A love letter to the transcendental power of art
An edited version of this piece appeared on the Guardian Culture Blog on 26 November 2015.
I’ve been hearing of lots of artists and companies being turned down for funding through the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts system lately. It’s always a bit too dependent upon luck, but since the last election it seems to have become exponentially harder to be awarded funding, with even highly established and internationally renowned companies falling victim to the curse of the ‘small envelope’.
It has begun to generate a real climate of fear amongst the theatre makers I speak to, with conflicting advice spreading like wildfire across the landscape. The pieces of advice for funding applicants I hear repeated most frequently seem simple: “make the social impact stronger, emphasise the tangible outputs in terms of social change, talk about the opportunities for education and training the piece will provide”. I can honestly say that I have never heard anyone advise an artist to focus more on the philosophy of the art they hope to make when writing a funding application. Never heard anyone say “yes – really go into detail of what the audience experience of this art will be”.
In many ways I understand that. For a government body trying to figure out how to measure the quality (and thus fundability) of art, it makes sense to reduce the value of the arts to easily quantifiable outputs like audience numbers, educational impact and new skills acquired. Yet this prompts an instrumentalisation of the artistic ecology and encourages those effects that are less easily measurable to be overlooked, dismissed and forgotten. While the instrumentalist outputs have some value, they are not the reasons human beings need to make art, nor the reasons why art is a good thing for governments to fund.
We sing, dance, paint, or act to express things we cannot say in other ways. To understand and be understood. To reach out a hand to other human beings, the ones watching in the dark, and ask that for just a moment we agree to know each other. To drive back the loneliness, to imagine the impossible, to hope. Put more simply, we make and consume art to make being human bearable.
In our scramble to get the work we love on, many in the arts community have begun to forget that. We’re so used to jumping through funder’s hoops that when we try to make the case for continued state funding of the arts we parrot back the values of the political classes; tangible, rational, moderate and easily quantifiable benefits to the mechanics of society. Rather than proving its worth, talking about the arts simply as a way to transfer skills or drive a social agenda diminishes it to something small minded and replaceable and undermines the very ecology we seek to protect.
We should be widening access to making and experiencing the arts as much as we possibly can but let’s stop pretending that the reasons to do so can be quantified into statistics to drive a political agenda or are as paltry as ‘skill transfer’. I want to help more people engage with the arts simply because doing so has made me immeasurably happier and I want to share that. Not by giving them new skills, or confidence or teaching them what to think but rather because it gives a mechanism to imagine what they never have before and a space to believe that anything is possible. It will make them feel things that defy definition and think newly shaped thoughts, and experiencing those things will change how they interact with their worlds in myriad unpredictable ways. It will give them a way to bear the hardest things in their daily life and a new appreciation for the best. It will give them experiences beyond their wildest dreams far more valuable and lasting than any measurable outcome.
It’s time to transcend the limitations of instrumentalism, statistics and measurable outputs. Art and its audiences deserve far better than the earthly.