Art Seen from Outside the Cultural Goldfish Bowl.
My talk is entitled “a view of the Arts, seen from outside the Cultural Goldfish Bowl”. So an obvious first question is – what is Art?
In the Phoenix Gallery in Brighton, the other day, I was looking at Steve Mace’s exhibition of cement-based print work sponsored appropriately, by Blue Circle. I was standing by a pile of concrete shapes on a pallet when a guy in baseball cap comes up to me and says, a bit aggressively:- “well, is this art, Mate?”. I replied “the guy who did it obviously knows, works with and loves cement…so I suppose it is” – beauty being in the eye of beholder and all that.
The same question was raised on the Today programme last week when Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth Show in Trafalgar Squareended. James Naughtie interviewed some ‘plinthers’ (as those who participated are now styled) who said they didn’t know if it was art but they’d felt a very strong personal experience doing it.
Gormley himself said:-
“this was an experiment to see whether everyone could be involved in making art…I am inspired and given hope”.
The same effect – getting everyone in a community involved – has happened with what that unlikely looking Superman, Gareth Malone, achieved in South Oxley in ‘The Choir’ on BBC2. To inspire and achieve the importance it really deserves, art needs to be inclusive and engaging – beyond that definitions don’t much matter. Enjoyment and inspiration does.
Well, I – in such rarified company – can say that definitions don’t much matter as I’m supposed to be outside this goldfish bowl, representing the man in the street. I am the tabloid voice of this conference; I’m from the commercial sector with a monetary glint in my eye. And what is clear to that eye are the following things:
- Overall the Arts Community has done a great job at everything except marketing itself
- Art is appearing everywhere (Poetry on the Underground, Poetry in my Doctor’s Waiting Room, authorised buskers in stations, graffiti, Arts Festivals everywhere, opera in gardens, houses opening as temporary art galleries, deconsecrated churches becoming concert halls and a plethora of creative writing courses and great Art, Music and Acting Schools. And all that excludes our Premier Showcases of Top Talent which I’ll come on to later on.
- Yet…Art doesn’t get a very high ranking on the school curriculum in most State Schools – and I find that very odd – you see I think music, art, creative writing and making stuff is more important than maths. I think the chances of re-integrating broken parts of society could lie with the arts. I think the importance of the arts to Britain is more important than almost anything else in inspiring and building the sort of world we want (and – remember – I speak not just as an idealist but as a tabloid voice outside that goldfish bowl). I also think and know it has enormous commercial significance.
I want to give you an insight into what one advocate of the Arts thinks. OK, it’s easy to talk the talk and words are words – but I suppose you could also say art is art:
“Our artists are the guardians of the spirit of questioning, of innovation of reaching across the barriers that fence us from our neighbours, from our allies and adversaries, from the six billion other people with whom we share this dark and dazzling world. Art increases the sense of our common humanity. The imagination of the artist is, therefore a profoundly moral imagination: the easier it is for you to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes, the more difficult it then becomes to do that person harm. If you want to make a torturer, first kill his imagination. If you want to create a nation that will stand by and allow torture to be practised in its name, then go ahead and kill its imagination, too.
You could start by cutting school funding for art, music, creative writing and the performing arts.”
That’s Michael Chabon on behalf of the Obama Arts Policy Committee. Beat that – no, don’t beat it…don’t even try… use it, copy it, twitter bits of it and send the whole piece to every opinion former MP every Council Executive and Local Councillor – make it a battle cry for why the Arts matter.
We’ve talked about the proven successes that Art has, how it has changed the way people, normally not exposed to it, feel and behave – that South Oxley Effect. But also look at the amazing work done by people like Wasfi Kani founder of Pimlico Opera who takes opera to prisons where it works, it really does. Here’s what Director Michael Moody says about it:
“It takes two and half weeks for them (the prisoners) to turn the corner. But then their commitment is 100%”.
And there’s Music in Prisons funded by the Irene Taylor Trust. Frances Crook of the Howard league for Penal Reform says:
“Prison staff are beginning to realise that these projects can impact their lives too, by making prisons a better place.”
Cassa Pancho (its founder) has done great work with 11. Ballet Black – the UK’s first Black Ballet company but most inspiring of all is an exhibition currently in the Pallant Gallery, Chichester, called “Outside In”, comprising paintings and sculptures from people described as being from the edges of society all with severe mental disorders. It’s mind blowing, wonderful, disturbing and inspiring. Danielle Hodson’s picture “Swallow” is especially powerful. She, together with five other artists, has won the right for a solo exhibition in that gallery. So Art is alive and it’s very well indeed not just in elitist middleEngland but amongst an eclectic community whose lives are being fundamentally changed by engaging with it.
