Friday, November 20, 2009

The Weight of Smoke


A story was told by either Harvey Keitel or the other guy in the movie, SMOKE, that some historical figure wanted to know the weight of smoke. So, he weighed a cigar before it was smoked and then weighed the ashes at the end - the difference between the two was the weight of the smoke. The only problem of course is that now neither smoke nor cigar actually exist. Although I'm sure the guy doing the experiment felt great - a combination of nicotine and new knowledge.

I read with interest a recent email from Theatre Forum about the new asessement process being piloted by the Arts Council. New, although mind you they commissioned Francoise Matarasso to write the paper on this assessment in 2000. A paper called Weighing Poetry. The point of this exercise was - and is - to help the Arts Council Team evaluate artistic work.

Among the key criteria for evaluation we have

* Ambition (innovation, risk-taking, originality)

We have a problem here, right at the get-go. What if the artist's notion of ambition, innovation, risk taking and originality are at odds with the evaluators? Or vice versa. What if both their notions of ambition etc are at odds with what the audience are prepared to engage in? Originality is one of the most questionable concepts here, because the more we are aware of the work of other artists in other times and other places the less original much work becomes. But to the artist who knows nothing of what what the viewer knows,  their work seems so terribly original to them. Who decides what is ambition in an artistic context and do we exclude social, political, philosophical ambition from the artistic?

* Execution (quality of technique, skill, performance, sceneography, direction, etc.) Yes, but is the evaluation of the execution to be at all mitigated by the ambition (etc) and by our awareness of the economic context of production? Or are we to assume that the evaluators have some absolute knowledge of and skill in the techniques they are evaluating against which they will measure the achievements of the artists?

* Effectiveness (connection with the audience, engagement & audience response, the extent to which piece affects change and leaves a lasting impression). Now this is an absolute beauty! What happens - as has been known to happen - when an audience cheers and weeps and stomps their feet at what is patently (from a  particular point of view) a piece of shit! Does the evaluator reevaluate their own criteria to try to comprehend something about the shit that they missed. Or indeed, when the evaluator sits nearly alone in the theatre, moved beyond tears by this piece of theatre that the rest of the population is staying away from in droves, will this ambitious, innovative, original and risk taking - in their opinion - theatrical event be marked poorly because it has so clearly failed to connect with the audience. And will the extent of the connection be considered with reference to the size of the marketing budget?

I really don't think that any of those criteria in the hands of any group of people fill me with confidence, quite simply because artistic evaluation is a subjective event, which is slightly more credible than a matter of opinion.The arts council have been running around in circles for decades trying to base their decisions on, and defending those decisions in terms of, objective artistic criteria.

Here's an idea to solve the problem of subjectivity. What if the arts council redefined its role so that its purpose was not to identify and support art (how are they uniquely qualified to perform this mandarin task?) but to support and develop the infrastructure in which a whole range of artists and expressions could thrive?

The only criteria they then need to apply to an evaluation is what kind of support does this artist or organisation need and the only criteria they need to apply to a decision is in what way will this decision enhance the overall well-being of the industry (it's ability to grow and sustain itself).

One of the problems with the current artist/funder relationship is that by focusing on the subjective notion of the artistic merits of individuals rather than on the development of an integrated  sector they have created a dependency organisation rather than a development organisation. The arts sector is like Samson with a really sharp haircut. A huge, powerless, lumbering slave.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing comments about this new evaluation process is this phrase:

"The ambition is that everyone who asks the Arts Council to see their work will have their work seen." Mmmmm. I've been doing this for 25 years and they still haven't solved this problem.