Speaking at last night’s Paul Hamlyn Foundation Awards for Artists event, award-winning author Jeanette Winterson OBE has criticised the government for cuts in arts funding and called for a tax on art sales with the money raised going towards funding art spaces and artists.

Referencing both this week’s sale of Modigliani’s Reclining Nude at Christie’s New York for $170m, and Southwark Council’s rejection of Second Home and Bold Tendencies plan to create 800 artists spaces in an old multi-storey carpark in Peckham, Winterson made an impassioned plea for the value of art to be recognised in society.

“We live in a mad world,” she said. “On the one hand a Chinese tycoon pays over £100m for an elongated nude painted by a man who died penniless in Paris at 35. On the other hand London is so expensive that artists have nowhere to work, and when a chance like Bold Home comes along, the council that has the power to change things runs behind the net curtains and says it doesn’t want a commune — whatever that is.”

She continued: “I wish that Chinese tycoon had gifted his $170m to an arts foundation providing space for artists to work. I wish we had a tax of 1% on art sales — and by that I mean 1% on the buyer and 1% on the seller, and 1% on the auction house or gallery commission. And use the money to fund art spaces — to buy buildings across the world to be held in trust and kept in perpetuity as working spaces — the problem being, as you know, that all those run down wharves and warehouses, factories and lock-ups, are being turned into residential property for people who live somewhere else.”

On money and the real value of art, she said: “I think a lot of people would agree we’ve got our values all wrong. Everybody needs a decent place to live, an education that inspires their mind, work that is either interesting or at least a means to an end without having to be a zero hours non-union bullshit job. Some safety, some security, yet, all over the world those ordinary things don’t happen or are becoming scarce —and the planet goes on paying the price of our bad management and lack of vision.

“I look around and I see arts funding cut everywhere… At every point, arts leaders are asked to make the economic case for the arts — a case that is easy to make because the numbers add up — but we are more hesitant when it comes to talking about the centrality of art in everyone’s lives — which is really about a re-alignment of values.

“A work of art — a piece of music, that theatre play, that book, that installation you see today gone tomorrow, is worth nothing and everything. It is because we have no way of valuing these things that the sums are always ridiculous — too small, too big, see-sawing round in the only currency we understand — money.”

Shrine-like galleries

Winterson went on to argue that, while problematic, the art market is also an indication of the non-monetary value of art. “The huge price tag visual art attracts and the way we fetishise it — the shrine-like nature of galleries, the flocks of people coming to look and the secretive bespoke private views, these things are clues — not to what money can buy, but to what money can’t buy.

“The higher the price the more desperate we are to possess this thing that money can’t buy. Superficially it is about status and wealth, but beneath all of that is the strange and magic and talisman-like presence of art. In this object — we think — must be some truth that we are missing — or that we can get near to by getting to the work of art.”

Turning to the business of the night and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s support for artists, she said that “no matter how much it sells for — no matter how it is co-opted by the rich as a status symbol — [art] is always and everywhere about the human condition. The Who Am I? What am I? And always about the essential creativity of human beings…

“Paul Hamlyn understood that. He gave his money to support the invisible world that needs to be made visible every day. And at a time when migrants are being vilified in the press… let’s remember that Paul Hamlyn, the German Jew, came to Britain, built a business, and he is why we are here tonight.

“Honour his legacy by doing what he wanted you to do — make things, create things, be bold in your vision. And if you make any money — give some back.”

Read the full transcript of Jeanette Winterson’s speech at www.phf.org.uk

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