In February 2012 I contributed the following post to the State of The Arts Conference Live Blog...
My biggest question about art at the moment is: Why do we feel the need to apologize for the fact that we make it?
It’s beginning to stick in my throat.
I’m beginning to want to throw up hearing art talked about as if its something to put on the shopping list of life.
We live in a world of consumption and to aide us to consume easily we give things titles. It makes it easier to decide what to push in our mouth today.
I don’t much like this but I am part of it.
I push things into my mouth all the time.
Only the thing is.
We’ve let this concept bleed into almost everything we do.
And it’s making us forget that it’s not the only way of doing. We breathe in and out all the time without thinking.
We don’t agonise about breathing. Ever. We just get on with it. Until we stop and then its over. It’s that integral to who and what we are.
Art is the same. Isn’t it?
The desire to make and share and communicate and find joy and understand the act of being alive is innate. Surely? It’s on a par with breathing.
It is in us and of us and we need to do it.
If that is true, why have we all begun to feel like we have to act and talk about art as if it’s got the same worth as something we might shop for?
It’s a choice. We consume it. We must worry about its ethics. We must prove we can afford it because it is an added extra bonus. It’s a nice treat. It’s special… It’s other than us…
So I guess my concern is that philosophically we have allowed ourselves to become trapped by the linguistics of commerce to the extent that we seem to feel obliged to at least reference the consumability of art when we defend it.
And that way madness lies.
More and more and more I think we should stop ‘defending the arts’ and start attacking that mistaken premise instead.
Because it’s a false premise. Lets unburden our selves from engaging with it and instead create a new premise that is fit for purpose.
Look at it this way.
2 weeks ago. I bought a sofa with my girlfriend. We bought it together. I’ve never bought a sofa before.
It was a strange experience. It felt funny and very grown up.
No doubt, because I’m an artist it’s taken me a long time to grow up enough to get a girlfriend who wants to stay with me for long enough to make the act of buying a sofa seem tenable.
So for lots of reasons it was very exciting to buy a part share in a sofa with her.
It was not however as good as most plays or films or music or live art or site spec events or Ballet or Opera or literature or poetry or comics I’ve ever been to / read / seen or listened to.
OK to be really honest, it was as good as most of the Opera and Ballet I’ve seen in my life, but then I’m not a huge fan of Opera or Ballet. Generally. I’m glad if you are though. And if that’s the case, I bet you find Opera and Ballet better than your sofa too?
Not that I’m knocking finally having a sofa to sit on. It is fucking brilliant not to have back pain any more. And it’s useful for watching films on telly. I even find it ergonomically / aesthetically pleasing.
And I believe that someone somewhere put a ton of creativity into designing my new sofa. And promoting the sofa. And marshaling the underpaid workers to sweat to make the sofa / package the sofa / freight the sofa / display the sofa / entice me and my girlfriend to buy the sofa.
Ask any of these people if my new sofa is better than their favorite film, telly programme, dance, song, site spec event, comic, poetry reading, ballet performance or opera show?.. And with the certainty I have in my own need to breath I guarantee they will say ‘no’. The sofa is not as good as that.
‘Don’t be daft! As if!’
Because I/we/ they - do not - love/engage/desire/embrace/find joy/find hope/find escape/find understanding from the sofa.
I / we /they find that stuff in Art (and religion admittedly but that really is another story)
SO. NOW HAVE A THINK ABOUT THIS THING THAT WE DO!
ART - IT’S THAT BIG!
So lets start being a bit more confident.
How on earth did we get to a place where we are so apologetic about the value of what we do, for ourselves and for others?
I’m not sure.
But we need a plan.
Here are a few things we could do?
