This year's obligatory row over the Turner prize for art has been kicked off by culture minister Kim Howells, who thinks the whole lot, exhibited at the Tate, "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit." My own knowledge and understanding of visual art is too limited for me to make a judgement on the Turner nominees. But bigger questions are raised.
In all the arts there are fashions which work rather mysteriously, commercial pressures, and "arbiters of taste" - people employed to make decisions about, for example, who gets commissions, who makes a living, what reaches the public. According to friends who are fine artists, the long-standing vogue for "conceptual" art, installations, etc, makes it difficult for old-fashioned painters to get gallery space. And most artists need to sell their work to pay the rent, so they need to make things people (normally, rich people and corporations) will buy. Nothing's really just "art for art's sake."
At least most fine art can be done relatively cheaply. My own area, drama, costs a great deal of money, even at the cheap end, the theatre (assuming you intend to pay the actors, technical staff, director - and the writer). Television and film are very expensive, and somebody has to be persuaded to sign the cheques. Quality alone is rarely persuasive enough - they need to know that audiences will watch it, and although the hoped-for size of the audience varies (five million would be a disaster for ITV, three million a huge success for Channel Four), few broadcasters or film financiers are prepared to take enormous risks. On one level, you can't blame them.
Problems arise when an extremely small number of people (tiny numbers of broadcasting executives, the top people at the Film Council) are making all the decisions, and their commercial criteria are rigid and unimaginative. In the past, the BBC, for example, gave budgets to independent producers to make what they liked - this is how Dennis Potter's television plays got made. Nowadays, forget that.
This often results in "commercial pressures" which mutilate, or at least compromise, the "art". For us creative types, it means finding a way to navigate the rocky waters of commercial pressure while maintaining our integrity. There's an aspect to this which doesn't seem to me all bad: it is reasonable to be asked to consider whether your work is accessible to the public, whether people will understand it, be moved, or if you are just making yourself feel clever. Even revolutionary socialist art (whatever that would be), and art in a socialist society should have to address these questions (I suppose depending on how many resources are being devoted to it). In a way, it's a question of balance.
And I wonder about art which requires you to read the programme notes to understand it. "What is art?" is a big question, but surely at a basic level it is about communicating some emotion, or at least some discernible meaning. Artists (in film and television, too), like to say they want to make their audiences 'uncomfortable', or make them "work", not spoon-feed them, and so on - which is fair enough, though not if the audiences throw up their hands in confusion and despair. For myself, I feel if I haven't bored people I've done something right. If I make them think, or cry, or laugh, all the better. Demanding of them that they do a course in the history of art and know my personal biography would seem a bit much.
In capitalism there is a mechanism for filtering "good" and "bad" art - the market. It's a very imperfect mechanism, as plainly good does not equal commercial. But still, in its imperfect way, it's a mechanism that assures at least a certain standard. (If every script anyone wrote got made into a film, you would long for the days of Rancid Aluminium.) A socialist society would need a different mechanism, but we need to debate what it would be.