Wednesday, 23 March 2016

#OurCulture - a little rant about the white paper

The much touted ‘cultural strategy’ white paper is out. 
I'm not impressed. Behind the woolly visions of regeneration, jobs and social mobility powered by the cultural sector (#themeparkBritain) is an aching void in terms of serious investment, or interest in the less tangible, less obviously instrumental benefits of ‘culture’. Everything in this white paper smacks of a very dizzy, close-to-retirement, nanny running around with sticking plasters when her charges are expiring from lack of basic care.

Ebacc, Academisation and focus on STEM subjects represent a concerted campaign to marginalise creative subjects in schools. With breathtaking, bare-faced hypocrisy the #OurCulture white paper sets out the government’s expectations thus:
“All state-funded schools must provide a broad and balanced curriculum that promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils. Experiencing and understanding culture is integral to education. Knowledge of great works of art, great music, great literature and great plays, and of their creators, is an important part of every child’s education. So too is being taught to play a musical instrument, to draw, paint and make things, to dance and to act. These can all lead to lifelong passions and can open doors to careers in the cultural and creative sectors and elsewhere.”

It then bangs on about the national curriculum as if it were not going to be swept aside in a tidal wave of Academisation and desperate pursuit of league table success where only STEM subjects count.

A fully rounded education that includes creative subjects/humanities should be the basis of universal provision, not something that we have to seek remedies for after the event. Once you lose that universal provision, no amount of access/inclusivity initiatives will repair the damage.

Beyond the classroom, the white paper appears to throw the entire responsibility for access/diversity/inclusivity onto Lottery distributors and the cultural sector – already under immense economic pressure. How is this to be achieved? and how can it ever be more than a piecemeal response when the basics are lacking in terms of provision in schools?

Reverse the proposals for making all schools academies and chuck out the Ebacc. There’s your cultural strategy.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The futility of seeking justification (or Justification by art alone)

I find myself dismayed that we seem to have a generation of young artists who have been indoctrinated by decades of public funding policy to believe that art must have a purpose beyond itself and that public subsidy of the arts can only be justified on the basis of economic or social outcomes.  I believe the pursuit of such justification is not only futile it is wrong-headed.

That Art is of economic benefit and creates social good is a deeply ingrained assumption.  However, demonstrating any causal relationship for social outcomes is tricky to say the least and the evidence for the impact of arts activity in economic regeneration is sketchy.  Still, most of us feel instinctively that the arts are a good thing.  OK, but that’s not the same as saying that they ‘do good’ and is a very long way from saying that the value of the arts can be measured through the good that they do.  The dangers of trying to judge art on such a basis seem clear when one accepts the elusiveness of any demonstrable linkage between cause and desired effect.  Most importantly, it completely bypasses any consideration of the merit of the art in its own terms.  Yes, this is fraught with difficulties of its own, but can’t we in the arts sector have a crack at it?  Can’t we find ways of being able to say confidently ‘This is good.  It deserves support’?

The insistence on instrumental outcomes also sets up a dissonance in our public discourse between the arts as ‘charitable’ and the ‘value’ metrics that are applied to the arts in public policy.  ‘Promotion of the arts’ is recognised in law as charitable in itself (and therefore of public benefit), yet arts organisations are still required to demonstrate impact in terms of social and economic outcomes in order to justify public subsidy.  Even ticking the ‘social’ boxes is giving in to HM Treasury’s hegemony, as the social impacts looked for simply seek to quantify an economic benefit to the state in terms of young people in employment, training, education or in savings associated with less state intervention (statutory services) because arts activity (purportedly) supports social cohesion, more stable family relationships, community building (regeneration), crime reduction, improved intercultural relationships etc.

The question of intention is also critical if one is considering measures of success.  What did you intend to achieve?  Did you achieve it?
Art, except for some ‘applied practices’ consciously constructed to ‘do good’, is not created for social or economic ends or even with those ends in mind, at least not as a primary motivation.  The fundamental answer to ‘what did you intend to achieve’ will be expressed in artistic or aesthetic terms; and there are a range of ways to address the second question in that case. If the primary motivation is not artistic or aesthetic, then the question of measuring the value of the art becomes peripheral and the activity may as well be judged alongside any other type of social intervention, and bloody good luck to you.  Any social good resulting from a work of art (with a capital A if you like) is incidental/accidental/fortuitous and not necessarily proportionate.  It is illogical and unfair therefore to judge how ‘good’, ‘valuable’ or ‘investment worthy’ a work of art is by measuring, or attempting to measure, its social benefits.  In any case, those social benefits can only putatively be assigned to the activity.  In the real world you can’t control for other variables.

