I’ve been having a quiet time. Actually a noisy quiet time since much of it has been spent doing things like putting in a new garden fence (much hammering, sawing and swearing). But I thought I’d share these, following a recent visit to Leicester. Materials: chalk on paving slabs. Artist: I have no idea, but I hope he – it was a guy working on them, anyway – does well.
The unsurprising news emerged yesterday that many UK arts organisations will have their public funding reduced or cut entirely. The arts generally is always a bit of a soft target, open to a range of criticisms from less eligibility (‘how can you spend money on the arts when there are no many funding shortfalls in health/welfare/education?’) to profligacy to poor taste (‘you mean my taxes paid for that crap to be displayed in the gallery?’).
I have, I confess, very mixed views about this. On the one hand, my own ‘involvement in state funded art’ amounts to reading my stories at a couple of events that received Arts Council and local authority subsidies. That’s probably about as much as any writer does. On the whole we work in a sector of the arts that gets probably less public funding than any other. On the other hand, I’m aware I go to events, exhibitions and the like that cost vastly more to put on than can be paid for through ticket sales, so I’m benefiting from arts funding in that sense.
State funding isn’t always the best kind of funding to have, and a lot of the most innovative work often happens in obscure holes and corners of the art world (I mean ‘art’ in its broadest sense to include the whole spectrum of artistic endeavour), funded in ways that range from impromptu to implausible, and in some cases the artwork itself is carried out in secretive and illegal ways – yes, I’m thinking here mainly of graffiti. But that said, we also need to recognise that what’s obscure and innovative at one point in time is the orthodoxy twenty years later, and that the UK as a whole is a major global producer in the economy of signs and images. It relies heavily on the flow of artistic and cultural talent in all kinds of areas from music to art to scriptwriting, screenwriting, niche areas of film and even niche areas within film such as special effects. And, of course, development of computer games… it would wind up being a long list.
Anyway. Rant over. What intrigued me today was a BBC article, ‘Arts world gets creative in funding crisis‘. Ideas being tried out now are crowdfunding through multiple small donations via the Wedidthis, Sponsume and Wefund websites; sponsoring individual members of an orchestra, with side benefits including dinners with them; venues being opened up to events such as weddings and receptions; and increasing numbers of in-person and online courses in creative areas run by people who have public reputations in those areas.
The arts are being squeezed in all sorts of directions; not just public funding, but the role of the internet in providing free access to many arts products, whether because the artists have to put it out free for promotional reasons, or internet piracy (which in music and now increasingly in writing means that artists get paid nothing for their work and need to build other income streams – live performance or whatever).
It probably won’t all work out alright in the end. There will be casualties along the way, including, probably, the collapse of some well-known and well-respected organisations. The people who are most recession-proofed, however, will be those who’ve struggled without funding already, trying to get their artistic vision across in unconventional ways. I’d hope that those people, who are often the real cutting edge of new art talent, will be able to struggle for a bit longer, become even more inventive about how they operate, and not just survive but prosper. I’m hoping at least some people will find that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. And I’m hoping that’s not a vain hope.
This is more a diary entry than anything else. It’s been a day of dealing with practical stuff – almost an hour to de-ice the campervan (inside and out) before we could drive to Leicester and do various chores, which themselves took a fair bit of time. Hence I’m just sitting down at 7 in the evening to start what I think of as my ‘day’s work’. That’s the nice side of being freelance – when you have to, you can rearrange your schedule in that kind of a way.
I was struck by the thick frost on the trees – pretty as a Christmas card, and unusually considering towns are a degree or two warmer than the surrounding countryside, the trees in town are frost-white as well. Strange abstract shapes against the the rather modernist buildings. Sorry, no pics though.
I did however manage to drop into Fabrika, where Chris Cafferkey’s photos are still hanging. The exhibition they were in is over and a new one is there, some extraordinary paintings of demons by Ruth Joyce that look very cool. Meanwhile, a lot of what was in the exhibition is now in the cafe area including Chris’s pics – look up, they’re hung high on the wall near the door. Excuse the picture quality, it was done on my mobile phone. Her originals are, of course, in focus and technically accomplished…
They’ll be there until mid-January, they tell me, unless someone decides to buy them in the meantime.
So now I need to see if I can write sensible things about social housing policy and the like. If there’s time later I’ll go back to revise a couple of stories that have been hanging fire for a while as well. And that’s it for now. I’ll try to do a more erudite post about VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) tomorrow!
