Ask the Artist

Last night I went to the first Provocation to come out of the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value – it was titled ‘Are cuts to funding the greatest threat to culture?’

Now the Commission are quite clear that they need some better working definition of ‘Culture’ but it seems to me, and certainly was implied by the panel, that when we are talking about ‘cuts to funding’ we are talking about ‘cuts to funding in the arts’ and in this context we are therefore talking about the value of arts (and how that then becomes a value to culture).

My thinking is this:

Arts are the artist’s interrogation of and response to the world around them.  This results in expression of some kind – not always a product, not always for public consumption.  It may only result in leading the artist to some new process or response.

Culture is the diffusion of these expressions into society – at the strongest level – where they are coming direct from the artist they are what we might traditionally call ‘Culture’ – exhibitions, theatrical performances, symphonies.  At their most diffuse they are in the adverts we watch, the video games we play and the memes and norms we accept as part of our society and national identity (I have a lot more to say about this but I’ll keep it brief here!).

As such the artist is an essential part of any debate about arts and culture. 

Extraordinarily given the theme of this provocation, not a single artist was represented on the panel (the project itself in terms of both Commissioners and Academics is low on any kind of creative worker).   The two rather gloomy economists pretty much suggested that the arts would just have to suck it up and hope to come out the other side of economic austerity by being ingenious and stoic.  That rather incensed me.  This was followed by some debate about funding of institutions and organisations, with interventions about private funding from the floor.  Once or twice Alan Davey from the Arts Council mentioned the need to nurture talent.  Bev Skeggs, a sociologist from Goldsmiths, spoke up for the need for Education to be addressed particularly in relation to maintaining diversity in the arts (another massive topic for another day).   But if the value of the artist was acknowledge it was in some kind of assumed or implied way or referenced as a product: ‘talent’.  This made me cross, so when it came to question time I asked my question, which was something like:

“Where is the voice of the artist in this debate, in this commission?  If we value the arts do we not by implication value the artist? The artists of this country have done far more in subsidising the arts in this country than either government or private investment.  We are the people with two jobs, paying taxes, working at a grassroots level.  On David Cameron’s (alleged) favourite CD there is a track that begins “Everything is free now, that’s what they say.  But we’re going to do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay” and this is the cultural norm in the UK.  If we are going to change that, and I think we should, then you need to give artists a voice in these debates and discussions.”

Well that’s what I think I said, I don’t have a transcript so no doubt I will be corrected.

My comment about the artists subsidising the arts raised a round of applause.  The actual question was greeted with a rather panicky silence from the panel followed by some rather unspecific answers.  I doubt anyone had thought about why there were no artists on the panel, why there was no artist represented except as an ‘arts installation’ outside the room the debate was held in (a fact which to me says something so literal about patronage and the patronising of artists that it is mind boggling that so many clever people couldn’t see it).

Alan Davey, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, was about to answer me when the debate was moved on because of time constraints.  So this morning I wrote to him and asked if he would like to make his response.  This was my letter:

“We spoke briefly last night at the Warwick Commission provocation.  I was the person who asked the question about the artist’s voice (and I should clarify that by artist I mean all those involved in creative practice: artists, dancers, musicians, actors, directors, writers).  I didn’t feel that I quite got my message across to you and that you thought I was in some way attacking you/the Arts Council.  This was certainly not my intention and I could see that you were one of the people on the panel who had some concern for those actually creating the art – rather than just institutions and organisations.

I know that the Arts Council does do valuable work to help artists access funding but my real point was about actually asking artists to take part in debates and conversations about funding and arts and culture strategy – not from a ‘give us some more money’ point of view, but to find out from them what they think needs to be done to sustain the arts in the UK during this period of ‘austerity’ (whether you believe in it or not it’s certainly real enough for the people holding the purse strings). 

It may be that if you involved the artists themselves in these discussions they would not be about ‘more’ money but how that money might be better spent to encourage a pipeline of talent that would feed into the both the cultural world generally (the psycho-social value of culture) as well as our growing commercial creative sector (the economic value of culture).  If we do not value our artists and encourage them at the grassroots then the arts scene will be dominated by art made by and for an elite of rich people and rich people’s children.  Real talent will move away from the UK and with it our dominance of the cultural economy and cultural head space of the world.

There is plenty to be said about the role of Education in this debate.  But I would again urge you to use the Arts Council as a way of engaging artists’ voices in these discussions.  Don’t just talk to the people running organisations and institutions that employ people or commission them.  The majority of artists are not on salaries, are not ‘employed’ in any real sense by an organisation, they live from commission to commission, a day’s work here, a month there.  Their views will be different from those who have buildings to maintain and employees’ jobs and welfare to consider.  You might find those views a refreshing change or you might find them an additional challenge, but I would make the plea that you at least attempt to get them heard, both by the Arts Council itself, but also by those that you, as an agency, interact with in both Government, private philanthropy and the creative industries.

If I was over-emphatic yesterday and appeared aggressive I do apologise – this is a subject I am extremely passionate about and that is sometimes hard to channel into polite conversation!”

This was his response:

“I never really got onto the involving artists bit – which I really do believe in – and we have to make sure we do it.  Only on Monday we involved some artists in looking at our approach to ‘Rebalancing Cultural Capital’ and the result was brilliant.  We were told firmly where our arguments missed the point and where we should be stronger.  I think we need to involve artists as we evolve things or we’ll be irrelevant”

Both the evolution and the involvement will be good if they happen!  I’d make another plea though.  Don’t just involve the artists you know about, that you fund, or have achieved success.  Try and talk to the ones who aren’t emerging, but who emerged and then retreated, who were full of promise but have been stalled by lack of opportunity, lack of space, lack of financial security.  There are a lot of things that artists need in order to do their work that aren’t anything to do with money – not cash money.  They need space, they need a voice, they need opportunities, they need supportive networks.  They need these to not be bound by stupid briefs and rules and regulations that tick some funder/sponsor/investor boxes.   Or provided by people who want to guide them and mould them and ‘mentor’ them into the accepted mainstream or the accepted alternatives.  Ask us! Ask us what we need.  Ask us what we think the strategy should be for supporting arts and culture in the UK, because we are the people who are going to have to make it happen and we are the people with the creativity and imagination that might find solutions you haven’t even thought of yet.   As Robert Peston pointed out – this is something that computers and robots can’t do!

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