Speech, 24 November 2017 at the Buma Classical Convention
Dr Tiffany Jenkins
I live in Edinburgh – where for the last 60 or so years there has been some form of a major arts festival every year in August.
There is the international Festival, which is curated, opera, theatre, dance and music.
There is the Fringe – same stuff, but anyone can be part of it, just pay to be in a programme and organise a venue.
The festivals as a whole take up much of August, and just because so many creative people descend on one small space – indeed, I expect many of you have been – something amazing happens culturally that is important and often lasting – something unexpected, something good – and it rarely comes from where you expect it to.
But at the end of the festivals, now – and for about 15 years – there are lessons and a report of sorts about it – that are written for politicians, the media, for the funding bodies and the arts organisations.
Those reports are by different bodies and multiple authors each time and key messages to the media always says the same three things:
The first is that audiences are up. We are told that more people have come than ever before. Box office records are smashed.
Now, at some point – you know this is either not true, or certainly impossible to sustain. Indeed, take a closer look at some of those figures, and you find, let’s say, a creative work of imagining. These are not untruths, just not quite the whole truth.
So as an example, on one occasion, visitors to a free garden area in the book festival, where the children play, are counted as visitors to the festival, even if they haven’t bought a ticket or attended a book event.
The second message you get is that this is really good for Edinburgh’s economy.
And the third, you guessed it, is that the festivals that year were good for community cohesion and social outputs.
And you get a flood of statistics measuring the so-claimed tremendous economic and social value of the festival.
I did a quick search before this event and found in minutes ten recent reports, press releases and newspaper articles saying how economically profitable or socially beneficial the festivals are.
And in fact, these reports often cost money and veer close to or are in fact are: advocacy reports. They find the message they want.
Now, it is true that the Edinburgh festivals bring a strong financial return. There is a significant influx of people who eat, drink and be merry in bars, restaurants and shops, as well as buying millions of tickets.
And it does make the city feel good about itself.
To a point that is – As a resident myself I can tell the residents are long characterised as hating the festival – as thousands of people descend on the capital they take up the roads, and the bars, making it hard getting get a table in a restaurant. Though, things are changing, they have long moaned about this amazing cultural asset.
But my point is that whilst these claims for economic and social benefit are wildly overstated, it’s not entirely made up.
Nonetheless there is something missing in these reports. Something really important.
In the last decade, if not for longer, in policy, in public discussion about the arts more generally, and in the media, there has been a growing silence about the quality of the work.
Of course, it still continues to a point, and there are awards and star systems, the limits of which we are all familiar with, but there is limited discussion about the quality of artwork – was it good, why, how does it compare to another piece? That sort of thing
That’s an interesting silence, a problematical one, and a curious one: given culture is referred to in so many discussions. We talk of culture’s contribution to the economic and to social questions, but rarely of its content.
This is partly down to the decline of written criticism. Few pages of our newspapers, in whichever country, are devoted to the critics. The rise of the web has not deepened criticism, though it could have and could still do so, but instead spread simplistic and personal reviews.
But we all know, in this room everyone must know really, that the financial return or the social impact is not the best thing about the festivals – or why people come back every year to perform or to listen to a symphony.
It’s not why we do what we do.
Though no one is against arts having these impact, and everyone wants an audience – we don’t want to play to an empty room – this does not add up to a successful art work, music, painting, or dance.
People flock to Edinburgh, as audience members and as creatives, because they love it, enjoy it and are driven to participate in something meaningful.
They do it, because of the quality of the work that they engage in.
They do it for the love of a melody or a witty line in a play, a great character or because they can pirouette better than Margot Fonteyn.
And this is why we should fund the arts.
We should fund the arts for what they do than nothing else can do – hold a note, strike a chord, say something profound but inexpressible.
What I want to do in more depth, now is example what is wrong with the current state of affairs.
What is wrong with instrumentalising the arts?
Why has it happened now?
And what is to be done?