One of the greatest advocates for the spiritual enrichment you can gain from the arts was the late Michael Mayne, an enchanting and engaging speaker; he was one time Dean of Westminster (so he should have been able to be counted an expert on this subject and was not embarrassed talking about it.) Author Ronald Blythe in his foreword to Michael’s “This Sunrise of Wonder” talked about his confronting the currently fashionable cynicism and despair and went on to say:
“Those complex skills which go into the creation of poetry or stories or music are all distorted or ignored in favour of what is called real”.
Now what is real? (And if I hear anyone use the expression “real world” again I’ll get seriously angry – it’s nearly as bad as “level paying field”). Only one thing is real – a positive answer to the questions “does it move me; does it engage my gut and my mind?” Michael’s enthusiasm, passion, sense of engagement and wonder taught those who heard him that art is just as transcendental and transformational as a religious experience can be for some – art, in short, reaches you and changes “you”.
But can we pause and ask who this “you” is? It’s the key question. If we were to decide the “you” is an elitist cadre of dinner-suited bankers at Glyndebourne then this conference will have served no great good to the arts. Yet in research I conducted amongst a cross section of middle class – “thoughtfuls”, as I called them, split by age, sex and geography (hereafter called the Hall Study™ when I refer to it – just to save time) I was struck by how self effacing about the Arts many people were; 30% of my small sample saying:- “I’m not qualified to talk about this” yet most of those were reasonably regular theatre goers.
The fact is the Brian Sewell voice of the Arts deters most of us. That central dilemma of artistic pretentiousness was, incidentally, beautifully captured in Yasmina Reza’s play “Art” as Serge and Marc consider Serge’s expensive white painting with great seriousness until Marc eventually calls it “a piece of white shit”
But the fact, and the good news, is more and more people are going to galleries and museums. Organisations like the National Trust are thriving.
Nonetheless the voice of the critics and arts journalists still speak to a few, a happy few and not to me, mate, because I belong to the mass, bleakly wondering is it art and is it meant for me? Instead of asking this, I and my common men and women, ought to be asking these questions – does it move me, intrigue me, engage me, enrage me or make me think? We should be worrying about what we think not what the critic thinks.
But the mission towards inclusivity is actually working; free admission to Museums, the Glyndebourne Under 30s scheme and the ENO’s “Access all Arias” are all having a good effect. The trick here is to ensure as many people as possible sample the experience. As one respondent in the Hall Study™ put it:
“I usually enjoy art far more than I think I will. Get people over the first hurdle and into a gallery or whatever.
That’s the key”.
(He also added rather darkly that maybe it should be mandatory for everyone to go to at least one Arts Event a year.)
So art is beginning to belong to everyone and lose that elitist stigma – go to Tate Modern and you’ll see.
But we need to address this dreadful expression -“dumbing down”. If art is not for everyone then it has a dire future. So, for example, the critics hated 18. “Desperate Romantics” on TV – why? As a result of that particularly energetic romp the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood have earned what they long deserved and needed – real street cred. Why shouldn’t art be made more accessible and easier to digest? A rebellious teenage daughter of a friend of mine discovered opera because it had been used in a TV commercial, was amazed and a bit put out that her mother already knew it and then insisted on hearing the whole opera (La Boheme I think it was). Do you remember the first time you fully suspended disbelief in a theatre? Do any of you remember Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood – hearing him first and then reading it and reading it yourself?
Dumb down, please, if it brings more people to vote for the “Arts Party” and realise the more people you have on your side the better.
So how are the Arts doing? What has the last ten years been like? For once, a politician and a desperate romantic to look at him, Ben Bradshaw – Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport – slightly underplays his hand: “British theatre, film, music and other creative industries are the best in the world” he said at the Brighton Conference.
We are left with a ‘yeah, yeah well he would say that wouldn’t he?’ feeling. But the world at large seems to think it’s worse than that. Nearly 2/3 of my sample thinking the situation is only OK or in decline. Someone said the Arts were “pretty robust but complaining as usual”….
What’s wrong with us all? With you, with them, with us.
The Arts aren’t in good shape; they are in great shape.
The Arts Council funding has gone up by over 60% in real terms over the past decade, the Lottery has made a huge difference at grassroots level. But the proof of this particular pudding is in the eating.
