At Seville Cathedral today, my breath was taken away by the power of a building designed, made and decorated by artists. I walked around just gaping at the unfathomable display of craft, inventiveness and beauty. In the past, when church and king held sway, it must have been been almost impossible to enter this building and not be convinced by its authority, its interpretation of reality. Today, few visitors seemed to be there for reasons of faith. The experience left me wondering what common ground there might be between artists then and artists now, and if the art works of today will one day be looked at with awed incomprehension by our descendants who ask themselves how we could have believed what we do.
It was my younger son, who’s a digital native, who persuaded me it was a bad idea. I’d been watching Twitter for a while, slightly mesmerised by its speed, energy and violence. When I gave a talk at the Bush last year, I found I was the only speaker not using Twitter; since they were also decades younger, I felt a bit like Morse, clinging to his Jag. So I asked my son one day, ‘I’ve been wondering…,?’ His answer had all the certainty I remember having at the same age. ‘Absolutely not.’ I think he was a bit amused by my naïveté.
It’s a good idea, when you’re an immigrant, to pay attention to any advice you get from the natives. When they’re friendly and know you as well as your children do, you’d be a fool not to. So I ditched the idea, without thinking more about it. I’m glad I did. One clue as to why he was right was that, for that 10 minute talk to 30 people at the Bush, I found myself writing a text.
Writing this blog (and its companion) has been a new adventure in writing and publishing. I’ve had to find another voice (still not sure on that one). I’ve learned a lot about what readers find interesting (not always what I think is important). I’ve learned to lighten up a bit (alright, not that much, but I’m working on it).
And I’m learning to write more briefly. Before the blogs, a short piece was a conference paper of 4-5,000 words. Now, I’m failing to keep under 500 words. But 140 characters? I don’t think so. There are other reasons not to use Twitter but space to think – and writing is just a form of thinking in public – is the most important for me.
And the point is?
Most people who occupy leadership positions in the arts world are, like me, migrants to the digital world, though that’s changing with each passing year. With exceptions, they haven’t responded to their new surroundings with any of the confidence or imagination they draw on in their arts practice. With exceptions, they know it and feel uncomfortable about what seems like a weakness.
But hey, it’s okay. Being up to date is not the most important thing in art. Being good is better. Or original. Or experienced. Or any number of other things.
That said, it is important to know what you don’t know and decide whether you need to know it. Or not. Don’t beat yourself up because you don’t understand the digital world. No one does. It’s being born. Those born with it just have different assumptions. They’re not right – but they might have advice worth listening to.
And the digital world isn’t a collection. You don’t have to get the set, so you can strut around like a general full of campaign medals.
So, if you don’t want to blog, or tweet, or crowd source, or podcast, or Instagram (not a verb yet, but it soon will be), or do any of the other things that have been invented while I’ve been writing this, then don’t. We’re all in charge of how we use the digital world. And if you want to use your time on something else but your venue needs a Twitter account – and I concede it might – hire a native.
State funding of culture is a very tricky thing to do in a democracy. Patrons, sponsors, customers just buy what they want. But in the post-war European welfare state, managers in state departments or arm’s length bodies were tasked – for the first time – with buying art on behalf of other people. A binary transaction suddenly became triangular, connecting the state, the artist and the public.
The public may, in practice, be uninterested or just content to let professionals decide what to support on its behalf, but its putative wishes are claimed by different interest groups to argue for or against specific funding decisions. Suddenly, we have to talk about public value.
That’s part of the reason why the relationship between the Arts Council and artists has always been difficult. But there are also much simpler, more human explanations.
[Before going on, let me say that I've been at different times on each side of the table—an applicant for funds (my latest just turned down) and a trustee of Arts Council England; I've also worked for many arts groups and for funding bodies here and abroad, gaining admiration for people involved on both sides. And, not least, I'm a taxpayer and a fully paid-up member of the public.]
It is inevitably an unbalanced relationship, because so much power lies on one side. (Actually, existing obligations, precedent, legislation, politics and lobbying means that, in reality, the Arts Council has far less freedom in its spending decisions than many people imagine.) But when people have authority to make decisions about your life and the things you feel most passionately about, it’s easy to be resentful – especially if you think you know better than them what is good for you (and for everyone else too). It’s why the relationships between parents and teenagers are often so fraught.
The Arts Council struggles to explain what it does and why, because it’s actually quite complicated, because it takes some knowledge to understand, because a lot of it is very dull (Lottery regulations, anyone?), because every profession and organisation has its internal language and assumptions and because we all – sometimes at least – fail to imagine how things that are normal to us appear to others. Staff may also be too cautious in what they say because of a fear of giving offence, being misinterpreted or raising false expectations.
