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Devoted and Disgruntled 7

Defending the Arts is a fucked up starting point. How do we define a new premise for Arts funding that is useful?

Emma Adams - 17 April 2014

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Convener: Emma Adams

Participants: There were a lot of people, some didn’t sign in I think – but here are the people that did (I found some names hard to read, so apologies if I’ve spelt your name wrongly): Felix M, Jo Carly, Louie Ingham, Amardeep Sohi, Rachel Parish, Angie Baul, Matthew Austin, Hannah Myers, Jonathan Petherbridge, Ariane Oifizica, Rosy, Lyn, Mhar Greahis, Dick Bonham, Cristina Catalina, Bethany Haynes, Mary S, Alexis Terry.


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

A preamble

I called this discussion because I have a feeling (and I wanted to say it out loud in a place that might feel safe to say it) that the strategy of responding to the assault on the arts by ‘defending them’ has failed. As soon as we start to try and ‘defend’ we are admitting that our place is a place of retreat. And that perhaps then, a more productive response to this would be to say ‘no’ to defending and instead ‘yes’ to putting our energy into reimagining what we are doing / why we are doing and who we look to for permission to do so? To be explicit, to take the Arts forward do we need to utterly reject the currant premise (founded on austerity and cuts) and refuse to engage with it and instead get busy with engaging with something more positive? Because here in the world of ‘reality’ that we live in, the need for Austerity and cuts are posited as coming from a ‘logical’ and ‘true’ place. I wanted to discuss the possibility that if this concept is wrong but we continue to act as if it is right, then the likely upshot is that all the solutions we come up with to solve the problems we are faced with will fail.

Or put another way.

Victorians thought typhoid was caused by ‘bad smells’. This meant that for years and years they refused to pay for the sewer system that was needed to stop typhoid spreading. Because they did not have the right premise they were doomed to fail and people kept dying of typhoid.

I read a blog a few weeks ago on a site called ‘bright green’ I think – and it was about looking at the success of ‘the right’ since the post war settlement. The thrust of the argument was that ‘the left’ won a ton of radical demands (NHS, shorter working days / social security etc) after the war and then stopped dreaming of what it should be attaining and instead turned its attention to defending the gains it had made. The writer asserted that as soon as ‘the left’ began to ‘defend’ its gains it went into retreat and started losing ground to the new radicals on the right who were busy dreaming up ‘impossible’ things (such as dismantling the NHS / erasing social security) which now don’t feel so impossible. The blog writer called for those in the green movement to learn from the methods the right is using and to dare to start dreaming and articulating arguments for attaining the impossible, because attack is the best defense…

This got me thinking about what is going on for us here in our world in the Arts…

Which lead me to write a blog for the SOTA live blog… Art V Sofa (http://sotablog.artscouncil.org.uk/post/16981740637/art-v-sofa )

And finally this train of thought lead me to thinking it might be useful to try and discuss all this with people here at D&D7.

Because it feels like…

We have been given a pair of shoes to ware, which are in fact Two-Right shoes. Some people noticed and said ‘we can’t ware these shoes’ but still in the end they were the only pair of shoes on offer. So we decided to put them on. And actually, as it turns out, the right foot put on its right shoe and it felt great. But, just because one of our feet is comfortable doesn’t mean that our left foot is not being squeezed into a shoe that will never be comfortable / right for it to ware. Which it is. So we now have a left foot that is complaining. Only the right foot is more interested in kind of getting on with the job of learning to walk in the new pair of shoes. So, then my question is… If we continue to insist that the pair of Two-Right foot shoes is the correct and only way to have a pair of shoes, then in the end the pain in the left foot will become the pain in the wrong foot and eventually our body will begin to wonder if it might not be more comfortable if it just got rid of that irritating stupid useless fucking left foot that does nothing but bleed anyway. And before you know it, under these circumstances will we not convince ourselves that the best thing to do for all body parts concerned would be to just fucking well cut off the bastard wrong foot? That fucking useless problem bastard wrong foot! Who needs it?! Not us. Under these circumstances a perfectly beautiful and healthy foot could end up being amputated all because at no point in the conversation did we think it might be possible to question whether the pair of shoes were wrong instead of the feet.

This may feel a little extreme – but I seem to hear more and more artists talking about ‘the dead wood’ in art that ‘needs trimming’. I hear more and more people arguing over the small pot of shrinking money trying to make arguments for who is more deserving. I hear more and more people undervaluing the work that producers and administrators do, because who needs the ‘backroom’ now?

So, are we turning in on ourselves because we are frightened for our life?

This is called divide and rule.

It is a very old technique

Is it working?

