or state level, includes its inseparable executive instructions. In the first instance it is the requirement of transparent tenders that will be decided by committees composed by a representative of the state urban administration, the works architect, and the future user of the work and by the experts on theory and practice of fine arts and architecture. To define the social role of fine arts in the public space is very difficult just as it is impossible to describe the role of the arts in society in general terms. This role changes depending on the approach of specific authors as well as the ordering entity, usually politicians. It means that this is also dependent in the political situation. We can say that every period the official arts in the public space reflects, similarly to the architecture, the political and societal situation. According to Ludvík Hlaváček, the arts culture theorist, every art is political in that sense that it opens up a perspective into social relations. But this doesn't mean that democracies should give in to the political orders from the top. It rather means that we should strive for the strongest impact of the interested public, both lay and expert. It is necessary to involve the expert public in the processes of making the art part of the public space and give preference to those  who will have an impact and involve wider public. But we should not by any means populistically give in to a mainstream taste of the lay public. This inappropriate approach was encouraged by the socialist realism of 1959s when the arts followed political orders and the seeming needs of the broadest public. The new leading administration after 1989 set off on the same course - in the absence of tenders, works that focused on simplified understanding were being chosen, seeking examples much in the same way that the social realism in the historicism of the 19th century did. Contemporary works in the public space should rather be truly contemporary and demanding so as to educate the residents. Speculative populistic attractions can be left to commercial projects. In short, the present way of placing the arts, the role of the public space and planned approach of the users must be reconsidered in the complex structured present day society and changing urban space. 


Emphasizing Genius Loci


If we strive for a political way of recreating the percentage system for the arts, we first need to talk about the function of the arts within the public space and emphasize the reasons for why the city, or the state, should support the creation of contemporary fine arts in the public space. For example we can highlight its social functions - the ability to change urban residents’ perspective, open, pinpoint and thus also help solve certain contemporary problems and offer a non-mainstream view. We cannot neglect its function as prevention of crime and social pathological behavior. There has been a number of sociological studies that address our generally shared experience that the cultural niveau of the public space is a crucial tool for the elimination of negative expressions connected to the aggression among people and concerning possession, that it is educational tool that works with positive motivation. It helps to insert behavioral frameworks for its users leading to lowering the expenses connected to preservation and maintenance.  To put it differently, few people spit on the church ground. A well thought out architectural and artistic interpretation enables the users to identify themselves with the place and eases spatial orientation. Last but not least it is necessary to remind that investing into quality art gains fast returns and generates long time revenues. The ability of the arts to lend attractiveness to urban localities, attract people and thus support the trade is well known and widely utilized in surrounding European states. Tourists from all over the world visit Prague to explore its sites and contemporary art works would surely attract these tourists as well. The revitalization of the periphery, racially and socially segregated spaces or so far under used parters has a decisive positive economic and social impact. This however does not exhaust all aspects of the impact of the arts in the public space since it is difficult to encompass the major ones. But we can describe them in the sense that art plays a crucial role in creating genius loci. It is that genius loci that is the reason for why some spaces offer inspiration and people like spending time there whereas other places are lacking. The percentage for the arts system offers one of the most important tested tools for a targeted cultivation of the public space. 


The author is a sculptor and member of the Skutek association.


Translated by Dáša Frančíková.