This is a brief account of some of the thoughts, reflections, issues that emerged during the first of the three Dangerous Grounds events. Inevitably, the conversation was a lot richer than this report seems to suggest, but I thought it would be a good resource to have at least some of the content produced on the day recorded here. Many thanks to Susan Oman, who was our rapporteur on the day, and to Susan Jones of a-n for her help editing this. Thanks to Castlefield Gallery for taking photos on the day and for permission to reproduce them here.
Dangerous Ground: The Manchester event – 18th February 2013, Castlefield Gallery
This is an account of some of the points raised during the roundtable part of the event, which followed a short presentation by myself, Susan Jones of A-N a-n The Artists Information Company and Shelagh Wright of MMM. You can find the slides used for the presentation here.
The participants were mostly artists or visual arts researchers, self-divided into four groups which explored four different questions that the organisers had come up as a way to focus discussions. We openly invited each group to work on the question, challenge it, rephrase it in more helpful term, or just do with it whatever would work as an intellectual stimulant for the conversation. Each group was invited to devote some time to at least two questions.
What follows is a summary of interesting points raised, thoughtful reflections that push the debate in interesting directions and recurring themes. These notes were assembled by myself on the basis of transcriptions by the event’s rapporteur, Susan Oman, my own notes, and notes taken by the event co-organisers and co-hosts, Susan Jones, Shelagh Wright and Kwong Lee (Artist and Director of Castlefield Gallery). Inevitably, this summary is not an exhaustive narrative of the conversations that took place on the day, and it fails to fully capture the energy, enthusiasm and generosity of the conversations as they developed around the four ‘debate tables’. However, we hope it can provide a flavour of the debate for those who could not be there, an aide-mémoire for those who were there, and something upon which future conversations and explorations can be built upon.
- A significant proportion of the discussion focused around questions of different understandings and definitions of cultural value, the divergence in the respective motivations for those participating in the arts and culture (practitioners, enablers/promoters, funders, etc.) and how they impinge on different understandings of what culture is: in the words of one of the participants, ‘is it a nice cup of tea, or going to the theatre’? In reporting on her group’s discussion, Shelagh Wright noted that one of the participants had answered the question “What is cultural value?” with “I don’t know what it is, but it sounds bourgeois”.
- Whilst there was a general embrace of wider and inclusive definitions of culture, there was also an acknowledgment that there exists a gap between what artists and creative practitioners define as culture, and what the public understands as culture, and this clearly represents a challenge. Whilst it was suggested that the best contribution that artists might make towards meeting this challenge is to create value through making art, rather than talking about value, there was also a widespread sense that this was a valuable conversation, and that it was important that artists and creative practitioners should be actively (and visibly) part of it.
- Participants also showed a shared appreciation of the fact that the present times of austerity have brought the question of value into sharper focus, so that the question of the articulation of the value of that portion of ‘culture’ (namely the arts) that relies on public funding for survival is the really pressing issue. There is discernible less angst and no real sense of urgency about defining and capturing the value of the forms of culture that do not need funding, and whilst the pragmatic reasons for this are quite apparent, there remains an inherent tension in any discussion of the value of culture between the funded/non-funded portions of it. Nonetheless, it was clear that participants agreed about the real need to engage in the conversation, as practitioners, and to find a way to feed their distinctive perspective into the discussion. This commitment to engage was strong, in spite of the weariness, felt by many, at the realisation that, for all the improvements in communications in recent years, the voice of artists’ activism has not been listened to. Some also expressed frustration at the fact that practitioners’ activism is often elicited and animated by loss or threats of loss (as in the case of funding being withdrawn), so inevitably a lot of the energy and focus in campaigning and activism revolves around cycles and timelines that are predicated on the funding cycle, leaving little room for longer-term and visionary thinking. This short-termism and funding-cycle constraint on reflection, it was suggested, is itself part of the de-valuing of art we are witnessing.
