As the arts are mollycoddled by protective funding and propped up by the instinct of stability, will the output of our creative institutions fall further behind the mind of the age? Dan Eastmond makes the case.
You may already know, but most likely you won’t, that although I have spent the best part of twenty years in the arts and entertainment, my move into the public arts sector is a relatively recent one. My career has taken me from arts co-ops and pirate radio to the music industry, nightclubs and entertainment venues. From street performances to online communities, galleries and members’ clubs. All have in common the aim – thankfully often achieved – of making meaningful encounters or chapters in other people’s lives, whilst making commercial sense for those involved.
whilst I stumble across the occasional blast of the sublime, I confess that most of my aesthetic encounters leave me cold and lonely.
My trip into the public arts sector has so far been a thrilling, exciting and utterly rewarding trip, yet from all the conversations I have with others working in the sector, from around the UK to Europe and further afield, I have found that underneath the passion, commitment and hope of most arts professionals lies a shadow of loss, of longing and sometimes willful delusion. Like a marriage adrift in complacency, we are the partners who hold on for the sake of the children, keep going because leaving would surface too painful a truth, whilst our hearts reach back from crevassed beds to memories of love.
What was the point of all this aesthetic effort, these decorated needs, this beautiful hunt? Our history books tell us that art and culture used to be the pinnacle of human activity, the thing that made all the toil and the suffering meaningful. Yet – as someone who considers himself culturally “in the mix” – whilst I stumble across the occasional blast of the sublime, I confess that most of my aesthetic encounters leave me cold and lonely. And it's not just me, most of us (culture seekers or not) chalk our days adrift in the flat calm of marketing messages and unified style, of the zeitgeist and ordinary ideas, of cautious nowism and regurgitated comfort. Strangely, although once the bastions of agitated thinking and glorious invention our arts venues and colleges appear to be slipping further and further behind the quest for future meaning and a contemporary aesthetic.
So what happens next, if we revolve around and around our well worn track, our hamster wheel, our arts mill? What happens to our venues and the ideas that fill them?
Well for a start our audiences will continue to mutate, both in make up and ability. I use mutate because it is not accurate to say that they will simply shrink. We have already dealt with the problem of shrinking, quickening and ageing audiences with years of audience development plans. We bolster them with marketing support and outreach initiatives, we cobble them together with forgettable school workshops and accidental passers by, we bribe them with underwritten offers and we spread them wafer thin over the Internet like sheet ice. So they will not shrink, but they will mutate. Our Internet audiences for example consume beautiful ideas like goats on a hillside, drifting from patch to patch, moving automatically with mouse finger hovering menacingly to react to momentary boredom with ruthless execution, supper fork in the other hand, TV droning a few yards further. In-house audiences bubble with a mix of curious virgins and frustrated veterans, Simon Cowells and Brian Sewells, disappointed tourists sucked in by sexy marketing and teenagers building their CVs. All come with great expectations and tiny wallets, mobilised and unionised by the cry of “Great art for all", the death knell of cognitive experimentation. In short, our audiences will mutate into large numbers of barely interested browsers and small numbers of self serving identity builders.
As the arts are propped and mollycoddled for longer, by protective funding and the instinct of stability, so the output of our creative institutions will fall further behind the mind of the age. It is already apparent that the progressive thinking that comes from the technology sector far outstrips the offerings from the arts, that the cultural impact of the gaming sector leaves artists blushing, that the voice of politics booms over the polite apologies of public arts initiatives. As the last pockets of benefactors pump life into old methods, activity will become more about preserving tradition than progressing ideas, modernity will be adopted as a mask, creating a grotesque spectacle of vacuous nostalgia. Galleries and libraries will merge, a sensible efficiency drive for councillors and stakeholders, but a slow death if curators and librarians use it to avoid the future with company.
This freezing of progress doesn't only affect our audiences and makers, it will erode the talent coming into the sector as well. As our efforts focus increasingly on propping up cultural form instead of pushing though creative ideas, jamming theatre into new media (like stuffing turkey into a sugar donut), miraging paintings onto the internet, so our brightest minds will leave the arts for the progress, danger and uncertainty of new culture. The arts needs provocateurs, radicals and giants, but we won't attract them with creaky stages prettied with LEDs. I know a few people who fit the bill: most of them won't work with us, preferring to produce genuine innovation in necessary isolation. Our best efforts and boldest ambition will soon come only from experienced professionals with too much to lose (and too many relationships to protect) and middle class graduates playing the game of rebellion until convenience lures them elsewhere.
This article is an edited extract from Dan Eastmond's provocation ‘Exit for the Future’, published in Fireworks, a series of 16 short essays on the state of the arts. Published by Fireythings, it is available in print and on Amazon Kindle