Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A bit cross, actually

I've just overheard, via Twitter, someone at a conference telling artists and/or the creative industries not to whinge about the impending cuts because, remember, necessity fosters creativity. Now, he might have been paraphrased inaccurately, or misquoted, but the truth is I've heard this so much recently that it hit a nerve for me in a rather clumsy-dentist kind of way. I was just about to start a rant on Twitter in response, but then realised that I would have to paraphrase the argument, clumsily, so much that it would not make sense.

So, here I am.

Do some people really think that artists are unaware that a lack of funding doesn't mean they can't be creative? How do they think artists get started? For the first few years of their careers most artists work for nothing. The biggest subsidisers of the arts are artists. And later into - probably throughout, in fact - their careers, most artists will do work they don't get paid for.

Rest assured - there is plenty of necessity in the creative process. Our imaginations always outstrip our budgets. We would all rather have more time on pretty much everything we do, more money to spend on materials, facilities, space.  Great art comes from ideas and from craft. Both require time.  Early in our careers artists are willing, and able, to put in lots of unpaid time - because we want to. Don't get me wrong - we really want to - being an artist is a great occupation. And an important one; but let's not get into the hospitals and schools argument here, suffice it to say I want to live in a world with free healthcare, free education and art - and I don't believe it's an either/or choice.

But another reason that we put a lot of hours (weeks, months) in for free is because we have the ambition that when we get into our 30s and 40s, and maybe have families, we will actually be able make a living making art. I got asked once, "So, is the goal to get onto TV?" No, the goal is to carry on doing it - just a bit more comfortably.

"Comfortably." The enemy of creativity? No. It doesn't help me make a show to be worrying about paying the rent for the home my children live in. It helps my creativity to know I've actually only got two weeks left to make the show, and I have a formal device and some text that I like individually but that don't seem to work together; that helps my creativity if I have time to think about it and work on it. That problem does not help me, though, if I am having to work another job at the same time as making a show.

When I wrote the post last year about VAT on art contributing more to the economy than the arts receive in subsidy, a few people told me that we shouldn't be fighting that fight - that we shouldn't recognise the argument. Art's job isn't to create income for the government or society. But I think that it is not so binary. I think the arguments are intertwined.

I believe art is essential. Culture is the way we communicate, the way we dream, the way we argue, as a society. Therefore I believe we should support it. Some art - because of its form - finds it easier to be self sustaining - because it is reproducible, for example. Some art doesn't. But all of it is important.  Some art (and yes, I'm thinking specifically about live performance now, but it applies to other forms, too) becomes unaffordable to a large portion of the potential audience if the full cost of making and showing it (and telling people it is on) is passed on to the audience. That's not about whether it's any good or not. Live performance that is created for an audience of just a couple of hundred people a night, or fifty people a night, is not going to be affordable if the cost is divided between 200 or 50 each night.  But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be being made. Quite the opposite in fact.

And so I want to live in a society where the funding of art from government is greater than the amount of tax that art gives back to the state. It's a principal, and for me, the two arguments are intertwined.  Culture is essential. So it should be funded. Cut funding to it, and you cut it. There will be less of the art, less of the culture, that needs subsidy, in the next four years, because we, as a society, are giving it less money.  So artists, with years of experience, expertise and insight, will stop being artists. Some younger artists who would have gone on to be great artists, to have created great work, will stop making art before we see those great pieces.

And I can't help but think that these cuts are being made by, and because of, people who can very comfortably afford non-subsidised culture. People who will not experience the damage they have done.

Rant, written in haste: over.
Crisis: just beginning.


Anonymous said...

Considered rails against the smug apologists of cultural desecration: priceless

Rachel Jacobs said...

Thanks Alex, that rant was needed! Your not alone in your anger...
Rachel (Active Ingredient)

antoinette said...

I've heard the argument so often and fought against it for so many years...great to hear your voice and measured words. Hardly a rant, I'd say. I remember nearly throwing a book on the economic importance of the arts at a couple of arts ministers (they weren't allowed to use the word culture back in the 80s). And the amount of wasted creativity that went into wrting business docs, strategic analyses and arts council applications. And still does, I'm sure.
But, as we declared nack in the 68, La lutte continue...the fight goes on...

