Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Trimming the VAT off Spain’s art market

Does anyone really think the 21-percent tax rate is to blame for what is going on?

Lately, when the Spanish media interview a painter, they have taken to asking what we think of the exorbitant VAT tax on art works. This tax was 21 percent, until the other day when the Cabinet decided to trim it back to 10. It is widely supposed that this disproportionate levy, unique in Europe, is the reason why the Spanish art market is in the doldrums. So I have been invited to opine on this tax, and on the effects it might have on the art market.

As everyone knows, the art market does not exist, never existed and will never exist in our country. It will not exist, even without VAT, and the reasons I would like to advance seem convincing enough, at least to me. It isn’t enough to look at recent years. We have to go back and look at the events and vicissitudes of centuries. Occasions when we irremediably lost our European membership card and thus in the world, such as the exile of the “Frenchified” Spaniards, and the defeat of Napoleon — in which we take such pride.

The Spanish 19th century was barren ground. Unlike Byron, unlike Baudelaire, we were never to scavenge among the dead, on the field of battle after the defeat of Waterloo. Modernity passed us by in front of our noses without turning its head, and nor did we turn ours. Yes, modernity, which is not the same as the “emerging vanguard” and the present great interest in fashion today, the panacea of foppish fools.

I need not belabor what then followed: religious intransigence, underdevelopment, poverty, illiteracy and, above all, cruelty. This foreshadowed the loss of our last colonies, and the closure of the Pyrenees to progress. The Generations of ’98 and of ’27 gave us something, but not much. Then came the reaction of Primo de Rivera, the confused and feeble Republic, the Civil War, exile, repression, isolation and at last the return of light after Franco’s death. A light dimmed by a watered-down Constitution that left essential problems unsolved, and a hierarchical party system. Not to forget, for ridicule’s sake, the movida madrileña. In my own case there was the French Lycée, the Prado, and long expatriate years in France and Italy. In these years I saw a lot of 20th-century painting up front — as opposed to a diffuse memory of bad if useful reproductions in black and white in a Spanish art magazine called Goya — seeing and touching the canvases because in those years they let you see and touch canvases by Picasso, Derain, Giacometti, Ernst, Picabia and others whose existence we had barely heard of.

The art market does not exist, never existed and will never exist in our country

But at this stage of the game, does anyone really think that 21-percent VAT is to blame for what is going on? Not at all. We the artists are to blame — who walk in our sleep, and are disciplined and obedient, deficient in ethics and pride. If we do not respect ourselves, how are we to be respected by an institutional mongrel that passes for a ministry? We are content to suck on the teat of a parochial, regional Erasmus program: subsidized a little, but not much. We subsist on a system of backstabbing competition in the cultural racket, tearing bits of meat off a stripped carcass. Given the run-around by eight years of Zapatero and two of Rajoy. Insulted and ignored by a ministry, and a little culture czar who pretends to know Klee from Kafka; who pretends to read us passages from a tome of Hegel that is really the phone book; who one year forgets to offer the Velázquez Prize, created by his own party, perhaps in the belief that (among the crowd of impecunious artists with their tongues hanging out for it) nobody would notice the difference.

Not without blame, in the second rank, are the dealers who, at the merest financial sneeze, close their galleries, leaving their artists in the lurch, and the few credulous collectors who believed in them; casually liquidating their minimal stock through shady, third-world auction houses. And, as the crowning touch, the art fair ARCO at the head of the racket, with its little parcels of power. A cloudy, shapeless fair, with no course or compass, grown up in the fatuous idea of being the world’s largest art fair after Basel, while in fact the fair’s only real attraction is Madrid, which always draws the provincials and foreigners because they can get drunk at affordable prices and eat a paella at two in the morning. Apropos of the soon-to-be changed 21-percent sales tax, I hear that foreigners prefer to purchase abroad, because it costs less than in the Spanish galleries. And this is true, because the pieces that come here are generally second-class works, already shopworn and rejected in other art forums and consigned on deposit by international dealers “to see if it slips through.” Quite a few galleries come and go: without reputation or history, without deposits of their own, fattened, in the boom years, on public money received in the form of mostly meaningless purchases. The latest item I hear on the grapevine is that 80 percent of the works purchased by the regional government of Andalusia were acquired in a single gallery in Madrid. Further pages could be written of regional museums without content, without works, without collections, or with “emerging” collections, which means much the same. Parochial museums, self-destructive, politicized, based on clientelism (IVAM in Valencia, CGAC in Santiago, MUSAC in León, among others). Serious, competent, independent institutions deserving of the name, are only three in number: the Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Bellas Artes in Bilbao. As for the sometimes amusing jackass exhibitions mounted by the international brigades of visiting curators, who in the boom years peddled new trends to gullible provincial authorities, the limitations of space mercifully provide me with a decent excuse for silence.

Some years ago, when Spain seemed to be doing OK economically, I remember a brilliant article by Julio Llamazares. After a lengthy and systematic enumeration of facts that provoked rage, tears or ridicule, he ended his text with a question that went something like “What am I doing here?” I find myself asking the same question: how do I fit into this picture?

Eduardo Arroyo is a painter.

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