Art Under Austerity

Returning to Spain, a journalist and critic maps responses to the economic crisis and its historical points of origin.

Images courtesy of Juan Tiagues

What’s Spanish about the economic crisis in Spain? The shocks experienced by Ireland, Greece, and Portugal produce similar images on the news. Angry, bewildered people who had been persuaded they lived in bust-proof economies suddenly faced with losing the essentials for a dignified existence; marches, sometimes riots; impassive government ministers repeating that there is no alternative. But the national crises have developed in distinctly shaped historical containers, and exacerbate particular sets of problems. In Spain in the 1970s, a hastily constituted democracy threw itself with reckless euphoria into a development model based on tourism, construction, and finance, with the added boost of cheap credit, to become the eighth economy in the world by the late 1990s. When the construction bubble burst in 2007, just as the global crisis was breaking, every domino came crashing down, leaving banks, households, businesses, and the government indebted to the tune of $1.25 trillion, the state held ransom by bond markets.

I lived in Spain during the fat years of 1997 through 2004, working in the art world amid what seemed an avid, chaotic, and strangely depthless culture, less a country than a mosaic of ambitions and insularities. In September, I went to look behind the news at longer processes, consulting people seldom heard, perhaps: neither IMF mouthpieces nor the most devastated victims of the crisis, but those engaged with the mind and the arts, who I found plowing on amid growing desertification.

Spain has been through so much, and in such a relatively short time, that the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 can seem almost obliterated by the extremes of experience since. Yet the closeness of those days was brought home to me in Madrid when I met Laura García Lorca, the poet’s niece and director of the García Lorca Foundation. Youthful in her late fifties, she looks shockingly like Federico, with the same black almond eyes and seagull-wing brows. When the family returned from exile in 1967, she shared her rock albums with modernity-starved classmates amid a ferment of idealism and hope. But now “I feel angry in my Spanishness”: the culture is “careless,” as she put it, mentioning the Mediterranean coast (an unbroken fringe of ugly holiday homes that not even the British can afford anymore). We met in the Residencia de Estudiantes, the legendary college where Lorca, Dalí, and Buñuel studied in the 1920s under a band of visionary academics who resigned from Catholic universities to import the best of European humanities and science to Spain.

When the bonanza came along, many [private citizens] were unschooled, cash-poor property owners; 60 percent of homes were privately owned by 1970, thanks to Franco’s desire for a country of “proprietarios, no proletarios.”

Such training would be unthinkable today, and education was a major issue for the people I spoke to. Religious schools, which took over again under Franco, remain powerful. Secular schooling after the 1978 transition has been poor—developing neither critical thought nor scientific skills—even when there was money to burn on it. One art collector ventured that materialism had made education worse than in his day, the 1960s, when at least a reverence for great works was imparted. A younger poet said that all the intelligent people he knew were autodidacts. “There is no tradition of an enlightened bourgeoisie here,” said Laura. “Our political class is distrustful of culture.” It must also despise it: value added tax on cultural activity was just raised from 8 to 21 percent, foreseeably crippling the whole sector—including prestige outfits like Madrid’s Teatro Real, whose opera productions were already too experimental for its patrons, according to Laura. But fútbol and bullfighting were spared, said Miguel Aguilar, publisher of the imprint Debate, adding dryly: “They’d get a lot more revenue there.” The difference is that fútbol and bullfighting are regarded by the central authorities as profound expressions of the popular “Spanish” soul (fútbol is notoriously the one setting where the national flag does not offend the regions). Museums, performing arts, and galleries have been officially reclassified, taxed as “entertainment.”

The crisis of democracy, common to other European countries where public spending is being throttled at the behest of “markets” while politicians plead helplessness, is compounded in Spain by the eternal tension between the center and the regions.

There was a cynical awareness in the art world, when I lived in Seville around the turn of the millennium, that public administrations saw culture, especially its infrastructure, as a tool for influence-peddling and ostentation—though we were all eager to benefit from the largesse of grants and jobs. Now the philistinism of the boom years has been laid bare by the crisis. Both central and regional governments are slashing funding for education, research, and innovation by an average of 60 percent—100 percent, in the case of library funding. The famously unused airstrip at Castellón airport, and Galicia’s huge, stunning but idle Cidade da Cultura, are casualties of the same order.

