Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Arts Act - For God's Sake Burn it Down

I mentioned in my last post that the Arts Act needed to be rewritten. It needs to be rewritten because its the single biggest obstacle to the development of a vibrant and sustainable cultural space. It is narrow, patronising and oppressive. The next arts act must be drafted by a wide constituency  - including  people who work in the arts and the cultural industries - if it is to be fit for purpose in this century. 

You see every strategy or policy document that comes out of the Arts Council or out of any local authority Arts Office is shaped and coloured by the Arts Act, which presupposes that the vast majority of the audience and the artists are disinterested, uneducated and substandard. The language of the act also implies that there are a privileged few (those who wrote the act and their descendants I assume) who are burdened with the task of elevating the majority. 

But what does it actually say? Well the vast majority of words are spent in describing what the arts council is, how it employs people and how it pays them (really the act is mostly a scope document), but if we strip away all of that we're left with very little.

The objectives and purpose of the council (which the Arts Act establishes) have been constant since 1951:
"(a) Stimulating public interest in the arts or
(b) Promoting knowledge, appreciation or practice of the arts, or
(c) Improving standards in the arts, or
(d) Otherwise assisting in the development or advancement of the arts"

The “Arts” means "any creative or interpretative expression (whether traditional or contemporary) in whatever form, and includes, in particular, visual arts, theatre, literature, music, dance, opera, film, circus and architecture, and includes any medium when used for those purposes” 

So whats wrong with this picture. None of the acts contain an explicit definition of what Art is, a clear statement of why it is  important, or a reason why it should be considered a suitable object for state funding. Rather the logic remains implicit, and the arts are defined as essentially problematic and in need of an audience, education and general improvement.  This has remained consistent since 1951. 

There is a disturbing lack of intellectual clarity in the language. Are we concerned with Art or with Creativity? Is a computer game creative? For that matter is the creation of any piece of software? Is journalism an interpretative act?  And why has design dropped off the list of Arts? And why is circus suddenly on the list? At what point is an extension to a house considered artistic and worthy of support. Is Riverdance a piece of art? If U2 reincorporated as a non-profit distributing company would they then qualify for arts council support? And when we say “any creative or interpretative expression” do we include mediocre expressions? How do we decide what is and is not mediocre? (And don't get me started on the fact that the act considers interpretative expression to be art but the revenue will not extend tax exemption to interpretative artists).

This wide definition of the Arts assumes that  the words “Culture”, “Arts”, and “Creativity”, are interchangeable and suggests a misplaced belief that they are “universal”,  and “timeless” as opposed to existing in constant flux with the society.  It also acts as a catch all to avoid offending or excluding anybody; but while it acknowledges creativity everywhere it goes on to narrow the spectrum by saying “in particular, visual arts, theatre, literature, music, dance, opera, film, circus and architecture”, bringing us back to the original list set out in 1951 with the addition of film and circus.

If the arts are “any creative or interpretative expression” and we do not include any objective criteria for quality evaluation (which is in itself fraught with difficulty) how then are we to identify that which should be funded? What happens is that we exclude from the frame all “creative or interpretative expression” that does not require funding (house extensions, U2, Riverdance) and so the key definition of the arts is those activities which require funding. Essentially the continuing crisis of funding is defined into existence. The funding is predicated not on the Art or the Creativity or the Culture but on the inability of some Arts/Culture/Creativity to directly create wealth in the short term (which, by the way, is an economic phenomenon known as "cost disease" and not the result of bad art, poor management or marketing).

From one point of view this is a non-point. Why would we fund it if it didn’t need funding? But behind it lies a more relevant truth. In defining the arts in this way, creating a category of arts that constantly require state funding we fail to grasp the totality of the industry and the relationships between the many parts. We build an assumption into policy that Culture and Art require funding, but that Industry and Creativity do not. Which, of course is a lie, as industry is funded to the hilt through direct and indirect supports (grants, tax relief, low minimum wage, job bridge, bailouts, infrastructure etc.).

But lets consider the assumptions underlying the four objectives:
"Stimulating public interest in the arts" suggests that public interest is low and needs to be stimulated. The arts are perceived as separate from the general public - essentially a consumer model of cultural impact.

"Promoting knowledge, appreciation or practice of the arts" suggests that one social group has the knowledge and appreciation and should share that with the “public” mentioned in the first item - a very elitist view of the arts. I have to ask, is "practice" a function of "knowledge and appreciation"? Also promote practice among whom? The public? The artists. Does practice belong in this sentence? 

"Improving standards in the arts", suggests that standards are low - but measured against what benchmark, in what context and by what criteria? And what standards are we talking about? Standards of conception? Of imagination? Of execution? Living? Reward?

"Otherwise assisting in the development or advancement of the arts" is a catch all phrase to allow for activities not captured in the previous three; but what kind of development or advancement are we talking about? Development and advancement toward what end?

Most important of all is that the first three core objectives are essentially educational: if you want to stimulate interest in anything then you educate, if you want to promote knowledge, appreciation or practice then you educate, and if you want to improve standards then you educate.

The Arts Act as it stands is more an Arts Education Act than anything else and those objectives should form part of the Education remit. Perhaps this made sense in the 1950's but today Irish art and culture is internationally acclaimed (not all of it and not all the time but that is normal).  The output of our cultural sector stands comparison with the best in the world. What artists do not need, what the cultural sector does not need, is a patronising and outdated Act that addresses a tiny part of the arts equation, and reflects a society where a privileged few decide what is good for the rest. What we do need is an act that clearly defines the place of creativity in the wider society, understands the contribution it makes to that society and to the economy, acknowledges the quality and potential, and creates opportunity for expression and development. What is needed is vision.

In fairness the last Arts Council strategic review, Inspiring Prospects, acknowledges the constraints but rather than recommending the fundamental change to the founding legislation which is so necessary,  the document looks inward, recommending changes within itself and the current relationships within the sector. (It also uses the word "should" far too often).

It seems to me that I'm always giving out and never saying what should be done. In acknowledgement of this compare for yourselves the narrow, constraining and patronising language of the Arts Act with the Creative Australia document which states:  

"Culture is created by us and defines us. It is the embodiment of the distinctive values, traditions and beliefs that make being Australian in the 21st century unique—democratic, diverse, adaptive and grounded in one of the world’s oldest living civilisations.
Australian culture has a firm base in heritage and tradition. It is also dynamic, evolving in response to a changing world and the increasing diversity, in all forms, of those who call this country home.
Culture is expressed in many ways—through the way we live, speak, conduct public life, relate to others, celebrate, remember the past, entertain ourselves and imagine the future. In sum, this captures the Australian spirit—a distinctive way of being that others recognise. Australian identity has a common core, but is not singular. Rather it is like a constellation, greater than the sum of its parts.
Culture is more than the arts, but the arts play a unique and central role in its development and expression.Creative Australia addresses the central role of the arts, heritage and creative industries in cultural expression and includes the individuals, enterprises and organisations engaged. This policy aims to enhance their special and evolving place in Australian life.
Creative Australia also articulates the aspirations of artists, citizens and the community, and the paths to agreed goals. It responds strategically to the economic and social challenges that the next decade of the 21stcentury is likely to present.
Creative Australia is informed by the belief that a creative nation is a productive nation in the fullest sense of the word—empathic, respectful, imaginative, industrious, adaptive, open and successful."

Australia has its problems; but that is an inspiring and intelligent statement. We could do with a bit of that here. 
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