On the other side of the table, applicants are rarely satisfied with Arts Council decisions. Those who do get funds tend to believe they deserve them, or they wouldn’t have applied in the first place, so they sometimes see the award as no more than their due. But sometimes they feel unjustly treated because they didn’t get all they asked for or because a peer (whom they see as less deserving) got more. In any case, successful applicants are a minority, since most people don’t get funds at all. They also believe they deserve support and are understandably disappointed or angry.
All this can spin a vicious circle in which funders who are trying to make fair and honest decisions feel misunderstood, criticised and attacked. That makes them defensive and less willing to engage in an open discussion about past or future decisions. That, in turn leads to them being further criticised by artists who are frustrated by the difficulty of getting a clear answer to their challenge.
The result is the kind of spectacle that occurred in 2008, when the Chief Executive of Arts Council England was metaphorically pelted with rotten vegetables by members of the theatre profession – a modern version of ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’.
In the end, only the people involved can improve this relationship. It will take time, and would mean accepting that there is much common ground linking both sides. It would be less difficult for the funding agency to take the lead in this, simply because they are one organisation, while the arts world is always fragmented, and full of different voices.
Unfortunately, as resources for the arts continue to decline and in a culture not given to temperance, the relationship is likely to come under increasing strain, especially during an investment process likely to see organisations lose some or all of their funding. The Parliamentary Culture Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into the work of the Arts Council is an opportunity for valuable debate about how things might be improved. It’s also an opportunity for everyone concerned – and especially the politicians, artists, managers and commentators directly involved – to demonstrate their wisdom and generosity of spirit.
I think we better talk this over, Maybe when we both get sober
Bob Dylan, 1978
In the meantime, here’s a paper I wrote a few years ago about the power, responsibility and the artist, that explores some of these questions in greater depth. It’s called The Triumph of Whose Will?
I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now
Badlands (1978) Bruce Springsteen
‘Shackled and Drawn’
During the 1970s, when the NME was teaching me how to listen to music (and more besides) and punk challenged the Seventies rock nobility, their annual awards became funnier and less respectful. One was titled ‘Thanks for the Live Album, but you really shouldn’t have bothered’.
It neatly caught the ambivalence of fans to the expensive double or even triple concert records bands would put out to keep them happy while they were finding inspiration or just in rehab. Critics said there were great live albums but maybe you had to be there, and I never was. Anyway, musos always said there was a better bootleg version.
Critics began to write about live records ‘documenting’ a moment in an artist’s development, as rock slid from being an urgent, critical form into an aspect of heritage. Now global corporations, wringing the final cents from casually-acquired catalogues while they still hold copyright, turn out live recordings by the cartload.
The listenable outtakes have already been released in remastered, anniversary and deluxe editions, but there’s no shortage of concerts that can be labelled ‘historic’. The value of the live album, always slightly suspect, continues to fall.
‘We Take Care Of Our Own’
But digital recording and the Internet are reviving concert recordings, just as they are giving musicians new control over their work. Bruce Springsteen, at 64 still a passionately committed performer, has just played concerts in Cape Town and Johannesburg and is now performing in Australia. Each of his South African concerts is already online as a digital download. The pricing—£6.30 for about three hours of music—is generous, certainly compared to the cost of those 1970s double albums.
But there’s something more interesting going on as well. These recordings really are documents, published a couple of days after the concert and therefore hardly open to much aural embellishment. As the tour continues, they will inevitably include some uninspired performances, though they might be preferred by fans who were there on the night.
This is an artist taking control of his publishing in order to cede control of his image. (Up to a point: this act becomes part of that image, but it is at least integral to it.) Where Springsteen’s past live albums have been carefully planned additions to a mythologised persona, this succession of wild recordings will go where it will.
It feels like a risk in a world where the powerful, whether in business, politics or the arts, seek ever more control over their image. But of course none of us can control how we are seen by others or how our words, films or music are interpreted. Artists have enough to do trying to control their creative work. The rest can take care of itself, perfectly well.
‘I don’t care if you call my work journalism or art or whatever; whatever you want to call it is fine with me.’
Open for Business
Over the past few months, I have been interviewing documentary photographers for a project about manufacturing industry. Open for Business is a partnership between Multistory and Magnum, several galleries and museums, and people who make things for a living—sausages, wind turbines, hats, battleships, electronics, hot air balloons and just about anything else that we use.
The exhibition opened on Friday at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and will tour the UK for the next two years. It featured in the Financial Times Magazine in January and you can download a copy. The whole project raises interesting questions about the evolving nature of community arts practice, to which I’ll return another time, but today I want to talk a little about the experience of meeting these outstanding artists.