The left felt that the “Pact of Silence” that ruled out any settling of scores after the death of Franco allowed the dictatorship’s tycoons to carry on as usual (think Emilio Botín of Banco Santander).

As for private citizens, when the bonanza came along, many were unschooled, cash-poor property owners; 60 percent of homes were privately owned by 1970, thanks to Franco’s desire for a country of “proprietarios, no proletarios.” In recent years, with the combination of low interest rates, rising housing prices, and a flood of foreign goods, many were easily persuaded by lenders and politicians to throw their parents’s frugality to the wind. Acquisitiveness and materialism became the norm. Some blamed the elites (regional politicians were in cahoots with developers and also ran the local cajas de ahorro, which financed much of the reckless infrastructure spending and sub-prime mortgages before going bust). Others felt that individuals should admit responsibility, since the spendthrift politicians were invariably voted back in. Those who weren’t tempted feel smug. Manuel Navacerrada, an art collector who runs a small business that remains afloat “because we didn’t get into debt,” voiced a commonly held opinion: “People lost their heads in a sea of easy things that had nothing to do with their personal growth. They weren’t educated to manage their desires, or foresee the consequences of debt. It’s like drug dependence.” Another factor, Miguel Aguilar pointed out, was the recovery of imperial pride. “From 1492 to 1898, Spain was a hegemonic empire. To become once more a rich country, the success story of the EU, was to reclaim our place in the world.” He recalled noticing that from around 2003, speculators large and small were aware, deep down, of impending disaster. Their reaction was a stampede to make one last killing.


None of this could have been anticipated in 1975 when Communist, social democratic, conservative, and Fascist leaders had to agree on a system fast, assuaging military anxieties on one side and regional nationalisms on the other. The task was not made easier by social tumult, as Spain fast-forwarded to northern Europe’s level of post-war development: salaries up 20 percent, perilous inflation, general strikes. “The transition was about engaging with all this effervescence and controlling it,” said the sociologist and economist Isidro López. The left felt that the “Pact of Silence” that ruled out any settling of scores after the death of Franco allowed the dictatorship’s tycoons to carry on as usual (think Emilio Botín of Banco Santander). The right laments what one person described to me as the “exclusion” of far-right interests from the post-Franco dispensation: as a result malign nationalisms have thrived and destabilized the whole edifice. Everyone agrees that the compromise put together in the aftermath of dictatorship has outlived its usefulness. But the crisis of democracy, common to other European countries where public spending is being throttled at the behest of “markets” while politicians plead helplessness, is compounded in Spain by the eternal tension between the center and the regions.

The decision to organize the country into seventeen Autonomous Communities, a step short of the fully federal structure that was originally envisaged, has left the central state open to the escalating demands of competitive ACs. In the absence of a Territorial Senate, they are run by local overlords and assemblies as jealous of one another and recalcitrant to central authority as they have been for centuries. These structures became ever more bloated (yet how else could jobs be created, after the deindustrialization demanded by Europe?) and frequently corrupt. The system’s flaws are clearer now that the Government is demanding regional deficit reductions, and placing stark conditions on its credit lines to ACs excluded by the markets.

The “historical nationalities” of Galicia, Catalunya, and Euskadi were fast-tracked to AC status. But after Andalucía took to the streets in 1977, the state caved and granted “coffee all around”—the same level of self-government to every region. This left the big three battling to manifest their difference, not least from one another: the latest spat was Catalunya’s demand for the same fiscal privileges as Euskadi, on pain of secession. Catalan President Artur Mas has taken advantage of a popular wave of patriotism, brought to a head by recession and cuts (which he blames on “Spain,” despite the fact that his party was alone in supporting Madrid’s bailout and austerity package in July). He has called early elections and invoked “a people’s will to exist”—he avoids the word “independence”—that can only serve to harass the government and steal votes from the old separatist party, Esquerra Republicana.