So, what is wrong with this state of affairs?
We now have institutions and artists who, desperate to justify themselves and get funding, try to find all sorts of extrinsic, non-content-related ends that they can claim to satisfy: boasting that they contribute to the economy, to peoples’ wellbeing, to social cohesion.
When the National Gallery in London wanted to win the funding necessary to keep Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks, a most beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, they ferried in impoverished teenage mothers to stand in front of the Madonna, with babes in their arms cooing with empathy.
The point the gallery was trying to make was not, that Raphael was one of the greatest artists that has ever lived, but that single mums relate to Mary, that this makes them feel better, and that was why the painting should stay.
But this is not why the painting was worth saving. Talking only of instrumental outputs, rather than the truth of the artwork – its core – demotes and devalues its status. Makes is less important than it is.
If we were to fund only that which improved the well-being of single mothers, or contributed to the economy, or made us all feel better it is likely that the safe, the tried and the tested would be supported.
It is a recipe for banal complacent work that doesn’t scare the horses.
There is plenty of great work, respected now, that makes you feel bad, it’s upsetting, unsettling, and which was disliked at first. What will happen to similar work in the future?
It is likely that the new, the risky and experimental would be avoided because the question would not be: is it interesting, or good, but what is the expected return? Does it please everyone?
Why is this happening now?
The excuse for this instrumental approach is the economic climate.
But this wouldn’t be wholly accurate.
For a start in the UK and much of the US and Australia, all of which suffer, this approach became popular in the 1990s – in its most explicit form. Funding came to be tied to attracting particular audiences. There was a more interventionist culture department – in England, that was the DCMS, which described museums and galleries as “centres for social change:
All this took place during a time of plenty for the arts.
And let us not forget the economic climate in which the English Arts Council was established.
This was a period in the 1940’s, after a devastating war, when Britain was in a dire financial situation.
The funding body was set up not to use the arts to get the country out of the economic crisis, in the blunt instrumental terms they are discussed today, but to stimulate “the best” work.
THE Economist – and note he was an economist– John Maynard Keynes, the council’s first chairman, wanted to bring forth a “creative renaissance” that was artist led, and acted at “arm’s length” from the government, a vision that I would have no trouble with if it were realised today.
So money or the lack of it doesn’t entirely explain the instrumental approach, because it gained traction during the days of financial health, and didn’t exist in the same way during earlier economic downturns.
In fact, what is really important in explaining the instrumental turn is a more long-term context than the present financial crisis.
The appetite for instrumentalising culture or asking it to perform a social action has developed in tandem with a breakdown in the consensus that art is good in and of itself. Together with a rising relativism which refrains from adjudicating on what good is bad.
What we see in its place is a search for new rationales – a new justification: hence instrumentalism.
To chart it historically, by the end of the 1970’s, ideas about high and low art, about, good and bad art, about arts for arts sake had all been criticized to the point of crisis.
The very idea of justifying art in artistic terms had been found wanting. The arts sector was as a consequence on the defensive where they have been since and open to any suggested agenda to justify its existence.
Today, it’s tempting to blame the government for the instrumental approach, and certainly they often warrant criticism. But in many instances, they are following the lead of parts of the arts sector.
In the 1970’s, parts of the arts sector started to argue that taste was relative, and that community art was more important than high art, and that high art anyway was just a construction.
Those ideas were taken on board, are now pretty mainstream, and thus we now have a situation few will argue the case for funding the art on its own terms.
This is the fundamental problem we face. Few are able to confidently argue for funding art on its own terms.
So, what should be done?
At its core, the basis for valuing the arts is judgement. That is what has been lost and that is what needs to be re-established.
But today even the word judgement is coached. It is more fashionable to be non-judgmental and to say, well, everyone’ opinion
One reason for the retreat of judgement is the pervasive idea that it is impossible to separate social position and self-interest, from deciding what is and what isn’t worthy of appreciation; that the so called ‘experts’ are just white old men securing power for themselves. And that the consequence of this will be the imposition of their taste for all time.
