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Art, and Money
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable
writer has been given a grant of £2,000 by
Northern Arts (United Kingdom) to use sheep to
random 'poems'. Each of the animals has a word
from a poem written on their backs and as they
about, the words take a new 'poetic form' each
time they come to rest.
According to the 'poet' (the person, not the sheep):
'I decided to explore randomness and some of the
principles of quantum mechanics, through poetry,
using the medium of sheep'. A spokesman for Northern
Arts called the scheme 'an exciting fusion of poetry
and quantum physics'. As far as I am aware the sheep
have not as yet been asked to comment.
Baa baa fact sheet
There are two distinct issues relating to this story.
The first is how a person using the medium of language
in an unexpected setting, is attempting to express,
stimulate, and enlighten others about the nature
of randomness and uncertainty. Whether this is original,
effective, powerful, enriching, or is of any interest,
are questions surrounding the nature and critique
of this 'art'. The second issue relates to the politics
of art and how public money is spent in supporting
art projects. Both issues are inextricably connected
as the 'sheep poems' have been supported by a grant
provided by public funds.
Your money, my money
In common with many countries, part of the tax
revenue the UK Government raises goes towards supporting
the arts. Like all taxes that are taken from the
shared public purse in a democratic country, this
money should be spent carefully, and I argue in
the case of arts funding, should benefit the many.
What is art?
Definitions of the term art are often problematic.
'High Art' for instance presumes greater importance
and status in the culture of art institutions and
art critics. The definition of art that follows
seems to me inclusive and of most worth.
Art: the product/s of human creative activity which
often hold special significance.
art of the few
Only a small proportion of the general public actively
participate in, or go to make up the audience that
views 'high art'. The term 'high art' here covers:
the visual arts; music; drama; dance; and literature.
I have omitted certain creative fields like film
and multimedia as there often remains a reticence
on the part of art institutions and art critics
to recognise these as 'art forms' despite the obvious
justification for their inclusion.
The arts establishment
In the last hundred years an industry has developed
in promoting the mythical status of artist as someone
whose perceptions, comments, observations, and expressions
of the world are of interest and value to society.
The recognition that artists enrich our lives is
in part the reason governments have set up institutions
to administer the public funding of the arts. Governments
in less tolerant or totalitarian societies have
also established arts funding to further their own
political agenda, and the many and important issues
this raises will form the basis of a separate article.
One of the results of the establishment of arts
institutions in the West, is that arts administrators
exert a powerful influence on the way creativity
is supported and develops. Art that is funded by
governmental arts institutions is largely chosen
as a result of the likes, dislikes, and cultural
assumptions of a particular group of individuals
who are generally from a certain class and background.
These art administrators are variously called: Executives;
Board Members; Officers; Administrators; Arts Professionals:
and Artists. All institutions attempt to employ
staff that support and perpetuate the attitudes
and principles of the institutional hierarchy.
Art project funding: an
My experience of the arts establishment in England
is one of frustration and concern. In my conversations
with senior staff, it has become very clear that
the focus of arts funding, and the mindset of those
in the employment of the arts establishment in England,
is primarily to support a certain kind of contemporary
art and artist, and to view 'popular art', and art
which seeks to encourage the general public to participate
in large numbers, as of less worth and as an unlikely
candidate for their support.
The artist that is supported by arts bodies are
generally highly motivated individuals who are skilled
in preparing a project proposal that will confirm
the criteria set by the arts body. That is not to
say the criteria, principles or rhetoric of the
arts body will be adhered to. It is the artist who
must convince the arts administrator of the worth
of their project, usually before any formal proposal
of the project is admitted.
So long as the artist's project confirms the agenda
of the administrator, and the artist is socially
acceptable to the administrator, the project will
likely be funded. If the administrator takes a dislike
to the artist, the project will most likely fail
at the starting blocks. It may be a surprise for
many to learn that arts funding is not forthcoming
as a result of an effective written funding application.
Arts funding applications are far more confirmations
of previously agreed conversations.
Simply put, while there is reasonable and convincing
rhetoric about the openness of arts funding in England,
in practice it is closed and prejudiced. The arts
establishment in England discourages the general
public from becoming equal partners in developing
a genuinely inclusive cultural environment through
the type of art projects it does or does not support.
A critique of the sheep
Lastly I will turn to the art of sheep. The 'poems
on sheep' is a problematic project to support with
public funds for several reasons. The project was
bound to be derided by the media and the general
public, and the high profile of the project inevitably
affirmed the public's negative associations about
contemporary art and artists.
Poems on sheep is one, simple, idea. Very little
intellectual effort or practical skills would have
been necessary to bring the work to life. A few
well chosen words and phrases. A field of sheep.
A willing farmer. A spray gun. I have little doubt
the public intuitively recognised this.
£2,000 is equivalent to a couple of months
wages in many people's pocket. The message that
went out to the public through the support of this
project and others like it, is that art and artists
get a large financial return for very little effort.
Art becomes of little relevance or interest to
the general public, and the resulting disconnection
of art is of profound importance. Art and creativity
should be at the centre of people's daily experiences
as art observes, comments upon, and expresses people's
experiences and criticisms of society.
Poems on sheep may bring a smile to a few middle
class intellectuals, but is unlikely to be appreciated
with the same spirit as one reads a Japanese haiku
poem. The cultural setting and placement is absurd
and misconceived. People passing the field will
not ponder, place, or meditate upon the language
that is presented to them because of the confused
cultural context. It is not appropriate for public
money to be spent satisfying the intellectual elite.
Art in future
The Internet has provided a new opportunity to challenge
the prejudice and narrow mindedness of existing
art institutions. My dream is that AbleStable® continues
its' aim of enabling equal access to a forum that
presents creative works, and encourages
the creative kernel we all posses.
de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®.
Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music
composer, photographer, print and web site designer,
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