Dan Eastmond explains why he walked out of the What Next? conference.
I must confess, I left. Got up, said my “excuse me's” to my row and headed elsewhere. I never do that… well not often. The last time I walked out of anything was the Spiderman reboot, which was so full of plot holes and sentimental teen angst I could've thrown up. Since I lasted longer with Spiderman, it's fair to say What Next? was not for me.
But, as I don't want to be cartoon angry boy for ever, let me start with some positives.
It wasn't that long ago when an event like What Next?, or a group of 650 cultural professionals as we were, would have referred constantly to “The Arts”... The Arts this… The Arts that… capital T capital A, with all the certainty of the Aesthetic Elite and a smug incredulity that there are (gasp) some people who “just don't get it" (there was still a little of that, but this is the positive bit). On this day, however, everybody was talking about "art and culture", broad, inclusive, varied and not even capitalised. Heavens, Bernard Donoghue even championed the theatre, games designers and blockbuster films in the same breath. Hoorah for us! We are changing – whether our new found chums in multiplexes, record company offices and design studios will want to hang out with us remains to be seen – but at least we are playing.
The other good thing about What Next? is in the title, or lack of title in fact. It's a big question, what next?, and although it may have been intended to merely imply a sense of investigation and openness, it carries within it all the uncertainty, loss and tragedy that will define the next few years of cultural production, whether publicly funded or not. The Arts (damn!) and a large part of the culture industries have crashed into the 21st century with an enormous crisis of purpose – stretched thin over social networks, washed out by hyper-media and beaten by the curious tyranny of creative democracy. It's hard to know what we're doing and our audiences (of course) share our confusion. It makes for a bit of a weird conference, but the fact that we are beginning to come together in the darkness, around the warm fires of our failures, is the first step to seeing in the dawn.
So, why did I leave? Well, first of all there was all this talk of starting a movement, or was it not starting a movement? I got lost somewhere between David Lan's assertion that there was no agenda other than this "What Next?" question and Sir Ken Robinson's peculiar endorsement of "the mission" and overriding message that it's all the fault of politicians. Either way, this movement thing bothers me deeply. I am of course reminded of Groucho Marx's "I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member", but more than that, is that it just seems so quaint, so old fashioned, so us! In an age of rampant social networks and frenzied agenda setting, even the mention of a movement seems hopelessly out of touch.
So too is this notion of engaging with politicians, of pushing the importance or plight of arts and culture into the political spotlight, making it "a manifesto issue". When voting numbers are shrinking year on year, and the fate of the country is being decided by fewer and fewer individuals, why on earth should we waste our time talking to the figureheads of nobody? If we spent the same energy building our audiences, making our output the lifeblood of, well life, politicians would surely come to us. We might lose out in the short-term, at least institutions might, but this is the long game, right?
Furthermore – as it cropped up more than once on the day – when politicians like Maria Miller ask the cultural industries once again to explain how they contribute to our economy, we could simply refuse to engage. It would be a far more interesting scenario than playing the frustrated regurgitation game. Then again, we could simply tell her to fuck off. I use the words explicitly and with purpose, for we are also often far too polite in our responses to such resource wasting ignorance. Sure, politicians may currently hold the purse strings, but in a few years strings is all they will be holding. We should join the rest of the population and move on. Fuck off, Maria. Done.
After the movement / non-movement bit came the biggest tragedy of all. Art, we are told, has the power to change communities, rapping the ability to turn lives around and education should never be considered as separable from culture. I'm sorry have we met before? Oh yes, at EVERY ARTS CONFERENCE I'VE EVER BEEN TO! For a moment I panicked, wondering if – Bobby Ewing style – I was about to wake up to find the past 20 years had all been a dream, whisked back from the 21st century to some late eighties community arts rally. Sadly not, and from that moment "What Next?", when faced with the reality of needing some actual content and ideas, became "What Was" and once again we sank back into the glue of our preconceptions and allegiances.
This is the moment when I left. I know there may well have been good things I missed, but outside on Shaftesbury Avenue the sun was shinning and culture was being gloriously busy. I still have my "What Next?" card though. A big brown postcard that invites me to pledge (yes, really, just like the Brownies and Cubs) to engage with an MP, treat my stakeholders as high-level donors, sign up to something called the "What Next? grid", start a group or "Other". It's worth pointing out that if your "Other" is "to unpick and dismantle the public arts sector’s over-reliance on bricks and mortar solutions to the transmission of shared aesthetic worth", then tough. You don't have room. You could fit "Pray" though.
But seeing as I am writing here and you are reading it, and we have as much room as we need, here are my "Others":
- I pledge to focus the majority of my energies on finding and supporting contemporary cultural activity, whatever form that may take, that resonates wildly with the population and expresses what it is to be alive in the 21st century, not the past.
- I pledge to allow the institutions that I understand to stop when they are no longer needed, to make space for new generations to make institutions that I do not understand.
- I pledge to help steer the cultural sector to a place where high levels of engagement and value replace the need for state subsidy, so that I don't have to be nice to people like Maria Miller.