“There is no such thing as good and bad taste”, argues the Turner Prize-winning artist, Grayson Perry. “Taste” he says, “is simply the expression of your class”.
Knowing that art is just a signifier is the modern sign of being an educated person, but this means it’s exhausting talking about art because everything is hedged.
But without a culture of judgement, we are less likely to recognise, cultivate and shape new and important art. Something quite wonderful could come and go, but never be brought to anyone’s attention, because we are too scared to judge it, discuss it, offer it up as Great Art.
The irony is that in the absence of judgement, cultural institutions and artists undermine themselves, and art. Treating art and peoples’ opinion of it with indifference will not encourage a love of art in anyone, especially poor or minority children, excluded due to their social circumstances.
It probably means that, despite all the talk of democratisation, there is a greater gap between expert knowledge and lay knowledge than there has been for some time.
The reluctance to judge reveals a lack of genuine interest in art and an absence of confidence in other people and ourselves. And that goes more broadly.
The consequences of this art serious – far more serious than who gets funding, but concern the shaping of our cultural offering and creation.
A critical culture is a positive and necessary one for artists and audiences.
The art from the past that we take pleasure in today, was valued and preserved by people who made judgements that it was good. Those judgements, based on knowledge about and engagement with art, are why we hold certain works dear to us now.
Many of the artists now accepted as important, were not immediately thought to be so. Critical conflicts over their worth established their value.
It is notable that the privatization of judgement and by that I mean the flight from discussing quality in public, and the decline of professional criticism, coincides with the promotion of a narrower range of popular hits by orchestras, publishers and booksellers pandering to untutored tastes
Conversely some of the most creative periods of cultural production coincide with a more exalted respect for criticism and the value of the arts – because it spurs writers to greater achievement.
The reverse is also true; uncritical enthusiasm excuses oversimplified analysis and average work. That’s what we are creating today.
The most important problem caused by the vacating of judgment is how it privatises art. By that, I mean it removes the consideration of art from the public sphere, and turns it into something we do and think about alone.
That avoids building a common culture.
The point of discussing and arguing about the arts, is not to impose for all time that a particular piece fulfils some permanent criteria of artistic worthiness, but to convince fellow members of our own society that it has value according to our own standards and ideals.
Judgement is often presented and dismissed as just the word of one individual. But through exercising judgement, and discrimination, we engage with others. The power of judgement rests on a potential agreement with others.
This helps to build up a common culture of what is considered valuable – and what should be disregarded. Of course, the power of judgement also rests on the possibility of disagreement. And that is something people are far too fearful of today. And yet agreement means nothing without the possibility of disagreement.
The two important points about judgement are that, firstly, you have to have some knowledge of what you are talking about, and secondly you must recognise that judgement needs to be exercised with others. It is essential to test one’s own view against other people’s views. Our views must be argued for and defended. Whether a work is good is something that is assessed not just in terms of the discipline, even though that is absolutely vital, but also within society itself, in the public realm.
Through this kind of engagement – through contestation – we can establish the value of an artwork. This takes it beyond the subjective opinion of one person, to an agreed value.
To bring things to a close.
The arts at their core do not have an obvious, tangible, quantifiable value that is easily measured. They have many impacts, of course, and we want them to be popular, but that it not their point.
Attempts to make them useful or profitable evades the real problem of value – and can be simply unreliable. They do not guarantee anything.
Instead, we need to remember that the arts are extraneous to everyday life.
They do not feed us. They do not clothe us. They do not shelter us, or make us healthier or wealthier people.
They may not do anything. Are useless.
They are essential
Because we are more than machines. And the arts connect us to that part of us that wants and needs more than just the bare necessities of life. They are what people long for despite having nothing.
A piece of music by Schubert, a painting or a photograph, which exists on its own terms, is essential to a good life.
That is the value of the arts.