Monday, April 09, 2007

I've been truly shocked by the hatred towards artists being expressed over at the Guardian blog by Peter Hewitt. I've left the following comment. I would really urge you to get over there and have your say if you feel the same. I would imagine it's a thread being read by all sorts of influential people.

"What this whole thread has revealed for me is that the most pressing issue seems to be in getting across to the general public what it is we artists actually do. The hostility here to 'my money' being used to fund 'lazy artists' is on a par with some of the tabloid debates about 'our money' 'our jobs' and 'filthy immigrants'. This level of bitterness and resentment is only ever borne out of ignorance of the facts, but is no less shocking for it. It should be a clarion call to Peter Hewitt and all those in the creative industries that, alongside campaigning against cuts, we also urgently need to explain in far greater detail what it is we actually do, and why it is important.

I'm a self-employed professional playwright, and besides writing scripts every hour of the day I also have to effectively set myself up as a small business. I spend much of my time working like an investigative journalist, interrogating the world around me through interviews, field trips and endless reading and other specialist research, to allow me to bring to the stage areas of human experience of utter orginality. This is my side of the bargain - I feel very strongly that if my commission fee is from the subsidised sector then I have a duty to bring to the table unique investigations into subjects of collective importance which I think as a society we should be giving time and headspace to. I don't write self-indulgent plays about my own life and love affairs for exactly this reason. So far I've done plays about social workers, religious gang conflicts among teenagers, missing persons and identity fraud, plus I'm working on new plays about the looting of the Iraq Museum, and another on hoodie culture and middle class fear. I then package all this up into a well-structured story, garnish it with crackling dialogue, and pitch it at a theatre to whose audience I think it will be relevant, important, and gripping.

I've worked long and hard over many years, and endured many knockbacks, before i got where I am today. I'm not from a wealthy family, or one with theatre industry connections, I went to an ordinary state school and did the rest myself. I put far more hours into my work that anyone in a 9-5 job. All artists, if they are to survive, have this same entrepreneurial spirit. There are plenty of government tax breaks and incentives for small businesses but you don't hear the same prejudice and rage spewed at self-employed plumbers, or furniture makers, or greengrocers. Why? Because people know what it is they do, because the mechanics of their trade are on display, and because their product is a tangible material thing.

The arts, by contrast, remain this mysterious elitist bubble where the product is created by somehow 'loafing around' and then only lasts for the 30 performances it is on, and because it is made up of ideas and images can't then be turned over in the palm of the hand and quantified. It doesn't matter that we might move people, change perceptions, shed light on areas of human existence hitherto shrouded by prejudice, or crystallise truth into simple beautiful forms, because if you can't see and hold it then for many people it simply isn't there and therefore isn't valuable. This is simply wrong. It's like saying that philosophy or political science or economics haven't given the world anything. Thinking and then creating is what human beings do. It's what sets us apart from the animals.

There has always been a mistrust of abstraction and intellectualism in the pragmatic UK (compared to the embracing of philosophers and artists in continental Europe). This isn't always bad - as Jeremy Paxman pointed out in his book The English, it has saved us from Communism and it has saved us from Fascism. But let's not allow it to scupper one of the world's most enterprising and self-sufficient hubs of human endeavour and originality. Not everyone may want to think about the world around them, and that's their loss. But for those of us who do, artists and non-artists alike, it's time to start explaining how we do it, and why its important in a society which cares about itself."


jmc said...

I go some way to agreeing with you, Finn, but I am also caught by wondering about the damage having a "mixed economy" of subsidised and private monies funding an Art or enterprise (which is it?) like theatre. Having a regular supply of public money can cause a certain amount of self-involvement and resting on laurels in some areas of the subsidised sector; also, those who are subsidised do get an unfair advantage over those that are not, to the extent that they can afford more publicity, better production values and what is more are more likely to attract critical attention, be taken seriously. But it doesn't necessarily follow that, if something is state subsidised, it is better than something which isn't. Might not Artists who are almost permanent fixtures and with guarantees of productions at certain venues at some points in their career become institutionalised, and unable to get out there and drum up private investment/commercial sponsorship for what they are doing?