London is the unopposed Arts Capital of the world. Four symphony orchestras. Two Opera Houses one of which, the Royal Opera, has according to Nick Hytner “the best chorus in the world”. The Proms. (which reaches, 40 million on the BBC’s English language service alone). Most of the great plays start in Londonnow where you can’t get into Enron at the Royal Court– Lucy Prebble is 28, British and she wrote it. And where else has a dazzling and brilliantly run phenomenon like the Donmar Warehouse? Then there’s the discreet Wigmore Hall (described by Imogen Cooper as “the greatest chamber music venue in the world”). And now there are new venues like King’s Place and Cadogan Hall – great Art from the classics and not so classics like Mama Mia (which is born here and then flies everywhere around the world) –– amazing brave exhibitions are in our Art Galleries – and we have inventive and free museums – and in films here’s what Bill Murray the American Actor who recently “voiced” the Badger in Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was designed and filmed at Three Mills in Bow, said: “This film could not have been made anywhere in the world but London.
One of the most exciting days I have ever had in the film business was the day I spent at Three Mills. They do things here…that America doesn’t dream about. We can put a man on the moon but we could not have made this movie.”
We are world class and a global market leader and yet too few seem to appreciate how great it is to reach that status with just 1% of the world’s population.
Yes, but what did the Arts ever do for anyone outside London?
A museum or Art Gallery for every 20,000 adults isn’t a bad start. Developments and success stories like the new Art Gallery, the Baltic Centre, in Newcastle next to which is a concert hall complex, the Sage, the Pallant Gallery at Chichester, new theatres in Northampton, two concert halls in the amazing Aldeburgh (population 300 with an 830 seat concert hall in Snape and a new, slightly smaller concert hall opened this year) and then there’s Brighton.
Ah Brighton– well, I must declare an interest since I live there. Brighton is ranked the top authority outside London for engagement with the Arts. The Brighton Festival flourishes and the ROI measured in terms of the promotional effort in relation to cash flowing into the local economy is hugely positive. Sales of art through the Open Houses Project alone is over £1million from this sparsely populated city. Brighton has gone through a tipping point from not being sure what it stands for to being an Ideopolis – a genuinely exciting city of ideas, innovation and experimentation, A city with 50 separate arts venues; 1000 Open Home Artists. No wonder the HSBC Future of Business Report (published in May) predicts that Brighton along with London, Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham will become a “supercity” of the future. The place crackles with energy. And today 20% of all the businesses in Brighton are classified as creative. A concert, gig, film, play, art gallery or ‘happening’ sits closer to someone walking through Brighton than anywhere else in the UK. Like Coca-Cola’s proclaimed strategy, art is just an arms length away in Brighton. The Faculty of Arts and Architecture atBrightonUniversityhas a truly world class reputation with a huge breadth of offering and is driven inspiringly with passion and vision – check it out.
So if you want a model for outside London and find out how to make the Arts stand centre stage 365 days a year, just come to Brighton.
And now we come to the bottom line – money.
An entrepreneur and Investment Banker called Paul Zisman who has been on a number of Arts Boards including the Young Vic tells me that despite preconceptions to the contrary, many of the Arts Council funded companies are run with greater financial astuteness than many private companies of a similar size. My own perspective is that producers in the British theatre are much more ruthlessly clinical about cutting budgets or closing down failing shows than their counterparts in industry. Today however, given the state of the economy, some of the rich funding streams of the past decade may start to dry up although this will not happen yet.
Last week the government announced major awards for a raft of capital projects in the Arts….daunted perhaps by the approach of this conference I thought. Alas, no. In the event, it turns out this was an action replay of grants already awarded. Just one more spin.
I (fancifully nonetheless) see Art as the name of a precociously brilliant adolescent in a household of not so successful Micawberish grown-ups who are in deep financial trouble and are looking hard at reducing his meagre allowance.
In relation to Trident, National Security Cards, the NHS and so on the Arts really are a bit of a “steal”.
Fight to keep what is given; keep on telling the world the story “Arts is critical for everyone” but recognise that it’s likely, probable, inevitable that post election whoever is elected that there’ll be cuts everywhere and if, being a soft-won’t notice-it-too-much sector, the Arts suffer, then failing to mount the “you-must-have-a thriving-arts-sector” argument early enough says it’s partly the Arts own fault. Government is about votes and choices, and government money tends to be magnetically drawn to solving problems and averting failure rather than building on success.
What is vital is the importance of and the prioritisation of the Arts is actively espoused by the next government and the one after that and the one after that.
