How do we reclaim a space in society for art for its own sake?

Convener(s):  Tanja Raaste      

Participants: Shakera Louise Ahad, Amber, Chrissy Jay, Jonny Liron, Martyn Duffy.

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

There were several strands this discussion, including arts funding, public and private spaces and the value of art.

The financial aspect is that the Arts Council has to justify how it uses state money.  This will necessarily bias it towards social projects.  Other funders and society take their cue from this. 

Currently art is coming out of buildings and into social spaces, which is exciting.  Commercial is being turned public through schemes to use disused shops, and also through squatting.  The former is being encouraged because of the arts’ proven ‘regenerative effect’.  Artists are embracing this because venues have become too expensive.

There was some debate on the purpose of art.  Art only for arts’ sake was seen to be a lovely experiment, but self-indulgent.  It is ultimately for the audience.  It does have a purpose, but that purpose can be very flexible, from health to political commentary, from community to new relationships.

‘Anti social’ work was discussed – in the sense of work that is either not following or against current political agendas.  This will be seen as threatening, even revolutionary, and has never been funded.  The job of artists in this case is just to keep pushing those boundaries like they always have done.

One way of getting funding for something ‘off agenda’ is to produce an excellent body of work, which does eventually get recognized.

The problem of site-specific theatre was raised where, instead of working in allocated shops, an artist falls in love with a specific space and cannot get access.  This comes back to the expensiveness of venues – anyone owning interesting venues is aware of their interest, and therefore monetary value.  An idea was proposed that, especially in the case of public sites, some access and time could be reserved for artists that are not able to pay ‘the going rate’.

Society is used to the arts having an agenda. It is also the perception that science advances society, whereas art is optional.  Yet art often leads science, and the current strict separation is pure perception anyway.

Government is utilitarian, and artists have learned very successfully to adopt the language of government and business since Thatcher, and are now good at proving ourselves in terms of monetary worth:  art regenerates areas, tourism, wealth generation etc.  However, the current government still seems to be ignoring us speaking in their own language.

The notion of arts being the soul of society, and also of arts creating a joint national identity, is something that would only be missed if arts were removed for a long period – say 30 years.  And since artists have learnt to survive, this wouldn’t happen.  Artists are resilient, which is a catch-22 situation.  The current government is relying on this and expects artists to create big society through subsidising our own work, which has always happened anyway. 

The knock-on effect of lots of small cuts to small organizations was discussed.  Larger organizations are better equipped to cope with cuts, and the government could make more money by one large cut to a large organization, but since the smaller organizations lack a collective voice and cutting funding from large organizations is bound to generate large headlines, government has chosen the utilitarian option.

The arts are in a difficult situation when faced with this mindset which has league tables for everything and a very short-termist view.  Coupled with artists’ desire to create, even by self-subsiding, it would seem there is no easy way of proving the value of arts for their own sake.