Amongst us.

In this room.

Is it? Is that what is happening?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Because if it is?

If that is what is happening?

It feels like a new premise needs to be found and articulated.

Quickly.

Or as quickly as is possible.

That feels like a huge philosophical challenge.

And a bit impossible.

And so for these reasons I felt a little vulnerable about trying to say all of this out loud because I still have to function and get work in the world as it is. And I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m a flutter-brain-flake-mother-fucker-type when what they need to hire right now is a get-the-job-done-without-moaning-type of person.

And I’d like to assure you, if you are one of those people looking for a get-the-job-done-without-moanin- type person that I am really very good at looking and behaving like I am that kind of person and I am available for hire.

Right now.

Just in case.

If you were wondering.

So that’s my preamble. And I wanted to note all of this because the discussion didn’t quite work out in the way that I had hoped or was expecting it might.

‘Be ready to be surprised’ said Phelim and I was and am.

Largely because most of the time, despite my hopes (and possibly because I struggled to articulate what I was thinking. And/or possibly because many who came to the discussion wanted to move from the amorphous to the more tangible?) it became a discussion about ways to deal with the present premise rather than exploring the idea of what a different premise could be.

This lead to some frustrations all round.

Ultimately there was a decision by some people present to pick up the baton, recall the session and try again on Sunday.

So anyway, here is a description of the main themes that were discussed in this first attempt at the session…

I’ve had to do some unpicking of my notes and memory to find these themes. I may have missed some things. This is not definitive but an attempt to give a fair / representative snap shot of the main ideas that evolved in the conversation…

Theme 1

There was much discussion about how we might evolve / change the way that we present ourselves / make ourselves valuable / communicate with our community and the ‘political’ world.

This broke down into two sub thrusts:

One about the ideology of the present government and a maxi political response to this.

For example some questions raised:

Will the Arts Council still exist post 2015?
Should it? Should we be preparing for that?
Why did we lose the political battle with the government during the spending review?
What are the implications of knowing we have lost this argument?
Why don’t audiences / communities value the arts / arts venues / arts opportunities that are available to them?
Are arts opportunities really available to communities? What stops people from engaging? Class? Money? Opportunity? The arrogant attitude of artists who are out of touch with what people want?
Do artists have to alter their goals now that the financial situation has changed? Do artists have a right to make authored work that isn’t clearly ‘for’ something / fails to actively strive to engage with a community any more?


The second thrust was about the more day-to-day / nuts and bolts logistics / realities of dealing with local politicians / the day-to-day personal responses / practical ways / strategies that an individual artist or company might use to further their work.

For example:

Should we be learning to speak the language of the DCMS and local politicians so that we can communicate effectively with them on their own turf? Could the big ‘Royal’ and ‘National’ organisations which are very good at doing this for themselves collaborate with smaller companies to help them learn how to do this?

Should we stop calling ourselves artists at all? One person mentioned that they know a successful theatre maker running a thriving local venue who says, “I never say I’m a theatre maker. I say I help people feel happier and live longer”

Do we need to think laterally about the worth / value of what we do? For example some one now goes to council social services funding streams instead of the arts Council to find money to do the work they want to do.

Should we be inviting our MP / local councilor to the next show we make, because if they see the work and the worth of the work they will fight for it when it is threatened?

Theme 2:

The best way to safe guard the arts is to build creativity in children / work in school / work in community to develop creative literacy, well being and this audiences agency - so that in the future they will then value and fight for the arts .

This was countered with thoughts that much of the funding (Creative Partnerships in England for example) for this work along with many local council budgets for youth work have been lost in the spending review / cuts and so opportunities to work with children / young people have been lost. And also what about artists who want to make work now?

Theme 3:
Thoughts about trying to define what an alternative premise might be?

Do we need to work out what is valuable about what we do in terms that are not to do with economics?

Would it be useful to read the work of an economist called ‘Umiar Haque’ who works from the starting point of being a capitalist but who questions whether capitalism is measuring the right things when it looks for how successful it is?

What does it mean for us as artists struggling to be valued that when Archeologists measure human development they look for ‘evidence of significant artistic activity’?

Is our argument with George Osborne or with the people who vote for George Osborne?

Can we learn anything from the Occupy movement?

Should we learn from the scientists who study pure science (for example those working with the Hedron collider)? They on one hand believe themselves to be at the frontier of human understanding and justify this endeavor for its own sake. But also they are able to talk about the unexpected spin offs (for example MRI scans / the Web) which come from this research and which are widely / generally valued?

Conclusions / Action Points

A new session to be called to continue this discussion so that some conclusions / action points can be found.

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