Talking to photographers
The interviews were filmed and edited for the show, so that visitors can hear each photographer talk about their approach, their experiences on location and what they wanted to capture in the images. Here, for example, is Mark Power talking about visiting the Bombardier and Nissan factories in Derby:
Each film is different. The photographers have diverse backgrounds, ideas and practices. They are members of the same co-op, but they’re individual and competitive. The exhibition at Bradford has the best qualities of a group show—a common theme but seen so differently by each photographer that the images are in a restless dialogue with one another, and the viewer keeps changing their mind about which pictures they prefer and why.
At the same time, as I talked with such different people about their approach to the same problem—how to represent truthfully the ambiguous realities of people making thing—I felt that there were some common foundations to their work as artists.
How to be an artist
For example, I was struck by a command of craft that enabled them to focus on what they were seeing without distractions. They were curious and open to the world, interested in the people they met, the places they were visiting and how things were done. With none of the indifference put on by some artists, they engaged with the world, taking ethical or political positions as well as aesthetic ones, and happy to talk about their ideas and values.
I always felt that the photographers saw the world, the people they portrayed and the stories they were telling as more important than themselves. There’s plenty of personality, confidence, even ego in the films, as with most artists, but there’s also an underlying assumption that the photographer is not the story.
There are other things one might draw from these interviews, and each viewer will form their own impression. But for me, craft, openness, engagement, and humility seem a good set of qualities to bring to the task of being an artist. And the results—as evident in the quality of the images in the exhibition—seem to confirm that.
A note on language
Readers of other posts on this site might notice an inconsistency in the title of this one, since I’ve often argued against the essentialism that identifies artistic practice with being rather than doing. It’s true: it would have been better to call it ‘How to do artisting’, but unfortunately we only have verbs for the craft activities undertaken by an artist—painting, photographing, playing, performing etc.—not for the underlying creative and conceptual activity that gives that craft meaning. It could be be ‘to create’, but that word has acquired other meanings unconnected with art that complicate its interpretation (for more about this, see Winter Fires, pp 65-67). So, I’ve written ‘How to be an artist’ because it sounds better than any alternative I can think of, but I mean, ‘How to do artisting’.
National Theatre Wales (NTW) has won great acclaim since its launch in 2010 with 13 plays in 13 months, culminating in the Port Talbot Passion. With no theatre building of its own (like its counterpart in Scotland) NTW has quickly established itself as a human, conceptual and virtual space in which the language of theatre is being remade with and by people in Wales. Community involvement runs through the organization’s work like letters through rock. Every job description, from finance assistant to artistic director, includes a responsibility in that area.
So it was natural for First Art, a new community arts partnership that is just beginning in the old north midlands coalfield, to want to talk to NTW about what it has been doing. First Art has been awarded funds through the Arts Council’s Creative People and Place initiative, which hopes to increase people’s involvement in the arts in places where—according to government data—it is particularly low. (That raises many questions but they must wait for another day.)
This week, Davinda De Silva, NTW Head of Collaboration, came to speak to people involved in First Art at Creswell Crags, where Ice Age rock carvings form the first art ever made in Britain. He gave an outline of the journey NTW has undertaken, the values and ideas that shape it, and some of the challenges they have met. The presentation was rich and discussion lively: it was a privilege to be there and feel the passion and energy of people committed to art and creative change mainly because it’s what makes life exciting.
What impressed me most though in NTW’s story, was the courage of an organisation prepared to do what it believes is right—artistically, ethically, socially—even when it seems risky. Recognising the need to create a community for its work, both to enable that work to happen and to ensure its legitimacy, NTW has gone online, making a website that is open to everyone, and connecting with Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and other platforms (of which I have only the dimmest understanding).
Anyone can do that, of course, with a bit of time, money and knowledge. Lots of arts organisations do, though most are still far behind the curve in this field. But not everyone has the courage to let people post what they want on their website. NTW’s online community is successful because the company trusts people to use it well: and they do.
The same is true of programmes like TEAM, which gives people opportunities to learn from and work with NTW. There are now more than 600 TEAM members across Wales and beyond. They are the its creative partners, freelance workers, advisers, questioners, and links with communities. NTW gives TEAM members £250 to support projects they want to do. Brilliantly, they decided not to require accounts and explanations, but to trust TEAM Members to spend it well: and they have.
Trust is a recurring theme on this blog. It is one of humantity’s most powerful ideas, because it fosters relationship and efficiency . People who trust one another do not need contracts, monitoring and enforcement—all of which have grown enormously in the arts as the virus of New Public Management has infected public culture since the 1980s.