The business community has threatened to leave en masse if actual steps to independence are taken. Apparently, Mas reassured them privately that he’s only thinking of unincorporated status, like Puerto Rico. A further inconvenience is that Catalunya would have to depart the EU along with Spain. Catalans, tired of their taxes being “looted” by the state and given away to partying Andalusians, would find their debts, already stratospheric, to go cosmic outside the euro. Independence would also mean goodbye to economies of scale and the introduction of tariff barriers by their chief trading partner, Spain. Uneasiness and political grandstanding in Catalunya are the most conspicuous evidence that the territorial consensus is extremely fragile.

Curious as to what regional identity was about, I decided to visit an AC that sets little store by nationhood—or so I thought till I got there. Asturias lies on the north coast between Galicia and Cantabria, and is one of the poorest entities, a principality with a mix of deep rural culture and run-down coal and steel communities. This is where the Christian Reconquista began under King Pelagius in around 722, leading Asturians to say loftily that Spain is Asturias, and the rest just conquered lands. Most barely acknowledge the Christian component: a uniquely radical working-class history has made them the least religious people in Spain. (In 1934, Asturian miners in a socialist-anarchist Workers’ Alliance took arms against the entrance of the extreme right into the conservative government. A Socialist Republic was declared. Over two thousand Asturian resisters were killed when their mountain redoubts were stormed by North African troops under General Franco.)

“In the 20th century, we declared independence three times,” said Xuan Bello, a grizzled, intense novelist and poet in his forties who writes in Asturian. Bello has done more than anyone, perhaps, to spread the everyday middle-class acceptance of the language, but neither he nor the other intellectuals I met are combative nationalists. “I feel both Asturian and Spanish,” Xuan told me, over a bottle of wine rather than típico cider. With us were his wife Sonia, a presenter on local public TV, the lead singer from the legendary rock band Los Ilegales, and the ex-director of the main regional paper, which had just gone bankrupt. It was a warm, convivial occasion. If Asturians are open-minded, it’s partly because of what they also experience as the “curse” of the mountains that cut them off from Spain, while the sea offered an opportunity for enterprising types to found the businesses in Latin America that would never have worked at home. One of Bello’s novels is called Universal History of Paniceiros (the village where he was born)—the title epitomizes the global consciousness of Asturians strained through a local mesh. Asturians, he argues, are partly too passive, partly too skeptical and proud to fight for their rights: “Our nationalism was kindled by the Enlightenment and Napoleon, not by Romanticism as with Galicia and Euskadi. By then, we’d accepted to be Spanish.”

I talked to several artists and writers who were uncertain how to cope with the recession . . . Creators who stick it out are learning to woo the private sector. Mercedes has written a mini-play for a coffee commercial.

The thousands of peninsular migrants who flocked to the great industrial zones in the ’60s and ’70s were welcomed and assimilated (in contrast with the Basque Country, where immigrants tend to be seen as part of a plot to dilute the native stock). Yet the spirit of initiative, I was told with striking regularity, was choked by state capitalism. Now even the state has abdicated, with the steelworks sold to multinational ArcelorMittal, and only a handful of coal mines left.

The road from Oviedo to Mieres, the old mining center, winds through green crags with factories and power stations tucked into every crease of the land. But hardly any jobs have been created. There are four hundred thousand activos—people either working or seeking work, including about one thousand coal miners—for 1.1 million inhabitants. Fighting to hold the government to its pledge of subsidies until 2018, the miners went on strike in June. Two hundred of them marched to Madrid, cheered along the route like a cycling team; this battle is still not over. Yet instead of the shabby, glowering place I had expected, Mieres is a spruce town of overflowing restaurants and well-dressed women. When pit “restructuring” was negotiated between Madrid, Brussels, and the unions in the mid-90s, the redundancy deal put surplus workers in their forties on full pay for life. This prosperity without production is a time bomb. What will happen, people ask, when the beneficiaries who support three generations begin to die? There has been no investment in a viable post-industrial model.

Or only if you count the El Centro Niemeyer. Based on a scribbled sketch given to Asturias by the Brazilian architect, it cost the regional government $56 million plus subsidies. It was opened in 2011 to great fanfare (Woody Allen on clarinet) and shut down after six months when a new, “Asturian” party came briefly to power and dismantled everything the outgoing Socialists had done. When the Socialists returned, the Niemeyer was technically bankrupt; it reopened with a minimal program under the management of Recrea, a public enterprise that also runs ski resorts. On a Wednesday morning, I was the only person wandering the vast snowy esplanade between two great white moguls where nothing was happening. Big talk of a “Guggenheim effect” and a host of wealthy tourists to regenerate the depressed steel town of Avilés had inspired many Asturians to move there and start businesses, only to find themselves betrayed by unrealistic planning and political feuding.


