Last month I attended a regional meeting that was called by Pavilion Dance South West, inviting anyone from the dance profession in the region to discuss the current state of affairs in regards to public spending in the arts, under the banner of the new initiative/movement/set of ideas, called What Next?
Some big questions were posed throughout the day and some gentle answers were given – but for me, the day was far more useful when viewed as a provocation rather than a place to find solutions.
The central axis of the day was the challenge that if we (being people making a living from dance) are relying on public sector subsidy to sustain and fund our profession, we must be able to articulate the reasons why our work deserves to be funded by the tax-payer – which from every conceivable angle of observation, is a very fair point.
Throughout the day, one of the emergent themes was the apparent chasm between dance that was performance-based and dance that operates in a community, education or health setting. The latter being able to reel off point after point in justification for its use of public resources that everyone was able to understand and virtually no one contested. When the discussion veered towards dance that was being made for performance, however, the arguments either simply weren’t there or were as abstract and intellectual as the art form they were trying to defend. I very much include myself in this. This is not to say that arguments need to be simplified – but I believe there is an obligation for them to be, at the very least, comprehendible. The necessity for this was made clear during the day when, acting as the devil’s advocate, Deryk Newland – AD of PDSW, quite aptly it must be said, put forward a series of arguments against public funding for the arts – many of which resonated with me deeply. I’m sure I don’t need to reference any of these arguments directly, they are present around us constantly and are being voiced vehemently by many politicians and local councils now more than ever.
There is a danger of passing criticism on public subsidy in the arts and too easily feeding into a reductionist rhetoric, but I think that we as makers need to take a long look in the proverbial mirror and not the floor length one in the studio. We need to enter the political sphere that we live in, take our heads out of the bubble within a bubble that is the subsidised arts sector and come up with some genuine answers as individuals so that we can be happily held accountable and be able to meet this criticism with answers that are from our own minds and hearts, and not just the ones from the Arts Council website. If we want public money to make our work we need to feel safe in our own convictions as to why this is necessary.
This is public money, and yes it makes up a tiny fraction of the overall public purse, and yes it is hard enough to get anyway, but a huge amount of work is still being created and is still being funded that I believe has absolutely nil regard for any sense of “why” or social responsibility.
The primary purpose of this post isn’t to point the finger at other makers – I often feel that the “why” escapes me – and I’m sure that is a natural part of a creative process, but I am inviting myself and everyone else to try and bring this “why” back to the fore. If it isn’t then all the allegations of naval gazing, waste of money, bourgeois elitism are essentially true. I believe that the primary responsibility for this questioning and justification lies with the artist.
There are incredibly brilliant theories out there that make the point – The RSA and other organisations write reams of eloquent and highly sophisticated essays on the topic – such as Ken Robinson referring to the arts as not culture, but as a part of culture. An integral part in the matrix that consists of technology, food, science, fashion and everything else that contributes to the development of a societies beliefs, thoughts and values. There is also the argument of economic stimulation, that cultural institutions attract commerce and other business. And the argument that like public transportation, the arts are a service that should be run at a loss because they engender a sense of belonging and connectedness for members of various communities.
All of these arguments are valid and necessary – but without the underpinning of the artists having genuine conviction in why they are making the work they are making, and the ability to explain why this is of value to their community or the rest of society as a whole – they are hollow.
A few weeks ago, I went to a talk as part of Mayfest entitled Theatre as a meeting place, Mark Storor was one of the artists speaking and his thoughts about this subject were beautiful.
He was talking about, amongst many many others things, the notion that art and the creative process can not just be justified to deal with a specific issue, or be brought in to contribute to a certain area of life, but that a true creative process will be beneficial to all areas of life for those that partake, engage, or observe it. He made this point with incredible eloquence and while talking about his work in a children’s hospital; I would beseech anyone to disagree with him.
The why is so clear, yet so hard to quantify.
This in itself is the point though, that because that “why” is so fragile, we need to bring it into sharp and primary focus, or accept, laying down, the dire repercussions that could come if we don’t.
I would hope that this isn’t interpreted as a set of words that call for another hoop for us as artists to jump through to get our hands on, what is in most cases, a very small amount of capital to produce our work. Instead, I feel that these provocations, which are being presented to us left right and centre, are demanding a response, and not the patrony that they are sometimes met with.
I think this is an amazing opportunity for us, and the sector as a whole to re-ask some basic questions, and to make sure that our work is offering something to the wider world.
I think that we all believe our work does offer something – I would imagine that’s why most of us carry on, hearts on our sleeve, working for peanuts – but we do need to make sure that we can explain what this offer is. I think if we let others do this for us, then the arguments will lose their power and authenticity – let’s not rely on the producers and salaried industry professionals – it’s great that they’re fighting the corner as well – but lets make sure that from the grass-roots up, art and artists are genuinely socially conscious – this way we might be able to maintain the amazing and incredible opportunity that we have in this country to have a publicly subsidised arts sector.
Please do get in contact with any views, stories or objections. We are currently looking to pull people together in the South West to look at these questions and offer mutual support to find some personal and collective answers, possibly through the creation of a What Next? Group. If you would be interested in becoming part of this then please let me know.
Josh Ben-Tovim is co-director of Impermanence Dance Theatre with Roseanna Anderson. They are based in Totnes, Devon.