What Does It Matter

by Neil Nisbet

Many people complain about the arts or dismiss them out of hand because they can see no clear benefit or any sense of importance in artists doing what they do. Joe Public will push even the most celebrated masterpiece aside with the simplistic refrain “what does it matter” or variation thereof.

To most people culture is nothing more than a transient stocking filler on their way to more important matters, an interesting sideshow for a particular moment in time. Our hedonistic generation can dismiss the entire culture effort with a pithy slice of circular reasoning before retiring back to the beach.

With dance this position is easier to adopt because unlike a book for example there is nothing tangible for you to hold in your hand or quote lines from in conversation with others to make yourself sound impressive. With theatre you have a script with words that can trigger a relationship to your own situation or the words resonate because they were funny, abusive, shocking, poignant, etc.

Dance for the most part is just bodies moving on stage with or without music, getting anything that is personally engaging from most dance performances takes a level of concentration and observation that is beyond most people in our hyper edited world of instant gratification. Patience is optional in today ‘s cultural experience as most forms of modern entertainment are so loud and obnoxious they can simply jack hammer their way into your head.

Here at Article19 we have to concede that many times Joe Public has a point when looking at dance from the outside and wondering why their money is spent making work that appears to be beyond all but the person who made it. In our recent reviews of the Capture film series not one film scored more than five stars out of ten. Our reviewer, a lover of film to an almost zealot like level, became increasingly frustrated at the uninspiring imagery and ideas he was forced to watch on our behalf.

Hitting A Sticky Wicket

Neither the artists themselves nor the back room staff that present the public face of publicly funded artistic work to the masses helps the situation. Arts related advocacy materials are filled with ‘culture-speak ‘ where comprehensive meaningful communication has been reduced to sound bites and ‘key phrases ‘. How many times have you read an arts document or attended a seminar where the buzz words were coming so thick and fast it made your head hurt and seriously impacted on your desire to go on living?

Culture vultures love numbers because they can use them to paint a convincing argument for the success of a particular project. The formula is very simple; the more people that are involved in a particular project or the more people that see a particular performance the greater the artistic impact of that particular piece of work or so they would have you believe.

Circular Reasoning
“Circular Reasoning means that you have already arrived at the correctness of your statement: for example, the statement “prisoners are getting what they deserve when they face the death penalty.”

The problem here is that whether or not they are getting what they deserve is exactly the moral question that is up for grabs! The statement offers no argument as to why prisoners deserve the death penalty and is a good example of circular reasoning.

The term Circular Reasoning is any train of argument in which the conclusion you are arguing for has already been stated-implicitly or explicitly in the supporting reasons for giving that conclusion. In other words, circular reasoning ha the following form, P is true because of P.”

Source:The Complete Idiots Guide To Understanding Ethics, David Bruce Ingram (Ph.D.) and Jennifer Parks (Ph.D.)

For example; If Arts Council England (ACE) funds a project to put poetry on the London Underground they will tell you this is a good thing because millions of people use the underground every week and therefore millions will read the poetry and reading poetry is a good thing but they won ‘t be able to tell you why. Now of course we know this is not true since only a tiny fraction of the commuters will notice the poetry and even less will actually read it.

Detractors remain unconvinced no matter how often ACE beats them over the head with the numbers. If they are unconvinced by the art itself or the protestations of an art forms practitioners they are certainly not going to be convinced by a bunch bean counters telling them ‘high numbers = good ‘

The arts sector has fallen into a trap of trying to convince non-believers with banal, simplistic arguments and that big ole ‘ sledgehammer made out of numbers. There are plenty of stupid people in the world but just because they are a bit slow it doesn ‘t mean they don ‘t need a more sophisticated and well-rounded argument to bring them into the light.

Why The Arts Matter

The arts matter because the benefit is not in things you can measure but in things you cannot possibly begin to measure. Any arts organisation from ACE to the smallest dance company will throw charts and numbers at you until you beg them to stop but the success and the reason lay not in the numbers but in the one person in the audience or in the workshop within whom the flame of inspiration has been lit.

If that one person begins to think ‘what more can I achieve, what more can I do to lift myself above mediocrity, to lift myself above the person sitting next to me? ‘ then the process has begun. If just one person in a thousand can be motivated by dance to push themselves off the pre-determined path of least resistance then it is there that you have your success, it is there that you have your reason, that is why it matters.

A youngster who is inspired may not translate into an individual wishing to become a professional dancer and that is the last thing we should expect. Just as many who read books have no desire to become authors we should not expect those participating in or watching dance to take to the stage and use this to judge its success. Nor should we try and equate success with the audience understanding the particular motivations of an artist and their work since interpretations and conclusions can vary a great deal. The majority of people who engage with the arts in some way never write down the effect, if any, a performance or workshop had on them, they are simply collated into the numbers for the next press release.

We live in times where our politicians and public figures are looked at with both suspicion and derision in equal measure. They lie, obfuscate, pander and mislead on a daily basis on matters of grave importance, how many youngsters will tell you that the leader of the opposition is their hero? And would you really want them to? So-called sports ‘stars ‘ are vain, inarticulate and in many cases just plain stupid to say nothing of the wide spread drug use in sports and the constant bombardment of advertising urging kids to part with their money because David Beckham says so! Many young people are enamoured with these individuals but again we have to ask, do you really want them to be?

In the culture and entertainment sphere this leaves us with the arts to inspire new thinking in our population and in particular the younger generation. Article19 would be first to admit that a lot of what goes on in dance is uninspiring, self involved nonsense but there are projects and individuals out in the world that are reaching just that little bit further, connecting with people on a more cerebral level and perhaps they are inspiring some, however few, to loftier ambitions and ideals.

The truth is we will probably never know the extent to which the arts impact on the lives of individuals but we can only hope that it happens and with that in mind it is of vital importance that it continues. Yes, the arts have problems and some of those problems are almost cancerous in nature but the alternative is a world where none of this activity takes place and the mass media is left to inspire the generations and that is a thought too scary to contemplate.

If you think the arts don ‘t matter then you ‘re a fool, a very dangerous fool.