Giving a few people state subsidy isn't the be all and end all final solution to the problem of the Arts, and for too long those that have benefited personally from those subsidies have pretended that it is. Those that have been less fortunate have found other ways of getting their work out there, and those ways are too often hampered by the over-attention paid to work which has the badge of legitimacy state funding (funding, remember, from an essentially corrupt state) gives it...

Just a few thoughts...

Fin said...

Thanks for your thoughts James.

It's a massive subject and I don't pretend to have all the answers. All I'm arguing for at the moment is that those artists who do get public subsidy now engage more fully in explaining what they do to justify it, to counter some of the extraordinary vitriol directed towards them that this debate has revealed. I don't want to receive public money grudgingly, or from a population half of whom hate me and think I'm some kind of lazy leech.

I do agree that there is lazy work out there, but it's difficult as a fellow artist to engage in a critique of it without sounding like you're saying by default that your own work is perfect, and therefore sounding like a smug git. (You'll recall that i tried to do that here once and inadvertantly instigated a huge bitch fight). Far better to hold up a clean glass of water next to the dirty one and lead by example. And there hasn't been a more pressing time to do this. We need to explain what we do, show that it's not elitist crap, and demonstrate its significance to the public who are paying for it.

But I do feel very strongly that art and commerce don't really mix, and that if we want art to serve the public then this takes public funding. Any creative industry left to sink or swim in an unregulated free market inevitably ends up serving that market, hence all our film school graduates end up making trendy, slick and ultimately meaningless 'art' in the form of Vodafone adverts and the like. It's the reason i never visit the West End - the place is a grotesque parody of theatre, where art's genuine interest in the complexity of the human condition is no longer the main focus. The box office is. And it's all downhill from there.

The fringe is a different kettle of fish, almost the exact opposite, because as no-one gets paid there's an absence of economics and hence individual artist's egos are allowed free rein to spout forth - not a satisfactory state of affairs either. I would argue that state subsidy finds a happy medium between these two extremes, and that in being paid by the public, artists are answerable to the public, and therefore more likely to produce work which has some relevance to, at the very least, a large minority of taxpayers.

So perhaps accountability is the real issue. If there was some part of the ACE application procedure which asked artists to explain why this idea was relevant to the country's citizenry who are footing the bill then we might get more obviously relevant, less self-indulgent art that the public can see the point of.

State subsidy is also the best way to democratise the socio-economic face of those who make art, so that it isn't just a load of middle-class vanity projects. And as for the subsidised sector feeding talent and ideas into the commercial, well there's been a symbiosis there for as long as the two have coexisted, so I don't think a mixed economy is a problem at all.

But we do need to guard against bitterness from those overlooked by the funding system causing mischevious misrepresentation of those whom it hasn't. My impression of some of the comments made over at the Guardian blog is that people just resent those who've had the foresight and resourcefulness to sort themselves out with a career which they enjoy.

jmc said...

I hear what you are saying, but I can't help feel a bit nervous when art is painted as a kind of public servant. I am not sure what you mean by art being "relevant." I went to an aware at which Estelle Morris spoke when she was arts minister, and she said "artists should make complex things easy." And my instinct was to cry "no!" Why shouldn't art be complex and difficult and ambiguous? Why should it have to have functionality in a utilitarian sense? Art is not education, still less is it a public information facility... Art can be very dangerous, and not at all supportive of the collective.

I am by no means as willing as you are to believe that State Funded Arts lead to good art (sometimes it does, but it's actually few and far between). Have you seen the sort of rubbish which the state funded under the Soviets in the USSR? The state has a tendency to coerce artists into making art which is generally supportive of the state, and in making "good citizens." Well, that would mean that Rimbaud or Genet were out of bounds, to take two examples. Sometimes art might tempt to transgression, disobedience and death; it might valorise disease and seduction... Art hasn't necessarily got a positive contribution to make!

I also think you are rather harsh on the West End. The Lady from Dubuque is rather better than anything we have seen in our state funded arts venues recently. As it is, West End producers are discouraged from investing in developing new artists, as they leave that the the state funded bodies and then cream the profits off the top.