This is just a thought that came out of a late night conversation.
The cuts are coming: the pain will be felt everywhere, and that includes the arts. Initial reaction seems to be that the impact is going to be felt hardest at among smaller, more specialist, and regional groups for whom the withdrawal of relatively small amounts of funding – for a part-time administrator, say – will be the difference between the group functioning and not functioning.
It’s not as though many of the individuals receive funding directly, because they don’t – I’m thinking here of the archetypical starving artist in his/her garret, the musician whose interest is circuit-bending old electronic toys to make different sounds, the writer who’s trying to find some new literary voice or style. But they all benefit indirectly from public money supporting events and social networks in ways that are often hidden, such as subsidising conferences, seminars, guest speakers/performers at events, finding the odd couple of hundred quid for a group to be able to publish something, and so on.
If that kind of ‘seed money’ and organisational capacity is going to be reduced in future, we’ll need to find alternative ways of operating. Creatives are good at that. Maybe we’ll end up reinventing 19th century styles of socialising, with private soirees and informal groups in people’s front rooms. Maybe we’ll see more of something that already happens to a certain extent, with workshops tacked on to commercial events. But the lifeblood of creative endeavour is networking: the ability to stay in contact with like-minded people, or find others with the same interests in order to share skills, opportunities and so forth.
One way to ensure the capacity for this to happen is, in informational terms, building in redundancy. In practical terms this means that for any one individual, connections to others can come through multiple channels so that if some of those channels disappear, others will remain. Even in these days of Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, Google and WordPress it’s often harder than you might think to connect to actual real people who share your interests and live close enough together that they can meet face to face occasionally.
So while the opportunity is still here, I personally am going to start cultivating networks and building my personal ability to stay in contact with those who are doing things that keep my creative juices flowing. And we probably all need to be doing this far more intensively now than we have done in the past.
I’ve been looking at the headline details of arts funding in the government’s Spending Review. Unsurprisingly, government spending on arts generally is to drop 24% in current spending terms and 32% in capital spending. Currently, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has an annual budget of £2 billion – just about the smallest ministerial budget, though interesting it’s not a whole lot less than, say, the Foreign Office (£2.2 billion). And unlike the monster departments like Work and Pensions, Defence, Health or Education they’re not in the position of having to fund major capital expenditure or meet benefit entitlements.
Mainly what’s being cut is the CMS core administration budget, though funding to the BBC is being rejigged – the BBC will take over funding for the World Service, which as an independent source of news worldwide is probably where the funding should come from anyway. A bunch of other cuts are being made as well – to the school arts creative partnership programme, support for the British Film Institute, etc. Funding for Arts Council England is cut by almost 30%.
The impact is likely to be felt most in areas such as opera and theatre, classical music and museums which often cannot function – and certainly not take risks on new, innovative work – without some level of subsidy. In terms of the BBC, it may have unfortunate effects in terms of reductions for programming – though one hopes the BBC will continue to do what it does best, news, documentary, cultural programmes and cutting-edge drama, without feeling the need to start competing against the chat shows and reality programmes that grace most of the other channels. However, the Arts Council cuts will probably impact mainly on smaller regional and minority arts organisations, which will be a pity for reasons I’ll explain below.
So the cuts are coming. And I have five ‘first thoughts’ on them.
Firstly, as an author in relatively uneconomic genres, you might think none of this affects me. I write, I sell stuff (sometimes) to magazines that are commercial operations (sort of) and receive no state funding anyway, and make most of my income from writing educational materials. But the cuts do concern me.
They concern me because in the wider scheme of things, I’m a member of a network of small ventures that do receive Arts Council funding – events for reading fiction, websites for regional writers and so forth – and to the extent that they have to scale back or close, I will lose my connections to certain ways of publicising myself. As a white, middle-aged hetero male I’m not going to be directly affected by cuts that involve loss of support for minority groups but those groups are there for a reason and however small a niche they serve, they have a wider social and community importance. Even if I’m not involved in any of them directly their loss is, to a small extent, my loss because they are part of an interlocking network of creative people that I interact with. And I wouldn’t want to minimise their importance – literally in some cases the lifeline they offer – to some creative people from a range of minority populations.
My other thoughts are perhaps more optimistic.
Secondly, one of the things that creatives are good at is treating problems as opportunities. If need be, a literature group can function out of the upstairs room of a bar, got for free because the bar wants the bodies in there and the bar takings. That won’t pay for an organiser or publicity, sure, but there will be ways around that.
