Sunday, January 27, 2008

As you might expect, I’ve been mulling over this whole Arts Council business recently. I thought it might be interesting to put it into some sort of historical context, so I re-read the sections about ACE in John Carey’s lively and provocative 2005 book What Good Are The Arts? What he has to say seems so relevant to recent events (in particular the publication of the McMaster Report with its re-focussing on ‘excellence’) that it bears reproducing in some detail here:

“In England, public policy has not favoured the view that the making of art should be spread through the community. When the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which later became the Arts Council, was set up in 1940, it had to choose between promoting art by the people or art for the people. Should central government funding of the arts encourage us in using our ‘marvellous, long-evolved, specialised hands’, or should it turn us into passive art worshippers? The Council chose the latter course. The mandarin aesthetes among its members, headed by Kenneth Clark, who saw the arts as essentially a professional activity, prevailed. W.E. Williams, the Secretary General of the Arts Council, in his 1956 Report, made it quite clear that the Council envisaged art as enshrined in showpieces of national pride, precisely of the kind Hitler had planned to build. ‘The Arts Council believes that the first claim upon its attention and assistance is that of maintaining in London and the larger cities effective power-houses of opera, music and drama; for unless these quality institutions can be maintained, the arts are bound to decline into mediocrity.’ The image of ‘power-houses’ is revealing. Art is to be beamed out to consumers like electricity. All they have to do is switch it on. It is not something that arises from them and the cultivation of their abilities.”

Later in the book Carey goes on to examine the transformative power of creative activity upon the individual in a lengthy case study of the work of the art-in-prisons charity The Koestler Foundation. He concludes:

“There is evidence that active participation in artwork can engender redemptive self-respect in those who feel excluded from society. This may be the result of gaining admittance to an activity that enjoys social and cultural prestige. But it seems also to reflect the fact that standards of achievement in art are internal and self-judged, and allow for a sense of personal fulfilment that may be difficult to gain in standard academic subjects. The difficulty prisoners meet with when they try to pursue their artistic interests after release is a consequence of our inadequate support for art in the community, which stems from a belief in ideals of ‘excellence’, as reflected in Arts Council policy. The contention that the money available for the arts should be reserved for ‘quality institutions’ such as the Royal Opera House, rather than being spread through the whole community, automatically relegates the public to the role of passive art-worshippers. It is not a decision that would be countenanced in any other area. The proposal, for example, that the money available for education should in future be spent only on the supremely gifted would immediately arouse opposition. The idea that the arts are things that happen in ‘quality institutions’ seems to be essentially competitive. It puts ‘achievement’ in the arts on a level with national sporting triumphs or scientific breakthroughs. This triumphalist view of art seems to be related to the notion that high quality artworks are ‘monuments’ to the human spirit … [and] should be left to geniuses, and that ordinary people should not be encouraged to play any part in them."

Now of course, in recent years the Arts Council has become known for its box-ticky ‘inclusion’ agenda – which I’ve argued in other posts and in other people’s comments boxes doesn’t seem so unreasonable to me as it does to many. But put into the context of ACE’s historical raison d’etre, it could be that this social agenda was an aberration. What we are seeing now could be a sudden reversion to type in ACE policy. The emphasis does certainly seem to be shifting away from artistic process and back towards artistic product, which is perhaps why companies such as the inspiring and much-loved community theatre company London Bubble are getting it in the neck (not that their shows aren’t brilliant, just that their community sensibility and aesthetic doesn’t fit the ‘product’ model when it comes to judging value).

My dictionary defines ‘to excel’ and ‘excellent’ as ‘to be superior to or better than; to surpass others’ and notes its Latin roots in ex (‘out of’ or ‘from’) and celsus (‘on high’). I don’t like the whiff of snobbery in the etymology of that word. And I certainly don’t like it in the art which I pay for or consume.

Let’s hope that the Arts Council has learned something about art’s role in the community in the past 60 years, and outgrown the unpleasant and elitist post-war culture which engendered it.

1 comment:

Peth said...

Glad someone is doing some historical contextualising of the current situation. What bugs me is when one of these policy reports, such as Mc Master, gets written Theatre gets bundled in with the other art forms with little or no thought. No-one stands back and considers the differences between theatre and other art forms. To practise music you need an instrument. To practise painting you require paint. To practise theatre you need people – and they’re not so easy to compartmentalise.
The different tools in each artform link to different teaching and assessment methods. Music and painting are encouraged through exercises or studies and are followed by external examinations. The eventual excellence of music or painting is partly measured by the technique displayed.
Working with theatre, and with people - their stories, emotions, wrinkles and empathy - is trickier. Theatre making tries to create relationships and connections between people. Between a company in rehearsals and then between the company and the audience.
It follows that deciding whether the theatre is excellent or not, is something that the people with whom, and for whom it is made, should be asked (but only afterwards - asking "is this relationship excellent ?" when trying to make it will kill it stone dead). Assessing it externally is somewhat voyeuristic.
But is the depth and richness of theatre related to the range of people by which the theatre is made ? If we have a narrow class base making and attending our theatre is it a bit like only using the blue paints, or the major key ?
I am not suggesting technicolour jazz theatre - heaven forfend. But I am arguing that theatre needs to be a broad church - the broadest of the art forms. With many approaches, a range of forms and lots of words to debate what is good or not.
If the criteria for the excellence of theatre are framed from/by a narrow perspective and in a particular language, is it not likely that the spectrum of the people involved will narrow accordingly - and theatre will be the poorer.