The thing is, just because someone is a bureaucrat working for a funding body, that doesn't automatically make them a better judge of another human being's talent than a property developer with some cash to spare to invest in the Arts. It doesn't even make them more likely to support radical arts! I think we'd really separate the men from the boys, to be honest, if we ended state subsidy for living artists for a decade...

Fin said...

All interesting stuff J. I suppose I'm coming at this from two angles because of the two distinct halves to my artistic work; mainstream play commissions and education/community work. The latter of these has the more obviously 'public service' role, by which I mean forming part of a young person's education (in its broadest interpersonal sense) by encouraging articulacy, confidence etc. I don't think there's anything wrong with that - in fact with the sorts of kids I work with it has the potential to be quite subversive and challenging because they are voices we don't hear much from and often their life experiences on which they draw for material are from some very dark places. I was a subversive little fucker at school and so I enjoy teaching other subversive little fuckers how to channel their rage at the world into forms which might go some way towards being heard and making a difference. And if any of their work ends up entering mainstream theatre then our industry is all the healthier and more interesting for it.

As for my own mainstream plays, I don't think any of my ideas so far would have been commissioned by companies without public subsidy prepared to take a risk without having to worry too much about their box office. (The same is true of probably every play in my top 100 plays list.) In fact How To Disappear was so 'out there' by most theatres standards that it took ACE to rescue it with an award before even subsidised companies would touch it.

I want to write and watch plays on subjects I don't think anyone else is tackling. What I mean by their 'relevance' is not their relevance to some social agenda set by government, but that they are about subjects beyond one individual's experience and in some way expose the channels of power in society which manipulate us all. It's about understanding where we are in the broad shceme of things, how we got there, what keeps us there, and what we can do about it. That's quite subversive isn't it?

The fact is that audiences don't know what they want until you give it to them. If all plays were developed within a system where the producer was only worried about pandering to audience's perceived tastes then all drama would quickly become very pedestrian. Arguably the most important play of last century, Attempts On Her Life would never have got past a two sentence pitch to a producer working in these conditions.

I'm afraid I don't share your cynicism about the state's motives in funding art. In Communist Russia that may have been true but for all our gripes about the UK in 2007 i think its fatuous to suggest that we're anywhere near that level of state control. I'm not saying parts of our state aren't corrupt, just that I'm fairly satisfied that the arms length funding principle of the arts has by and large been working. And when we do get the occassional dictat from on high about prioritising funds, they're usually for projects involving drawing underrepresented groups into the mainstream, or encouraging communication and understanding between different groups in some way, and I find it hard to argue with those objectives. Isn't that what all good theatre should be doing anyway? It's not social engineering it's just making sure public funds are used to create enough varied art to appeal to as diverse a definition of the public as possible. This again is another example of something that would never happen if market forces were left to dictate what does and doesn't get made.

I like it that you're arguing with me though. It means I have to work out why I'm right. ;-)

jmc said...

I don't think I am arguing with you, Fin, more toying with ideas and playing devil's advocate. The fatalist in me says that this funding cut is gonna happen, and I guess what I am hoping people will do is not go under because of it, but see it (as we have to see every galling bloody thing in life) as an opportunity.

I remain rather less convinced than you of the goodliness of public funding, although I have benefitted from it at times, many of my favourite plays & playwrights have been nurtured by it - but also I've seen people's career's destroyed by the over-reliance on it, and far too much really really bad writing put on by publicly funded venues which should have known better, and I know full well had better things to produce (and I don't just mean my plays, for any cynics reading!).

I wish to goodness I could get up to Sheffield to see your play, Fin, but I am very glad to see it's published and will be grabbing a copy as soon as. And I am seeing Attempts on Her Life in May. Yes, these things are the best of what publicly funded art can provide, but there might be other avenues, in fact, there must be - because The Cutter is coming...

If you're as good and committed and passionate as you always sound on your blog - and my guess is you are- then it'll take more than funding cuts to get rid of you, I reckon!

Fin said...

Thanks James! Sorry too for the delay in publishing that one, ive been away for a few days and not near a computer...