What about all that money that the arts generate then?  Well, yes, the arts do attract tourists to the UK and the arts generate a number of jobs and all the other stuff that’s regularly trotted out as justification (please don’t mention the Lympics); but it’s a very unhelpful way of looking at the overall health of the arts.  There is a vast unmonetised economy that underpins the more visible arts institutions and successes.  Artists regularly work for nothing up and down the country, including in subsidised venues; many cultural institutions rely on unpaid internships and volunteers to do work that should be remunerated; all of which pales beside ‘profit-share’ theatre, where artists actually pay to try stuff out, learn their craft and develop ideas and there never is any profit to share.  Without all of this invisible activity, the international successes would not happen.  We are told in a recent report from the LGA that local authorities are keen to invest in ‘partnerships’ (yes, the heart sinks) with the arts as generators of economic growth: jobs, visitor attractions, increased local trade and so on.  This is part of the same woolly thinking and entirely in line with national government policy: LAs will reward success or, in other words, they will feed the top leaving the rest of the arts ecology to fend for itself.  The short-sightedness of this must be clear to allHighly skilled and creative artists, producers, curators and technicians do not spring up like dragon's teeth fully formed and ready to stage another West End success or Oscar-winning nostalgia fest.  The notion, enshrined in Arts Council policy, that the big fish will help the little ones is a Panglossian notion of staggering naivety.  What they will do, of course, is swallow them up.  That’s what big fish do in the free market ocean.

So if not these measures, then what?

We could ask some questions of arts activity (or a work of art) that might go some way to measuring its worth in its own terms.  Not all of these questions will apply in all cases and there are surely many more questions we could legitimately ask, but for a start:
-         Is it interesting?
-         Is it exploratory?
-         Is it well-constructed?
-         Does it demonstrate an understanding of the form and history of the particular discipline?
-         Is it helpful in furthering that artform?
-         Does it present content in a new or interesting way?
-         Does it explore new or interesting methods of creation or construction?
-         Does the artist show skill and integrity in the creation of the work?
-         If it ‘fails’ (whatever we mean by that), does it fail because it is attempting to do some these things? 
-         With more work and development (equals money) might it succeed in achieving something new or interesting? 
-         Might it usefully provoke other work?

All of this of course requires well-informed judgements of the work by people who know the artform intimately and have seen and deeply considered the works in question (or a body of the artist’s work if considering a proposed work) and understand how and why the artist arrived at them.  This is in part what the Arts Council, for all its faults, tries to do.  It is hamstrung however, by the exigencies of its masters in government who are demonstrably not interested in these questions – that dissonance again – and insist on the boxes being ticked.

Come on, people, time for some new approaches – and time for artists to set the agenda.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Putting small arts orgs in the picture

Great article that puts an important perspective on the current funding situation for small arts orgs.  Although it's written about visual arts orgs it describes a situation that I recognise in the theatre/performance sector too.  Glad someone else recognises that the metrics are wrong...

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Arts Index: save us from the bean-counters

Fronted by the ever-ebullient and ever so slightly Pollyanna-ish Sam West, the Campaign for the Arts presents us with their answer to the question nobody with any sense is asking: what's the value of the arts?
Their answer?  The Arts Index.

Really, I can't begin to tell you how simultaneously annoyed and depressed this makes me.  Where to begin, well for a start let's take a look at some of the indicators chosen to demonstrate the health (or otherwise) of the arts.  The combined reserves of all regularly funded arts organisations is proffered as an indicator of stability in the sector. [Pause for laughter].  No mention of what percentage of the arts sector actually is regularly funded.  Combined income of all West End theatres is also touted as a reasonable proxy of the financial health of the commercial arts sector - possibly fair enough, but this proxy feeds into a picture that purports to represent the health of the arts as a whole.  The only 'quality' indicator is overall audience/consumer satisfaction ratings culled from a DCMS survey.  This rather reinforces the notion already well entrenched with government and other funders that the only art worth funding is stuff that's guaranteed to put bums on seats, wipe its own face and mix its own metaphors.  Need I go into why that's stupid?  Oh, all right then.  Without subsidy, the arts activity that happens further down the foodchain ie not regularly funded by Arts Council and not commercial, is where young artists learn and grow, it's where artists can develop new ideas and try new approaches to their work and that sort of work is and should be challenging for audiences.  It should also sometimes be bad.  That's how we learn.  However, without this apparently invisible part of the arts sector the whole arts ecology just doesn't stand up.  Highly skilled and creative artists, producers, curators and technicians do not spring up like dragon's teeth fully formed and ready to stage another West End success or Oscar-winning nostalgia fest.

Still on the question of bums on seats, we're given (of course) numbers of adults and children attending arts activities and participating in arts activities.  OK, interesting enough, but not an indication of the value of the arts.  If you really want to drill down into this question you have to ask what would happen if we didn't support the arts.  Of those people surveyed who claimed not to have attended any arts activity, how many watched Downton Abbey?  How many listen to music or watch videos?  Blimey, where do all these people come from who make this stuff?

In a climate where local authorities are slashing (and in some cases abandoning altogether) spending on the arts, is this bean-counting really the best response we can come up with?  It plays straight into the hands of successive short-sighted and Phillistine governments who will not be persuaded that the arts are more than a 'nice to have' by these shallow economic arguments.  Do we have nothing to say about the value of the arts on our own terms?