Spending our money on the arts
posted on November 13th, 2011

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.


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