More appealing than bigger government hand-outs is finding incentives and ways through via tax breaks and simple, powerful marketing to get the rich, the foreign, the generous and business more involved. But, of course, it’s also true that artists always thrive under pressure like scientists do. Here’s what physicist Lord Rutherford said: “we have no money so we shall have to think.”
So what could change with the business community? Branded Entertainment is on many lips right now – Sir Martin Sorrell, Chairman of WPP, believes it’s the way forward.
It involves a return to the (literal) world of Soap Operas so called because the big detergent companies underwrote and sponsored the early series. Beyond that we’ve had the book Fay Weldon’s Bulgari Connection, Pot Noodle: the Musical at the Edinburgh Fringe, Somers Town, the Eurostar funded film and in the States Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Toyota, Ford and P&G are all launching shows where their control of content is stronger. Here’s what Nick Chapman Strategy Director at Venables, Belland Partners, in San Francisco, says: “Advertisers are realising that if they create their own content they don’t need to pay for ad. space. They have greater control over how their brand is portrayed and ideally they create a more in-depth and involving interaction between consumer and brand.”
So watch this space…the relationship between the Arts and business (except at the corporate entertaining level) has only just begun – but because in general business-people are exploiters not explorers it won’t necessarily be easy.
Here are just a few ideas for improving the status of the Arts:
- Recognise that this is a global economy and culture now and put big ambassadorial effort behind promoting the British Arts scene – this plus a weak pound could prove big in extracting tourist revenue
- Create a creative partnership of all the creative industries so the best of British Marketing, Advertising, PR, Digital Marketing focus on the biggest global blitz for the Arts in Britain ever.
- Make 2010 – 20 The Arts Decade – focus on building even stronger foundations for the future
- Have a grown-up conversation with the TV companies, especially the BBC, making attractive to them a major shift in emphasis towards Arts broadcasting so it engages a much wider audience
- Use Cinemas more, to show the great work from London and elsewhere in Britain taken countrywide to widen the reach
- Mount a huge School’s Programme taking the Arts – Music, Art, Dance and Acting – alongside maths and literacy in importance on the curriculum.
- Make frequent visits to live performances for all school children normal
- Employ out of work actors and artists in schools
- Make school art shows – in all their manifestations – a major annual national event – get some real momentum behind this (building on the Saatchi/Daily Telegraph initiative)
- Take the Pimlico Opera, Ballet Black, South Oxleymodels countrywide as soon as possible
- Understand the Arts in Britainbelongs to everyone not just to a privileged few who can already access them, understand them and love them
- Recognise how good we are and stop being shrinking violets – here’s what Luther D King said:
“Be what you is not what you aint , ‘cos if you aint what you is you is what you aint”.
So what is we? Razia Iqbal, BBC Arts Correspondent, said: “the most important identifying characteristic of the UK is creativity”. To be sure everyone in business is talking about the need for creativity right now. It’s placed very high on the corporate agenda (I’ve even just written a book on the subject) and we are good at creativity, very good, but we could, across the board, be better if we relaxed and discarded that endemic British negativity (the “isn’t it just typical?” attitude); if we were more oriented to looking at things; if we played more and worked less; if we went to arts events more and looked at spreadsheets less.
Finally. Attitude of mind. You know the future is going to be a dangerous place so take the advice of Andrew Zoll of Z and Partners and Kevan Carroll author of The Red Rubber Ball at Work who said respectively: “you can’t think about the future without having a playful mind” and “play puts the power of imagination, creativity and innovation in your hands”.
Sir Ken Robinson on TED – the medium for inspiring speakers on the Web – said engagingly “we educate creativity out of children” and we do. We are obsessed with measurement and benchmarking.
I spoke to John Neil the Head of Unipart at a time when British engineering was endearingly described as regarding a tolerance of +/- ½ inch as being OK. 34 a. In despair he said “the trouble with this county is we don’t know what’s good”.
Now we do – it’s our culture, it’s our Arts, it’s our creative services businesses. That’s what defines us now.And that’s a pretty good place to begin.
Having spent a half hour in praise of Britain, how apt to end by quoting a German, Goethe:
“Whatever you can do or dream, begin it.
Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.
Begin it now.”
Oh, and one more question, to Michael Chabon.
Q. Michael, if you were advising Al Qaeda in their quest what would you tell them?
A. Start by cutting school funding for art, music, creative writing and the performance arts.
Thank you Michael Chabon; and thank all of you.
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