Thursday, 12 February 2009

How are artists like hill farmers?

I remember being at a conference a few years ago about arts and creative industries in rural areas. (Creative industries encompassing The Shed and a very impressive women who made bras.) The attendance was a real mixture, but someone found the common thread between the two main constituencies. Artists and farmers may seem very different, they said, but they're alike: both groups feel they are misunderstood and undervalued, both fight horribly amongst themselves, and both are addicted to subsidy whilst thinking they get no support or love from anyone. It was a quip, and got a big laugh – but one that recognised the underlying truth.

An article in The Guardian by Peter Hetherington reminded me of this. It describes the battle hill farmers have to make a living. But also the pleasures and freedoms of ‘being your own boss’, and the value of not being driven by money, but a better balance (and rhythm) of life and work and landscape. The earning figures – from farming – are if anything even lower than those that are quoted for artists. The dilemmas are very similar. The arguments about public subsidy also feel rather familiar.

The discussion of the need to look at the very ‘structure’ of the industry, and the way the individuals and business work also rang bells, as I’ve been re-reading John Knell’s work for MMM recently. The question for artists and small arts businesses is where or how far the ‘countryside guardians’/’guardians of cultural values’ analogy lead us – up a hill or down a dead-end track?


Geoffrey Crayon said...

You may know artists who see themselves as ’guardians of cultural values’ but I think many would raise an eyebrow at the very least at a phrase that seems to present them as implicitly conservative or reactionary.

Is there a reason you use that form of words?

Mark Robinson said...

Well, apart from inherent cack-handedness and maybe writing too quickly, I wanted to mirror 'countryside guardians' whilst suggesting that artists often suggest public support should be given because of the intrinsic values of culture as opposed to what some might call the instrumental role, which is arguably less a parallel to what farmers now get subsidy for. I didn't mean to suggest that artists were impicitly conservative or reactionary - I was thinking as I wrote of cultural values like innovation, brilliance, investigation, diversity, change, challenge and so on more than ones of tradition and continuity - though I don't see those as necessarily reactionary or conservative. Tradition, for instance is one of those thngs where it ain't what you do it's the way that you do it, for me.

Geoffrey Crayon said...

Fair enough, Mark. Consider my eyebrow lowered.

Thanks for that Guardian piece you linked to by the way. It was really interesting and a bizarre first comment which might have derailed discussion has thrown the following thread in an amusing and thought provoking way - the public value of estate agents in wartime etc.

I'll consider that bundle of cultural values you mentioned and maybe get back if I have any further thoughts.

Geoffrey Crayon said...

I'd suspect that in a climate of advocacy, lobbying, regeneration boosterism and 'whats hot and what's not' journalism it is critical values as an underpinning to those things on your list that artists might feel is being eroded.

Mark Robinson said...

Can you say a bit more about what you mean by 'critical values' and how they are best used to underpin the things I mentioned? (As opposed to undermining them in the way you suggest can happen.)

Geoffrey Crayon said...

Yes, fair question. And of course probably one that would largely open up other questions even if I went on for an hour with slides - so let's slice through it.

As the recently superceded Chair of the Arts Council departed he was still expressing hurt and outrage that he thought people publicly criticised him and the Arts Council about what they did, didn't do and how it affected their lives, practices and the cultural ecology.

He seemed to find it a particular offence that Nicholas Hytner publicly questioned decisions when his organization had received generous funding.

It would seem that at the very highest level the Arts Council thinks that control of funding buys it a cultural leadership claque.

There's no question that the arts council is procuring discussion at all levels but it's very easy for values to become pieties and for the critical to go through the motions. And while the Arts Council harbours it's extraordinary sense of entitlement while claiming to lead I think there are reasons for very public concern.

Mark Robinson said...

I think you're right that it's easy for values to become pieties. I think organisational or personal values that don't get questioned or debated often become just touchstones and shorthand that it's easy to drift away from.

I don't think ACE funding should secure us more than a modicum of respect, the logo where it should be, acknowledgement where it's due and the knowledge the work fits with our stated objectives. It shouldn't buy us agreement with everything we do. It seems to me that one of the things that besets this debate is a sense that things can be resolved, and that the sector is one thing with one view. It clearly isn't. There are lines of thought and division within artforms as well as between them. We have to reflect that. There is a leadership role for ACE in representing that, and reflecting it back, and developing some kind of narrative or position that reflects the complexity of the sector. It's a challenge.

For all these reasons, and many more, I'm very attached to our organisational value of 'diversity'. It feels 'lived'. And it's why I never mind if people disagree with me, even people we give funding to. It's hard getting complaints and the odd over-the-ball challenge from friends and colleagues, but it goes with the role so you won't hear me complain. I wouldn't want them to bite their tongues, though I do expect reason and -how can I say it - civility. The person who once claimed that she 'could feel the stranglers hands around her neck' because of a Grants for the arts decision was going too far in my opinion!

Geoffrey Crayon said...

"The person who once claimed that she 'could feel the stranglers hands around her neck' because of a Grants for the arts decision was going too far in my opinion!"

A police matter I'd have thought.