Thursday, 12 November 2009

Any appetite for a naked lunch?

I join the dots between things and look for patterns. I probably over-do it at times, but it’s how my brain works. Here’s my latest set of dots.

Firstly a phrase echoing from the IFACCA Summit, Shelagh Wrights’s diagnosis that the arts suffer from ‘dodgy advocacy’, ran through my thinking – actually more worrying – about some themes from the IPPR/RSA event about the future of the public sector in the North East I mentioned last week. Themes like the need to acknowledge the unworkability of current ways before innovation kicks in.

Then that connected up to an essay I found via Matthew Taylor blogging about ‘policy-based evidence making’ with the rather wonderful title of ‘On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research’. In it, Dr Eleonora Belfiore uses research around evidence for ‘the impact of the arts’, as a case study in bullshit, that mode of discourse which puts persuasion above accuracy, what she describes as an ‘indifference to how things really are’. (Just for the record I think she’s right in general, but rather harsh on the arts, coming across at times as the kind of academic who’d be happier just having cultural policy and no actual messy culture.)

I then wondered if the current collective mindset of the publicly-funded arts and cultural sector is open and self-critical enough often enough to imagine all possible futures. (I include in that the funders involved, including government.) Have we become too accustomed to growth? Do we still believe that someone somewhere will have a pot of money they need to use at just the right moment –? For all our needs? What might we have to give up to respond to climate change? There is strong evidence for the impact of the arts, more than Belfiore can admit for her argument I would suggest, but if we only look for the answers that are useful to us, do we make ourselves overly-reliant on those we’re making the case to? Don’t we have to strive for the moment William Burroughs called the naked lunch - 'a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork' – so we can start to move beyond it?

The final dot (never end on Burroughsian apocalyptic paranoia!) was catching up on the new series of The Thick of It, which is a lesson in the way political discourse has been perverted by language. It’s somehow missing something the first series and the specials had, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. (Maybe the loosened grip on power makes Malcolm something of an underdog, albeit one with horrible bark and bite?) It is still very funny though, especially if, like me, you think swearing can be grown up and funny.


artista povera said...

Enjoyed that research paper you link to "Bullshit in Cultural Policy Practice and Research". Very timely now that truth has finally prevailed in the Employment Tribunal Case of Topsy vs Waygood. Employment Judge Hunter has found in Topsy's favour - Topsy WAS unfairly dismissed by Waygood. It's official. So it is with Bullshit; you can only fool some of the people some of the time. But when you have a whole Board of people dedicated to shoring up a tranche of indefensible Bullshit to the extent of shelling out pricey legal fees, a Barrister in the end no less, to defend themselves against their own staff; then it can take a dedicated truth seeker indeed to pit their wits against them. Well Topsy went the distance and Judge Hunter and his panel were no pushovers. Helen Smith's allegation is ultimately described as "entirely lacking in credibility"; three of the other witness statements as "puerile", "bordering on the ridiculous", "histrionic" and "insincere". These quotes are from the Judge's 14 page Judgement sent 11/11/09. In it he also tracks how the truths of other parties were either discounted, disparaged or for the most not even elicited; that no proper investigation was carried out into Helen's assertion, no investigation carried out by Clymene Christoforou into whether Helen might be making life difficult for a succession of staff members. Was it Paul Simon who sang "only hears what (he) wants to hear and disregards the rest." Well, Topsy was heard by these independent adjudicators and he has won not just the moral victory but the actual one. The research paper suggests that Bullshit is employed to protect position against threat - has it really infected Newcastle's cultural landscape that people are prepared not only to bend the truth to let their 'cultural' positions survive but to waste time and money doing it? What a shameful, shameful exercise.

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Mark Robinson said...

Thanks Carol. I don't think here's the place for me to respond to the specifics, or debate how wide the significance may be. But equally I don't want to simply ignore your comment.

I think being real and honest with ourselves about facts is going to be a key skill for the sector in the next few years - in strategy as much as in governance. The whole sector - from ACE to artists and all points around - needs to take responsibility for that. Perhaps we could declare places/sectors 'Bullshit Free Zones' in the way some towns are still 'Nuclear Free Zones'?