- Inevitably, tackling the question of value meant, for several of the artists and practitioners present, asking why they make art, and where the value of their own practice lies. One participant explained the centrality of the economy of the gift to creative practice, based on the altruistic giving of ideas, work and labour. The concern was that the desire to formalise, capture and articulate ‘value’ might cause us to lose sight of the key role of generosity in the artistic process. As that participant put it, ‘”I don’t think about ‘value’, I think about generosity”. The important issue to arise from this strand of the discussion, then, is how might we develop a coherent and consistent discussion of value that does not to compromise the generosity of the artists’ gift? However, whilst generosity and the notion of gift might be at the root of the artist’s own motivation for making, there was also a strong consensus that artists who offer their creative services also ought to be properly remunerated. Indeed, several of the artists present were keen on making a link between the cultural value debate and a long-standing campaign generated by a-n and AIR (that is in effect a a campaigning membership-based organisation for artists) for the proper payment of artists, particularly within the publicly-funded sector. Artists, many participants observed, are probably the only professional group whose members are regularly expected to offer their services on a voluntary basis, or in exchange for payments that do not reflect their level of skills or training. At a very basic level, the expectation that artists should be willing to provide their services without payment is a basic denial of the value of their work and professional skills.
- Artists and creative practitioners see the difficult in expressing and articulating ‘cultural value’ as an issue of relevance to their practice, especially in light of the shared impression, raised at various points at different discussion tables, that arts funders – as a rule – tend to eschew complex philosophical and ideological questions, and generally prefer to focus on the practical and the pragmatic. Several artists who had experience of either filling or assessing funding applications noted how often artists find it hard to produce compelling funding applications (in the eyes of assessors) as they try to articulate the value of their proposal in terms too abstract, theoretical or philosophical, when what was required was an account that could give evaluators a clear sense of what would actually happen and when as part of the proposed project (rather than its deepest meaning). Whilst many of the participants were sanguine in their recognition that acquiring this level of insight about their own errors in dealing with the funding application process was an organic part of growing and developing as a creative professional, others also observed that they felt that contemporary art is one of the few remaining spaces where certain radical activity and radical thought can still exist and be supported: the genuine value of art and culture is generated when this kind of activity is protected and subsidised. I was left wondering if there might not be a tension there between the systems in place for the allocation of funding, and the deepest, most heartfelt ambitions of those who quite reasonably expect to be able to access such funding in pursuit of realising the objectives of their practice.
- Artists and creative practitioners find themselves in a rather paradoxical situation: on the one hand their practice is based on a radical spirit, on the questioning and dismantling of things – yet on the other hand, many of them also need to translate their motives and aspirations for art into the terms and requirements of funders – and governments – in order to survive (the point implicit in this participant’s reflection being that funders were less likely to respond positively to radicalism and risk-taking work: hence the paradox and, inevitably, the tension). Several participants observed that, because of the different relations of power, the language of funders has a shaping effect: it affects the language of other players in the art scene and ultimately may affect practice.
- There was an agreement that creative professionals need to be ‘multilingual’, in the sense that, in order to thrive, they need to master effectively a number of different languages. The language of funders, of course – or, in fact, the languages of funders, for they do not all use the same one: The Arts Councils and local authorities for instance, all require the use of different kinds of jargon (and if we accept that the ‘case for the arts’ ultimately aims to persuade the Treasury, that immediately adds another specimen of ‘funder language’ to our list). Then there is the personal language in which artists speak about their own work and its value in their own terms. Alongside this runs the so-called ‘art-speak’ that has been at the centre of so much media attention lately, which arguably is the language of the art world and thus, at least to an extent, the language that needs to be mastered to engage in debates with peers. Another form of language that many artists have had to hone as part of their practice is the language of business, arts entrepreneurship and social enterprise. One participant who makes a living through his artistic work but has rarely received public funding explained that, effectively, he is a self-employed professional: he runs a small creative business and he therefore needs the required communications skills to handle clients, business sponsors and commissioners. Finally, there is the language needed to communicate the meaning and value of one’s work to the public. Some participants suggested that this language was (or ought to be) the work itself; others were willing to acknowledge that, in the anxiety generated by the survival-driven search for a language that could persuade those who hold the purse strings to fund them, the articulation of the value of art and creative practice to the general public has been neglected over the past few years, and that this compounds the perceived need to articulate value in a compelling manner not just to funders but to those members of the public who feel disengaged with the world of art.