The Evil Imp

Nobody Knows Anything

It’s one thing fighting off the right wing absolutists when they spew their ridiculous rhetoric regarding arts funding it’s another thing altogether when you are crossing swords with people who are supposed to understand the arts.

Step forward Harriet Harman, Shadow Culture Secretary, and Simon Mellor from Arts Council England.

In a speech to some people who had gathered at the Roundhouse Theatre in London this week, Ms Harman was, ostensibly, talking about young people and the arts.

She started well enough with this;

“I come to this as someone who believes that the arts are fundamental to what it is to be human. For how each individual develops and understands and sees themselves and the world around them. For how we understand and interpret time and place.”

Before carrying on by debunking the idea that economics should be the driving factor behind funding culture and stating that young folk have a right to access the arts and “explore their artistic and creative potential”.

The hyperbole continues for several paragraphs as Ms Harman waxes lyrical about great cities, great artists and lots of other things that are apparently “great”.

It’s after this, somewhat predictable opening, that the wheels start to come off the wagon however.

The False Equivalency Gambit

“But there is a democratic imperative for the arts to show why the hard-pressed tax payer – struggling with the cost of living crisis – should fund the arts.”

When you read things like that it makes you fear for your sanity. The line from Ms Harman’s speech attaches the “cost of living” problems in the UK to arts funding for no other reason than to use the phrase “tax payer”.

The fact is however that (according to ACE) the amount of money contributed by each individual citizen towards the arts is just 14p per week or £7.28 per year.

In real terms that’s the costs of, approximately, three large boxes of cornflakes. If you want to put that into politician friendly terms then you could tell Johnny Public that he can either have an extra £7 in his pocket per-year or pretty much every cultural institution in the country will be closed down… choose now or shut up!

Also, tax payers are “hard pressed” because of stupid decisions made by clueless, self-involved politicians, why don’t we talk about that for a while?

Ms Harman doubles down though on false equivalency with this;

“When the NHS is struggling, and councils face agonising choices about cutting care for dementia sufferers – public funding for the arts is only sustainable to the extent that the public know it matters for them.”

The budget for the NHS is over £125Billion per year but the current ACE budget is under £400Million, that’s a £124.5Billion difference. People are not losing health care because of arts spending and they never have lost health care because of arts spending.

Ms Harman could just tell folks that, she’s not a stupid person after all, but you don’t want to upset the “voters” with actual facts now, do you?

There is also the completely nebulous suggestion that the arts can only be funded if they “matter” to the general public.

The problem is that you can’t justify spending money on something if the metric you’re going to measure is “does it matter”, because you can’t measure how much something matters.

The how much it “matters” equation is tied together with two bullet points that say this;

“1. What is (sic) public funds are being put into it and
2. What they are getting out of it.”

As obstructive as ACE can be at times you just need to ask them who they give money to and how much they receive, often times they will publish big lists for you.

When it comes to what you get for the money? Well, a dance company gets funded to make and tour work and deliver education projects. That’s what you get. What an individual takes from any of these experiences is entirely up to them and their own intellect (or lack thereof).

Made Up Mellor

Simon Mellor, the “executive director for arts” at ACE, which sounds like a completely made-up job but let’s move on, also gave a speech to some people who, very obviously, had nothing better to do.

Apart from being a portent of doom about arts funding and the future of the subsidised sector, which ACE is supposed to counter because, you know, that’s their job, he said stuff like this;

“Arts and cultural organisations need to become much better at sharing data about audiences and aggregating and mining that data to better understand their audiences: who they are; what they like (and don’t like); what they think of the work they are seeing; who they don’t reach etc – and to work together to build a bigger and broader audience for publicly funded arts and culture as a whole.”

Just like Ms Harman, Mr Mellor wants the arts folk to understand the unquantifiable about “their” audience. For many touring organisations “their audience” are really just random groups of people who show up for an evening of entertainment at each venue they attend.

Even if you take a detailed survey of each audience member and assume that they tell you the truth about a show what possible use is that information? If they don’t like the show is the company supposed to change it? Will the company never be booked again by that venue? Should artists start making creative decisions based on the likes and dislikes of the “18-35 demo”?

If so expect a lot of dance productions about love-lorn vampires who express themselves with stares and sparkle in sun light.

Characters Not Welcome

If these two characters get their way then the culture scene over the next few years will devolve into arguments based on false equivalency along with incessant polling of audiences, meaningless data analysis and creativity by numbers.

Ms Harmen and Mr Mellor are supposed to understand the arts given that one of them works for Arts Council England and the other one could be Culture Secretary a year from now.

You can gather all the data you want, and there are plenty of people willing to take public money to do just that, but the truth is simple and cheap, as William Goldman said; “nobody knows anything”.

In the very broadest terms we can tell, sort of, what’s good and bad in the wide world of dance, Rock the Ballet vs The Royal Ballet for example. But nobody knows what will or will not appeal to any particular group of people or whether or not the work you present them with will have any kind of emotional, spiritual or intellectual impact on them at all.

If anybody could figure that out then every single movie, musical, pop song, play or whatever would be a financial and critical success. Is that what happens?

Given the complexities of the human condition anybody claiming to have that kind of knowledge would have to be a psychotic egomaniac.

Arts and culture is a guessing game, you pay your money and you take your chances and everybody needs to accept that.

The suits at ACE can’t accept that because the suits in Westminster demand some demonstrable rationale that can be translated into a chart to convince a public, that does not need convincing, that funding the arts is a good idea.

If ACE (including Mr Mellor) think they do need convincing then we refer you to the graphic below, which comes from ACE.

source: Arts Council England

We need better leadership than this.

[ Simon Mellor (ACE) Speech PDF ]
[ Harriet Harman Speech ]

Data is a character from Star Trek, not a way to decide what work should be made by companies or programmed by theatres. Photo by JD Hancock