Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Never Waste a Good Recession

As the recession continues to deepen and the cuts in arts spending continue apace I want to share a fantastic quote from John Berger. Its from his introduction to Arundhati Roy's collection of essays - "The Algebra of Infinite Justice". Berger says this: "For those living with some comfort in the First World, the future no longer exists as a common reference point. Yet, for human beings, being sane depends on the acknowledgement of a continuity between the long since dead and those waiting to be born. The richer societies are being increasingly deprived of a temporal dimension essential to any spiritual life".

When I read this it occurred to me that the word I hear most frequently in the media and from the mouth of politicians is "back". Back to the markets; back to 2007 levels; get our sovereignty back; get back to where we where.

But aren't we where we are because of where we were? Surely the point is to move on from where we are to someplace better? Somebody once remarked that every organisation is perfectly designed to achieve the results it achieves. In other words we are where we are because where we were was perfectly designed to get us here. So why would we want to get back to it?

"...the future no longer exists as a common reference point" says Berger, implying that we cannot, collectively, imagine a future. Sure, we can imagine more stuff, but can we actually imagine a better way of organising ourselves? The mainstream media and the mainstream politicians don't seem to be able to imagine a better world. They can imagine the same world and promise that they'll manage it better next time but what evidence is there to support such a claim. (The latest Oxfam report has claimed that "Globally the incomes of the top 1% have increased 60% in twenty years. The growth in income for the  top 0.01% has been even greater." Never waste a good recession).

Any suggestion that there is another way of organising a society, managing resources, providing services, exchanging stuff is dismissed as silly, or as dangerous, or worse, as Leftwing.

Imagine another way of doing it.

One of the common themes in the literature of Leadership, dating back to the Greeks, is that of Vision. Leadership is equated with the ability, first and foremost, to imagine a desirable future. Yes, the Leader is then expected to be able to communicate that vision and motivate us to want to reach for that vision, but first and foremost the Leader must be able to imagine that new world. "I dreamed a dream" as Martin Luther King said, or in the words of Steve Job's favourite ice hockey player "I skate to where the puck is going to be; not where it is".

What we really lack right now, within the official structures of our society,  is Leadership. The ability to imagine a desirable outcome, communicate that desire and marshall the available resources to undertake the journey. Many people have anger and passion. Others have nostalgia masquerading as Leadership. I fear that the latter group have their hands on the wheel.

But this is meant to be a blog on arts. So is there a crisis of leadership in the arts. I would say yes. At this point everybody starts citing examples of great people doing genuinely great things. I know some of them and envy many of them but this is not about the people doing incredible things despite the constraints. This is about the constraints.  As one writer put it, I can't remember who, "we should not confuse Leaders and Leadership".

I would argue that the structure in which arts struggle has to change. The structure is in the keeping of the Government and its appointed agencies. They are ones who, at this time, control the investment and make the policies, decide what art is good and what is not, decide who gets the resources and who doesn't. The cuts continue and they continue as if there were only one way of doing business - the way that it has always been done. No vision. Sit tight and it will all be fine. We'll get "back" to where we were eventually.

No. We won't.

There will be more cuts this year, and for the foreseeable future. Lets not forget that the reduction in state spending is not a temporary measure. Once state spending is reduced it will stay down because that is what this economic ideology demands and because unless we return to double digit growth (which is not going to happen) we will not have the money to get funding levels "back" to where they where.

I had a conversation with Paul Meade of GĂșna Nua late last year. We were talking about funding and funding cuts. The point was made that the arts could never win the "which do we fund? The play or the Hospital Bed" argument. And the Arts cannot win that argument.

A Leader would say that this is the kind of argument managers have. The real conversation, the Leadership conversation is what kind of world do we want to live in and what place do the arts have in that world.

But we can't have that conversation because, according to the people in charge, we already know what kind of world we want: it's this one, we just have to fix it.

The last two lines of Howard Brenton's translation of Brecht's Galileo come to mind:
 "Unhappy the age that has no heroes.
No. Unhappy the age that needs them"

Never Waste a Good Recession, as some famous business man said prior to a bout of asset stripping and "rationalisation".

The Arts - like every other institution in our society - have an enormous opportunity now. Previous strategies failed to create a resilient, sustainable and integrated industry. The Arts are not the heart of our society, not at the heart of our educational system, and are dependent on a single source of investment supporting an overwhelmingly consumer model of social value.  If we wait to get "back" to where we were then the size of the arts sector will dwindle. The challenge to us all is can we imagine another kind of industry, another way of doing it.

So. First step.


Do we have one?

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