Monday, September 28, 2009

The Point of all this Art

A very disturbing thought hit me recently as I applauded the launch of the national campaign for the arts and read all the news from the face-book groups and read the letters to the times and the tweets from Farmleigh. I haven't heard a single compelling argument for maintaining funding to the arts at any level. Now, I work in the arts, I'm sympathetic to the principal of funding and I had to admit that if I was a civil servant I would not be swayed by anything I had heard.

I have heard a lot of words like soul, and uplifting and cutural identity and distinctive and so on and some mad stuff about the arts and smart economies, and cultural tourism and employment numbers etc etc, but saying something is important don't make it so. And the claims I'm hearing seem to be at odds with the experience I live. I would suggest that the vast majority of us do not create a distinctive culture but consume an essentially American diet. (Spend an evening in the company of actors and see how quickly we move through discussions of Irish drama and on to the last series of the Wire). Most of us don't go to the theatre, or spend time in art galleries or read the novels of Colm Tobin. Some of us do but most of us watch telly, read the sports pages, go to the movies, and read Cecelia Ahern (or in my case the novels of Neal Stephenson). As most regional arts centres will report they have to programme tribute bands and stand up comics to keep their audience figures up because the audience for Art, for whatever has been decided is art is tiny. It is tiny and it is predominantly class specific. In short a lot of public money is being fed into an arts structure that is consumed by a small group of professional and wealthy people or the children thereof.

Its oddly appropriate that the arguments for the preservation of the arts have fallen into the consumerist mode of thinking. Looking at a ballet, a play, a painting, reading a "good " book will not - in and off itself - make anyone smarter or better, nor will it make them want to repeat the expreience. This is a fundamental misunderstanding based on the exclusion of production from the equation. Our world in the last decade of insanity didn't want people to make things, we wanted them to buy things, lots of things, the economy was driven by consumption and we have a near religious belief in its power and necessity. And so we now have the argument that the arts must be consumed to make us feel good about ourselves.

A lot of work has been done on the impact of the arts on personality development. If you want the arts to make a smarter population then make production and participation freely available to all from the first day in school to the last. A person does not learn leadership from watching Henry V, or team building skills from a Marina Carr play, but they can learn a whole range of skills from trying to put a production on; the same goes for the visual and the musical arts. Consumption, by itself is just that. Combined with production and participation then the arts begin to achieve some of the extraordinary things claimed for them. The research is there to support this claim. It does not make morally better people (remember that hitler was an accomplished painter and great patron of the arts) but it does seem to make us smarter, more flexible, more able to problem solve, to think independently and to conceptualise outside the box.

The other argument is, essentially, whether the arts are a net benificiary or benefactor of the public purse. I have not seen any research that caluclates the gross return to the exechequer of artistic funding. I do know that in my own case the company I work for returns 84% of its grant to the government in direct and indirect taxation and in savings to the social welfare by taking people off the dole. The net cost to the state of funding us is therefore 16% of the face value of the grant.

More disturbing than this it would seen that a line has been drawn - arbitrarily in my opinion - between artistic and commercial pursuits. Wouldn't it be nice if artists and production companies were encouraged and rewarded to develop and produce one fantastically commercial product a year. By commerical I mean profitable. Something with the potential to generate cash flow and profit for two years at least. The funding bodies now under threat of cuts have over the last twentyfive years encouraged the development of work that is of minority interest and endowed with no commerical value. There are of course a few notable exceptions. So notable in fact that we have to question the consistency of the criteria. But that's another matter.

I personally believe may of the claims made by the various campaigners for the arts, but I also accept the comment made by an economist recently that there is no way to accurately corellate the level of foreign direct investment, export earnings or tourism to the level of government spending on the arts. There is speculation and there is passion but there is no formula. Therein lies one of the great weaknessess in the argument.

We are lacking commerical vision, the coherent long term business plan, the solid strategies and the quantifiable outcomes.

We also need to stop confusing the impact of the consumption of art with the very real impact of participation in it.