Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Arts Debate

The Arts Council sent me a letter a few weeks ago asking me, as Artistic Director of Border Crossings, to participate in the Arts Debate. I wonder quite what the idea behind this is. I suspect that it's a lobbying exercise, intended to show the government how significant the arts are in the lives of voters, and how mad it would be to cut them back. If so, then I'm right behind them! On the other hand, it may be a more genuine consultation about the future of arts policy; in which case the voice of Border Crossings had better be heard, since I suspect we divert from the mainstream in quite a few ways.

I've sent back a consultation form and posted some responses on the website - but I thought I might as well put them on the blog too, since there is an element of the position statement here. The questions are theirs - the answers are mine (with the benefit of discussion with other artists involved in the company).

1. What do you value about the arts?

I’ve been asked to respond to this consultation as Artistic Director of Border Crossings, which is an intercultural arts organisation, and my answers will of course be coloured by that perspective. But I feel that what we offer, as a company working in intercultural theatre, is in many ways representative and characteristic of art more generally, and is able to highlight the incredible value of art and culture in any society.

I happen to be writing this in Athens, because I’m working with the National Opera of Greece at the moment. It’s an appropriate place in which to try to answer these questions, especially for a theatre practitioner like myself, because it was here that western theatre was invented. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it was also here that western democracy was invented. Democracy, contrary to the implication of much US-UK foreign policy, is not something which can be imposed upon a society, or latched onto the coat-tails of capital. It is something which arises out of a culture, an atmosphere. As artists and cultural workers, our role is to create such an atmosphere. The arts make moods amongst their audiences. They empower those audiences through the atmospheres they generate. They make certain things thinkable, and other things unthinkable.

At the present moment, much of what, throughout the history of western civilization, we have regarded as unthinkable within democratic structures and traditions, is becoming thinkable. I mean the erosion of civil liberties, the institutionalisation of racism, the criminalisation of the victims of human trafficking, the labelling of people fleeing persecution as illegal migrants, the deliberate impoverishment of people in other countries by multinational corporations… I could go on. These things happen because we have become capable of thinking the unthinkable. They can only be stopped by a concerted campaign in the hearts and minds of the public.

In Periclean Athens, theatre was a civic duty – both for the performers and the audience. The entire citizenry went to hear and see a complex performance in which there were many voices; refined and made special through poetry, song, dance and image. The voices they heard were often those of the excluded – so many Greek plays have the names of women as a title, and the Chorus is so often a group of older people, or young people, or foreigners. Because in the arts, in the cultural space, people can meet as equals. There is no equality in the market-place or on the battlefield. We have no political, social or economic equality. But in the empty space of the theatre – there we stand as our naked selves. And that is where we must begin. In 5th century Athens, going to the theatre was a compulsory preparation for the legislative process and for jury service. If we are searching for ways out of our current moral bankruptcy – and I believe many of us are – then we could do a lot worse than look to this Greek cultural model.

So, if we desire a better society, a more democratic society, a more secure society, a more just society, we must invest in art and culture. Because when people explore what it is to be human, it enables them to become more humane.

2. What principles should guide public funding of the arts today?

I am very wary of the idea posted elsewhere in the consultation that the Arts Council should divide its funding programmes into three pots: community, national and individual. I am wary of this because it implies that these are the sole priorities for public funding, and this is surely nonsense. Yes, there is a clear need for national institutions which in some way reflect the nation to itself; yes, there is a need for community organisations which allow participation and self-expression. But the largest need by far is found in the middle ground between these two spaces; where the bulk of artists practice their work, making art which sometimes involves communities (but should not be compelled to, because sometimes a community benefits more from being described than from describing itself), and which sometimes deals with national concerns, but which can also focus on the local, the international, or the personal and internal.

The problem with these categories is that they are political and social categories, not artistic ones. I am acutely aware of the arts operating within political and social structures, and in dialogue with those structures – but to confine them within those structures is to deny their role as a critique and a source of alternative paradigms. The structures of funding should facilitate the creativity of artists, not confine them within rigid categories. In this sense, the current Grants for the Arts structure is better than the proposed alternative.

3.What are the responsibilities of a publicly funded arts organisation?

To bite the hand that feeds it.
To be the jester at the court.
To embrace the complex and to assert that to be accessible is not to be simplistic.
To reflect upon and to create new worlds.
To be our prophets, our secular priests, our dreamers and our clowns.

4. When should an artist receive public money?

When they have proved themselves capable of dreaming on behalf of the public.

5. Should members of the public be involved in arts funding decisions?

As with any aspect of policy, governments and quangos should talk to people capable of holding the conversation. Members of the public are sometimes involved in decisions about (say) science policy, if (and only if) they have an expertise in that area. The arts and culture should be no different.

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