1) We need to stop focusing on ‘defending’ the arts. We need to start confidently expecting the whole of the moon. As Delia Smith is want to say ‘I can’t hear you! Where are you?! LETS BE HAVING YOU’. By asking for the moon we will have a chance of having at least a sprinkle of moon dust. We have nothing to lose. In the atmosphere we’re in politically? Really, it is time to collectively stop playing the part of Oliver Twist. ‘Please sir I would like some more’. NO More of that…
2) Stop feeling guilty about fucking baby incubators. It is not either or. We need art. We need baby monitors. We don’t have to choose. We’ve been lied to. They have told us we need to believe that it’s a choice. It isn’t. Arms traders do not spend a second worrying about the amount of baby incubators they don’t manufacture to be fired out of canons to be caught in special giant rubber gloves from where they are collected and taken to enemy baby hospitals to save the babies. Do you ever see them apologizing for that? So why do we? Next time someone says ‘but what you do isn’t as important as a baby monitor’ look them in the eye and say ‘yes it is’. Then invite them to ring BAE Systems and discuss their decision to make missiles instead of baby monitors. Try it. It will work.
3) Lets stop saying words like ‘the future is collaboration’ while secretly chatting amongst our friends about the healthy thing a good cull in the arts can be… No really! Lets stop thinking ‘the cuts are awful but there again they did get rid of that shit little dance/theatre/poetry/live-art thingy /company / individual (delete as appropriate) who did that dead wood fucking awful work I just hated. So no harm done really’. Stop it. Stop playing the ‘it’s a question of quality / the law of the jungle / its evolution in a difficult time, blah blah blah’ card. Because you know it’s collusion. You know deep down that really some of the best work you ever made was an accident and some of the worst you ever made on paper was going to be magical but wasn’t. Still, you learnt from it. And besides, every show you ever go to that you hate, you can’t help noticing that there is someone else in the audience getting something from it and loving it? Idiots eh? No! That’s the glory of art. So, don’t you dare smugly applaud as that chance to do and to share is that’s taken away from someone else. Art is about making / seeing / doing / living / thinking / dreaming / finding / changing/ working out what you want / working out what you don’t. Sometimes it is made with money. Sometimes it makes money. Sometimes it doesn’t. But in the discussion of ‘the why and how and who’ of art, money is irrelevant. You know this. So don’t give into the divide and rule game. I struggle with Opera. Never mind. I will march and write letters and scream and whisper and tickle and dance and coo coo ca choo to save the right of Opera folk to do their Opera thing. I expect nothing NOTHING less from them. Nothing less. I mean it. Adult Up. Don’t just step up, get on the fucking plate. Look at it. Because its not about ‘us in the art its about the art in all of us and in the audience’*. It’s about fucking breathing.
4) Lets stop whining. REALLY. When I was young I wanted to be a butcher or in the army. I’ve ended up working in the arts. Being as I am now an eco pinko lesbo namby pamby veggie-lite, aspiring pacifist - friends often find this surprising when I admit to it. But the more I think about it, the more I think not. It is not a surprise. All three are brutal industries. BRUTAL. They are all to do with death and scrabbling for the beauty that comes from avoiding it. They are all about surviving if you can. We talk about the arts as if they are rarified. They are gristle and sinew and desire and raw raw fucking love and hate and passion. So lets look that in the face and acknowledge it. Lets actually understand that. The arts are a mode through which we express our humanity. Our humanity is the thing that is up for grabs here. The slippery thing that is not pin-down-able but must be pursued even so. Every day we are in a fight to see how that might go. Will we master our desire to fuck and kill at random? How can we nurture others when we don’t love ourselves? Will we learn how to be better? Will we give into living with the worst of ourselves? How much fun can we have while we’re thinking about all of that? ALL OF THAT and more! This is what we’re working out when we do art. And more. And more and more and more. So lets get our sleeves rolled up. We are playing for keeps. The stakes are high. We are not a lovely optional add on. We are essential. We are here and we are doing this thing and we are supporting each other to do it. Or we are all dead in the water. Or sitting on our sofa’s wondering what to push into our mouths next.
*This is a paraphrase of something Stanislavski once said. I think.