Thirdly, a huge amount happens in a purely commercial environment. Magazines, publishers, science fiction conventions and music festivals don’t get public funding anyway. There are plenty of examples of how to do ‘unpopular’, ‘minority’ or ‘niche’ arts that don’t rely on funding. For the kinds of things I’m involved in, the cuts will be a major inconvenience but not, I hope, a disaster.
Fourthly and finally, there’s a certain irony that hard times themselves often furnish the material for art. In the long view, that was true of the Thatcher years of the 1980s, when cuts of all sorts generated an explosion of art, music and writing that took the hard times – of the artists and of people generally – as their subject matter.
Fifthly and finally, the cuts are likely to mean some regional theatres closing, orchestras downsized, and so forth. And this is regrettable. But it may have some interesting implications, as those who have previously had some level of comfort from state funding are pushed towards ‘marginal’ or ‘niche’ ways of doing things and perhaps into collaboration with those of us who have had – apart from the small amount of money facilitating our social networking – no slice of the budget to start with.
Culture and the arts are and will remain important. They define who we are and reflect on aspects of our human existence and identity. They won’t stop being important, and despite the cuts creative work will continue to be done. In different ways, no doubt, and for many, less comfortable ways. But there’s one thing about creative people – they don’t ever stop being creative about their art and how they get it out to the public.
I’ll explain the pic later…
Today I’m sitting at home checking URLs in a training package – about two-thirds are outdated so it’s slow going. Yesterday, however, I was in London to see my younger son get his new hoody.
By ‘hoody’, of course, I mean his academicals – the gown and hood worn for a graduation ceremony.
Afterwards we went for a meal just next to Smithfield market, in a place that appears to sell entire sides of beef on a plate. The place is only a few yards from the site of the now-disappeared Fortune of War public house, the centre of the ‘resurrectionist’ trade – the sale of stolen corpses for medical dissection – until the Anatomy Act 1832 cleaned up the whole business of obtaining cadavers for medical students to work on. There’s quite a lot more information on this, incidentally, on Wikipedia for the ghoulishly inclined.
Just to be on the safe side, I had the fish… and my son’s a vegetarian anyway.
When all the festivities were over I nipped back to the Barbican (where the ceremony had been) because their art gallery has an exhibition ‘The Surreal House’ that runs until 12 September. It seems to have attracted quite a lot of attention. It’s big (170-ish works) and several of the pieces are either installations that periodically do stuff, or video pieces that run for maybe 10-15 minutes.
I’ve had a long-time interest in surrealism, so this was an opportunity to see (or see again) a number of well-known pieces, and find some new treasures in particular, for me, the work of Joseph Cornell (miniatures of artworks inside carry cases), Maya Deren and Jan Švankmajer. The first item in the exhibition, incidentally, is an old Buster Keaton silent film – and looking at it in this context, it’s interesting see that much of the humour and even the direction and production of the film seems to owe a great deal to surrealist influences. Or maybe the surrrealists were influenced by Keaton? I don’t know. Something to explore further when I have time – I’m assuming there’s a literature on this somewhere!
Much of the exhibition reminded me of the old Guy Bachelard paper on ‘The Phenomonology of the House, from Cellar to Attic’ (something like that anyway: I could get the proper reference but I’m being lazy). It’s an exploration of moods, meanings, and desire – sexual desire, given the links between surrealism and psychoanalysis, but differentiated into many forms – and how they are influenced by, but also expressed in, architecture and design.
Anyway, it’s an intriguing exhibition and I’d highly recommend it if you can get there.
Finally, the reason for the pic at the top of this piece – it’s random, a shot of a palm tree in the Barbican conservatory, taken from the gallery cafe that overlooks it, after I’d overloaded on surrealism for a couple of hours. Make of it what you will!
This runs until 16 May – I was down there yesterday when stuff was being hung, and even half-done it looked a pretty damn fine exhibition. They already had some good oils, acrylics, and a couple of intriguing mixed-media pieces. Then there’s Chris’s photos (which I’d gone down to deliver for her), plus they were telling me at least half a dozen other artists had supplied work that should be up by now.
In other news: the electricity supply company has been wanting to change my meter for a couple of months and the meter-changing guy arrived today. Only thing was, it’s an outside meter. And halfway through the job, it started to rain heavily. Hmm… electric and water… I ended up standing over him with an umbrella, and reassuring him that I do have a current first aid certificate in case of need!