Back in Madrid, I talked to several artists and writers who were uncertain how to cope with the recession. The staple literary sidelines of journalism and translation are drying up, along with the grants and public projects for artists once lavishly funded by public bodies and non-profit cajas. Many are leaving Spain. Writer Mercedes Cebrián was beginning to feel that emigrant itch, because “it’s impossible to reinvent yourself in this country.” Her friend Javier Montes (recently featured in Granta’s Hispanic anthology), who has often lived abroad, warned that a writer “can’t be transplanted for very long outside his language.” Creators who stick it out are learning to woo the private sector. Mercedes has written a mini-play for a coffee commercial.

The collapse of a nation that was the eighth economy in the world a dozen years ago is painful, even for semi-detached artists. “Nos duele España,” Montes said with a grin, adapting Unamuno’s famous expression of his “pain at Spain” amid the soul-searching that followed another great national humiliation—1898, when Cuba fell to the US. Certainly there is less of the brash self-confidence that marked the boom years. Members of 15-M, the erstwhile indignado movement that is now quietly helping recession victims in the community, told me that real democracy involved an apprenticeship in listening and respect. There’s much that’s potentially better in the new Spain.

But where is it going? Given the failure to predict, avert, or solve the economic crisis, many people believe that Spain’s institutional-political model is finished. But few have a clear sense of how to replace it, beyond the vague invocation of federalism or a furious desire to wipe the slate clean. The politicians—both the Socialist and Popular parties—seem bereft of ideas. A new, small non-regional party, Unión Progreso y Democracia, has tried to kindle a debate by proposing anti-devolution policies. The UPyD is keen to bring health and education back under central control in the name of “equality.” It wants to reform the electoral system, which has left the two mainstream parties at the mercy of nationalists who—in the words of one UPyD member I spoke to—“want to dismember Spain.” Historical nationalisms, he argued, are an emotional and cultural matter, rather than political. A more cohesive state would foster cooperation, not competition. UPyD would “remove the privileges” of the less team-spirited ACs. But the party is widely seen, I soon discovered, as a crypto-fascist party that really wants to abolish the autonomy of the regions and recentralize Spain, “just like Franco.”

The negative power of that name keeps españolismo at bay, even now, when everything is in flux. Javier Bravo Toledo, a lawyer and conservative on the “moral” right, was the only overt centralist I met. He argues that nationalism, like self-enrichment, is one of the “particularisms” the philosopher Ortega y Gasset warned against, which have invaded public life with a vengeance since the restoration of democracy. Yet this is not so different from the idea of a Territorial Senate advocated by many Spaniards further to the left. And when Javier speaks of the need for “catharsis” that might take the form of a union with Portugal, he echoes a fantasy cherished by Luis Eduardo Aute, a poet-troubadour of the democratic transition. Aute never had high hopes for democracy in the first place, he confessed to me, but the half-baked federalism designed amid worries about a possible coup must now be completed and transcended. A “Europe of peoples” is possible, and that, to him, is the message of the seemingly anachronistic Catalan ferment. In fact, España could be replaced by ESPANHA: the acronym of a comic string of terms he reeled off to signify the union of Iberian peoples, including, in the very look of the name, Portugal.

These unexpected points of contact between extremes in a famously polarized country suggest a growing post-ideological unanimity, unprecedented and still unfathomable. The wide social and generational range of those who have come out to march against a Europe ruled by Big Finance, and for a new Constituent Assembly in Spain, reflects the creep of an almost revolutionary radicalism. Even a pair of policemen assured me that 90 percent of the force, as “individuals in society,” would willingly have joined the “Surround Congress” demonstration last September. Until now there have been no counter-demonstrations by right-wing ultras, and not a glimmer of Greece’s party Golden Dawn.

Lorna Scott Fox is a journalist, editor, translator, and critic who lived in Mexico and Spain from 1986 to 2004. She is presently based in London.

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