Jenny said...

If that was a rant - rant on! Extremely well argued - thank you on behalf of those of us too angry,and weary, to formulate either a coherent argument, or a satisfying rant, any more.

Jemmamcd said...


I could not agree more- Having spent the part 8 years making and touring work (both funded and unfunded) and as the company members now reach our 30’s we have also reached a point where if we do not receive support we will simply cease to exist.....

This is not about generating creativity, this is about the basic means to be able to feed, support and share creativity that is already alive and kicking. It saddens me that people could ( and indeed do) suggest that cuts to arts funding is in some way an opportunity in disguise.

Jemma ( The Paper Birds)

Javthompson said...

Well done. Regarding the schools and either/or point: there are countless studies showing how art improves reading/math scores and achievement. Not to mention critical thinking. To cut art funding in favor of school funding is absurd.

Unknown said...

Alex I'm not surprised your blog was retweeted so much. Great piece of writing. I came out of drama school in 1981 - and this is the most precarious I have ever felt. As Antoinette says 'La lutte continue' - and non-violent protest is no longer required. Art v Capitalism - it's not a fight it's a war.

Niall Crowley said...

Seems to me that both author and contributors are really after steady jobs and careers, which is apt because if your arts career is based on state funding then you are more of a government employee than an artist.

With all the discussions I've heard about arts and funding cuts over the past few months, it's shocking how many artists are completely reliant on state funding and can't contemplate a world without it. Personally I think the arts in the UK has really stagnated and artists have been transformed into arbiters of government policy.

If having to make our own way in the world means we begin to recapture a more independent outlook and stop becoming state social workers, then that's no bad thing in my opinion.

Hils said...

Nicholas, if artists wanted steady jobs, they'd get them. Most artists are well qualified, multi-skilled and resourceful (they have to be to survive). The vast majority of regularly funded organisations' income is less (often much less) than 50% of their turnover, so the assertion that they've become government employees is simply not true. The funding system has certainly become more explicitly instrumental in its approach, but to blame the artists for this doesn't make sense. If the arts are stagnating, as you assert, it isn't because some artists can afford office or rehearsal space for 3 years as a result of a small amount of regular funding.

Unknown said...

A very clear and cogent 'rant'.
I particularly felt the relevance of your comments about living comfortably not being harmful to your ability to make valid and interesting art. After all, have the bankers been more risk averse because of their large salaries and bonuses? I think not.
The question of all the tax revenue from the sector being used to support the sector is an interesting one. I instinctively like it, but am also aware that tax revenue is also used to fund road building, police, and other societal resources that underpin most activity people undertake, including the arts. However, I did find myself wondering what would happen to some other sectors if the same principle was applied. Are there sectors whose contribution to tax revenue is considerably less than its use of those revenues?

Alex said...

Well, this is a somewhat belated response to the comments on this entry - apologies for that, but as some of you will know, we have been at the sharp end of the funding cuts of late. (And, fortunately, the, what - handle end?)

Everyone - thanks very for the comments...

Nicholas - I certainly would like a steadIER career, and make no apology for that. I don't know any artists, though, who are "completely reliant" on what you refer to as "state funding". Arts Council funding is part of the mix, and when used and distributed well actually frees artists up to make the work that they want, rather than work that fits a particular commission, commercial or otherwise, or market demand.

Also, I don't view Arts Council funding as "state" funding. I view it as support from my community, it comes from the tax payer (and has been demonstrated elsewhere, is arguably all from tax raised by the arts). That support is distributed by the government, but that does not make me their employee. Societies need artists - public funding is one of the ways those artists are paid.

Clive - I agree that the 'funded from its own revenues' argument doesn't necessarily translate to other funded aspects of society. I pursued it as an answer to a vey particular question that I had heard directed at the arts. I know that Daniel Bye is currently developing a show called The Price of Everything that, amongst other things, explores that very question. Worth looking out for this autumn/early next year.