Anyone working in an arts organisation today—even on the creative side—is required to spend large amounts of unproductive time in activities demanded of them because of an underlying absence of trust. The erosion of trust was the subject of a series of Reith Lectures by Onora O’Neill in 2002. If anyone in power was listening, they didn’t have the courage to do anything about it.
National Theatre Wales show that we can respond, whatever those who govern us do or fail to do. Individually and organisationally, we can choose to trust one another—not blindly, not foolishly, but with optimism and confidence in the value of human intentions.
Trust can be a form of creative resistance.
PS Chatting to a delivery man in the lift today, I learned that he has to record every parcel twice: first on the doorstep with a handheld computer and again back in the van with pen and paper. Whether management mistrusts the client, the customer or the technology, the result is the same: inefficiency and poor relationships.
Who am I? It is one of the basic existential questions that human beings have been asking themselves since they became able to call themselves human beings—Homo sapiens sapiens, the being who knows that she knows, who is conscious and aware of her own consciousness. Each of us must answer it in her own way, to the extent that it troubles us.
But it is also one of the questions that people come to this site to have answered. People, I imagine, who have come across something I’ve written, students tasked with critiquing some study I’ve done, or delegates attending a conference I’m at. They wonder who is speaking, and it is a reasonable question—up to a point. I answer it on the ‘about’ page that every website needs and in the 100-word biographies conference organisers ask for. In this neoliberal world, where people are commoditised, a freelancer must be ready to stand in the shop window, if not the auction block, in his best clothes. We’ve all got an elevator pitch now.
But that is not who I am: at best, it’s what I have done. I gave a more personal account in Bread and Salt, because the book is so concerned with the identitary interrogations the strong impose on the weak, but even that is not who I am. It is a small part of where I come from, a response to the questions I’m asked about my name and origins.
Who I am, even in the limited sense that this question can be legitimately relevant to my work, is complicated by the gap between ideas and reality. Occupations are simply ideas that help us organise and understand reality. If we mistake them for reality, we inevitably have to start manipulating that reality to fit our ideas, like Procrustes stretching or cutting people to fit his iron bed. Reality is always far larger and more complex than our ideas.
For instance, take the possibility that I ‘am’ an academic. The signs (evaluators prefer the more scientific sounding synonym, ‘indicators’) are ambiguous.
Signs that I am an academic:
- I have Honorary Professorships at two universities (or perhaps one—I think the other has just lapsed);
- I’ve done peer reviews, AHRC assessments and my work is included in the Research Excellence Framework;
- I’ve published in academic journals, given lectures and seminars and examined PhD candidates.
Signs that I am not an academic:
- I don’t have a university post or salary;
- I’ve never done postgraduate study;
- I don’t call myself an academic.
The underlying problem is confusion between doing and being. I have often performed an academic’s role. But I am not an academic in the way that I am male, a father or have brown eyes. Doing academic work is a matter of choice and, perhaps, of performance standard. The essentialism that defines—and limits—people by what they do or don’t do mistakes ideas that help us interpret the world with underlying realities. It is also lazy.
Western culture has lost much of its confidence in authorities since the 1960s. We are insubordinate. We want to know why we should listen to Professor A, or Minister B. We have rightly emancipated ourselves from cap-doffing respect for our ‘betters’. But we seem unwilling to take responsibility for the freedom we have won, which means making our own judgements about who to trust, and living with the consequences. So we behave like surly teenagers, demanding credentials and resenting those who present them. Are you an academic? Who says so? Prove it.
We want to police the world according to our own expectation and demand to see the identity papers of all persons of interest, who, as in the world of policemen everywhere, are often just those we mistrust because they might have some power we don’t understand. And not accepting your rules, your authority, your interpretation of the world can be a frightening power.
We feel entitled to our opinion—which we surely are—but then mistake what we believe for what is true. My opinion about community arts practice might be worth listening to, because I have spent many years working in the field. My opinion about the structural viability of a bridge design certainly isn’t. The right to an opinion is only the right to be wrong.
We want freedom without the work that freedom entails. If we are going to make our own judgements, rather than kowtowing to the Brains Trust, then we had better be ready to put in the work that comes with it: finding out, learning, making judgements and, above all, thinking—with hearts as well as minds.
Something is not good because an artist, even a celebrated artist, made it. The criteria for judging the value of a work should not be situated in a taxonomical convenience that cannot be consistently defined or applied. Nothing is true or false because of who has said it: a liar can speak truth, a good person can repeat a lie.
Do not look to the person to judge whether an act is justified. Look at the act.
Who am I? Does it actually matter to you, beyond curiosity? Better to ask yourself, if you are interested in what I have to say at all, how much of truth, value or meaning it holds.
- There’s a mirror image of this post, with one salient difference, on the Regular Marvels site.