For me, this was the most important thing I wrote in 2011. It was published in the Morning Star in November but their online archive has screwed up, so it’s not saved alongside my other MS pieces. Also (as usual) they edited quite heavily, so here is my original version.
The immorality of subjective opinions on art, when distributing public money
People are fighting tooth and nail to save UK arts funding, working every angle, in many different ways. Often locally with no thanks, they’re doing fantastic things with seemingly little arts establishment support, including from within some of the organisations most threatened. The pervading sense of pessimism is rampant and real, come from knowing that this government’s ideological intent is to ruin state supported culture for a long, long time.
Against that backdrop, I am coming to a difficult but strong realisation about one particular flawed goal of the Arts Council and other funding organisations divvying up taxpayers’ cash. And it may be an uncomfortable moment to make this argument but if we are ever to salvage something worthwhile from the wreckage it needs to be acknowledged:
The problem I have is with the key stated goal to support ‘great art’; in other words the part of the funding body’s remit that purports to decide whether the ‘art’ proposed by a project is ‘good’, or not.
This utterly subjective (at all times) element of assessing ‘quality’ is only one part of how they choose who gets our money but it is a load-bearing pillar, occupying the minds of everyone involved. Load-bearing and built on the cheap: I believe this goal of the Arts Council’s funding process to be immoral.
Art is subjective. We might not know for hundreds of years whether something we create today is ‘good’ or not. We will likely never truly know. The eternal imbalance of populism and deeper worth has not – and will not – be ‘solved’ and in fact we don’t want a solution because the conversation about it is half the ball game of artmaking in the first place. So there is not a piece of art or craft out there, that a smart person cannot either defend for its greatness, or destroy as being without value – and it’s very fun, except when public funds and lifelong artmaking livelihoods are at stake.
Yes, art is subjective. Regardless of training, experience or any other bullshit, nobody at the Arts Council – and nobody the Arts Council hires to make those decisions for them – knows any better than you or me.
To have a system where our public money is spent according to the subjective taste of whoever makes that funding decision is a drastic, soul-deep wrong and also a strategic disaster for a couple of reasons:
First, it forces the system to tend towards a reneging of the responsibility of making that decision. By which I mean that since, deep down, shamefully, they know it is wrong, they put phenomenal amounts of time and effort into building barriers between themselves and the decision-making process: channelling everything through buffer organisations who do the curating, or A&Ring, or hiring, for them. Thus: the execrable, inexorable rise to power of the professional form-filler. A monumental betrayal of artmakers and consumers alike. The construction industry of faux self-justifying gibberish.
Secondly, it kills the focus on the ways they should pick projects to support: assess the need of the audience; assess the need of the artist; and assess the commitment to practice and work ethic of the artist. Surely there’s enough in those three to keep these bastards occupied without them having to pronounce nebulous, world-ruining gibberish on quality?
Speaking at Norwich Sound & Vision Conference on a panel about public funding, a founder of the merseyside-based Generator organisation explains how he will pick a young band he thinks “could make it” (in an entirely commercial sense, regardless of creative value, though of course it’s going to boil down to whether he digs them, or worse, whether he likes their haircuts). He’ll then spend “only” £10,000 releasing a couple of singles by that band, to see if they can capture an audience in that time-frame. And if not, they’re dropped back in the pond. He’s salaried to behave like the worst kind of record industry executive with a credit card built from taxation. I am pro taxation but not for that kind of McDickery.
In Brighton, the vast city-wide White Night event is denied funding, while four individual pieces scheduled to take place within it are commissioned, so that the ACE can spin that it somehow supported the event that actually it shackled. And nobody can argue because everyone’s terrified of pissing off the local reps and ruining their own futures. Similarly, for Brighton Digital Festival (an event I’ve praised in these pages) there isn’t enough money for the steering committee to print a brochure, yet one contributing organisation scores £50,000 to put into a handful of specific ‘major’ commissions, including at least one that is already publicly funded just to exist.
This is the difference between having an opinion on a piece of culture and deciding that your opinion has more value than other people’s. But no, it does not. Because – sigh – art is subjective. The idea that these people spot ‘great’ art is objectively impossible to assess but over and over again, they patently fail. But that’s my opinion! Project after project is not worth the money it is given, compared to what that money could do, if they removed that subjective ‘great art’ goal from the equation.
It is not just wrong, or poor strategy, or a minor short-term mis-step: it is totally immoral.
Once again someone with a relatively high profile in the music world bemoans the lack of ‘political’ artists in pop music. Usually it is an artist who makes the claim, which is disheartening enough but at least they have good intentions.
But this time it was Krissi Murison, editor of NME, writing not in her own paper but in The Guardian. Now I admire Murison’s editorship of the paper; I think she’s the best chief NME has had in over a decade. She has brought structure and good – sometimes great – writing back to a magazine that lacked it for too long.
