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.

1 comment:

  1. Let me add my whole-hearted agreement with this article - it's just what I've been thinking for years.

    During the 1980s I sat on the photography panel at the (then) Eastern Arts Board. The panel was made up of experts in the medium. We looked at submissions by photographers - we actually looked at photographs! - and made qualitative judgements about their work.

    Last year I made a lengthy submission to Arts Council England and it was clear to me that the criteria they were using had nothing to do with the quality of my artwork and everything to do with audience development and community involvement.

    In between these two dates I worked for a while as course leader for an MA in Photographic Studies and then as a business development manager, both at a regional art college. On the MA we discussed the medium's commercial utility only in a context of understanding its past and future history. In the compromised world of (art and design higher education) business development it was often a tricky operation to win round those academics who deep in their communist hearts knew the game was up for art for art's sake, to accommodate the notion that a business case for their courses had become a sine qua non for its continuing support by the institution.

    At my interview for the business role I quoted from Frank Furedi's 'Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?' (as good a demolition job as you will find for business development roles in arts and humanities HE) but this provocation only resulted in being offered the job.

    I read somewhere recently that there were plans by leading UK artists to set up an alternative art school - one dedicated to the studio without any external pressures and certainly no cares about the commodification of the artwork. Sign me up.