But what she wrote is problematic, simply because she herself is such a powerful gatekeeper; bemoaning the lack of people in a room, while choosing who is allowed in. I scarcely need tell you, it’s not remotely true: as ever, there is a great pile of high quality, openly political, socially radical and progressive UK artists of all genres, banging on the door. They’re also well marketed, with better tunes and more savvy than the generations before – they’re not crusty losers. Any creative across any art form will tell you, these are fecund times for radical, polarised art.
Ms Murison, it is the arts critics and their editors who suppress the political, radical, or truth-speak in modern culture, not a mysterious lack of people doing it. In your case, it is the writing of your critics and your own editorial decisions that have been unable to lift the post-Bragg exclusion zone around radical music in the UK. Not for party-political reasons, nor even for the often rolled out stuff about image being everything (plenty of sexy pop singers are socially conscious too). But simply because the relentlessly corporate energies that drive papers like NME (and many others, as well as review sections in tabloid and broadsheet), find sincerity, optimism, commitment and opinion so unattractive, unnerving, that they instinctively force to the periphery people who edge into those areas.
What these machines are comfortable with is schtick.
Modern pop cultural critics like style, form and rendering much more than they like content, intent or layers of meaning. They do so because it’s immediately apparent: you know what a show looks like long before you unpack what it’s trying to say. It’s quicker and easier, so you filled up your notebooks with vivid experiential fluff long before any actual meaning began to sink in.
Worse, meaning itself is always debatable – and there’s nothing critics fear worse than being made to take a position that might isolate them from their peers. The deepest, darkest fear in the arts critic’s heart is that he or she will get a review ‘wrong’; flying against everyone else’s deeper understanding of a piece.
So shrug off intent and write up the hats.
Meanwhile, the editors are so busy worrying about the business, they forgot what they wanted to say in the first place. Even as newspapers diminish and music splinters, even as blogs dominate, the NME remains a powerful voice in the music industry. If you get the NME vocally onside, you will likely break your band – or at least give them a workable shot. I don’t mean reviews per se; I mean a slightly grander sort of feature-led coverage, alongside regular referencing in the news and other sections, that places a band firmly at the heart of the reader’s perceived ‘scheme of things’. NME support also powerfully encourages Radio 1 to commit; which in turn is still perhaps the UK’s most powerful method of kicking an act into the mainstream.
These decision-makers are not the faceless business types that artists, especially struggling bands, might believe. They do love music and they work in the music world for that reason. However, at key moments their assessment inevitably has less to do with music and more to do with judging how much money is being invested and who is doing the investing. And here is a truth long established by such organisations as Media Lens: the nearer you get to the top of any profit-making heirachy, the more the views will be concentrated in pragmatic, non-confrontational centrism.
So the radicals sit where they are perceived to be best suited, where their meaning doesn’t need too much unpacking: outside the door.
Ms Murison, let them in, or shut the hell up moaning. Don’t go to a broadsheet and gripe; run a ‘new reds’ special and radicalise your own charge.
Not me though, I was gutted.
Shows how naive I can still be – I’ve always loved Emin’s art, so I made fat old assumptions about her empathy with other people and felt surprised and betrayed to discover her ideology sucks.
Emin’s new exhibition Love Is What You Want at London’s Hayward Gallery is as compelling, blackly comic and angry as ever, by the way.
If there’s a problem with her work in 2011 it’s simply that tapping veins of self and displaying them in public is passe now, normalised by millions of people – especially kids – who over-share like mad every day online.
What is music media figure Charles Hazlewood and Jo Brand’s production company What Larks doing apparently ripping off creative work from a small charity for disabled musicians?
In the past Hazlewood has been involved with some genuinely interesting projects, combining a career as a moderately successful conductor with roles in events management and the media.
He’s part of the Somerset crowd, conducted the first symphony at Glastonbury Festival and does good work popularising orchestral music.
But this week I found Hazlewood involved with a bit of media chicanery that appears deeply underhand and leaves me questioning his motives.
For the past five years, small but highly respected disabled musicians’ charity Drake Music has been developing an ambitious large-scale project called Concerto, to launch and support a working orchestra for musicians with disabilities and provide them with bespoke new music to perform.
We’re only six weeks into 2011 and it’s already shaping up to be the finest vintage year for album releases in half a decade, probably longer.
Time after time in the past month, bands and artists I love have produced the goods, headed towards their peak form or returned with true passion and creativity after a gap.
In fact, I have heard almost enough albums in January alone to equal my 10 favourites from the whole of last year.
For me the clear masterpiece so far is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which repositions her as a world-class outward-looking war artist.
I might not be the person you’d expect to call for more measured rhetoric from “our side” in the current escalating cuts conflict but I’m going to.
Last year, when Camilla Parker Bowles’s terrified face was splashed across the tabloids to much hilarity after she was “poked with a stick” by protesters who attacked the royal car, an unexpected reaction I felt was sympathy for the old lady.
Of course the Establishment press ran with the story, a convenient rug under which to brush far worse abuses of peaceful demonstrators by police officers, as well as the wider and quite appalling hurt caused by the kettling tactic.
Even this week, after a weekend in which non-violent protesters were assaulted with CS gas on Oxford Street, the mainstream media will under-report and equivocate.