Friday, January 11, 2008

The McMaster Report

I am more than a little concerned about this report.

On a glance through (and I confess I need to read it more thoroughly, but this is a quick response) I think it is full of platitudes and to my mind empty, ungrounded rhetoric about artistic 'risk taking' and 'innovation'. I certainly have real issues with how 'excellence' is being used in such an unproblematised way. Its definitions are so poor that it's as if the last 100 years of cultural theory hadn't happened. Questions of cultural value and artistic 'quality' are much more complex than it is prepared to admit. Its attacks on a 'target-based' funding regime are an unfounded caricature of the current circumstances.

Some immediate thoughts:

There is plenty of stuff about 'valuing diversity' but there seems to be a desire to remove the use of cultural indicators altogether - i.e. we just don't worry about the fact that only so few managers/leaders in the cultural industries are women, or from ethnic minority backgrounds, etc? That it's disproportionately difficult for people starting out with little cash or few connections to make a living as artists, musicians or cultural businesses? Perhaps we worry a little about the fact that our most powerful cultural and educational institutions (and funding agencies....) are overwhelmingly populated by white kids from affluent middle class backgrounds, and that its much more difficult for kids from poorer backgrounds to break into the arts, but we're not prepared to require those organisations to change to become more inclusive and be tough with them when they don't? We worry about who 'our audience' is, but we don't want to collect statistics or data about their demographic profile in case it tells us uncomfortable truths that we don't want to hear, or be prepared to act on it? We might be concerned that some national cultural institutions are still too Eurocentric, that some local ones are too parochial (or vice versa), that not enough money is being spent directly on supporting artists to make new work, or on professional development, but we're not prepared to set some openly debated and clearly justified strategic priorities to reallocate funding, and have evaluation frameworks in place to see if these political decisions are working?

Knowing that the work is somehow giving off an aura of 'excellence' will explain it all away. I'm not impressed. This is no basis for a national cultural policy in a complex, globalised world.

I've never been a defender of audit cultures or policy based on narrow target-setting but I do believe that capturing data is important so that change can be tracked over time and that the impact of changes in policy and funding regimes can be understood...

McMaster offers a very liberal-individual view of what culture is (which seems to be 'whatever arts organisations and artists do for audiences") rather than a more dynamic or participatory vision of a culture in which everyone has a stake and in which everyone can take part.

'Peer review' is interesting as a counterbalance to questions of how to assess 'quality' but simply ignores the issue of whether central government and local communities should agree some priorities or a direction for public support for cultural offerings; it might defend the 'arm's length' principle but the big question it ignores is the appointment and public accountability of those who will undertake the 'peer review'. In spite of the problems of 'instrumentalism' of the last 10 years, at least an emphasis on access and inclusion has shaken up the sector a lot and got a lot more people involved.

Developing access and inclusion isn't primarily about 'free admission for a week', and 'more touring', it's about a democratisation of cultural production. That's not to say that opera houses, museums and concert halls shouldn't exist, it's to say that a whole spectrum of artistic activity has a place in a contemporary culture, and that historic cultural institutions need to reinvent themselves faced with a postmodern, networked, globalised world, and be prepared to defend their public value if they want public funding. Of course, to survive, the traditional - and popular - arts need to be valued, funded and taken seriously, but not put on a pedestal, immune from criticism, and seen as somehow part of an aesthetically autonomous zone untainted by social change, commerce, culture or politics. The same goes for artists, most of whom know this all too well as they struggle to make a living in these turbulent times.

Note the talk of 'education' not learning, 'audiences', not participants. Talented artists and expert curators know what culture is, and it's good for us, but we don't get to make it unless we are admitted to the the special creative class called professional artists. If we find their work difficult, then never mind, we just need to be educated to appreciate it. If we find it difficult to break into the artistic circle, it's not because of any structural, institutional problems with our excellent cultural system, it's probably just because we're not 'talented' (or 'excellent') enough. Take that bitter medicine, British public! Why? Because the arts are good for you, and those of us in the cultural know are blessed enough to know it. That's no formula for a renaissance, it's a recipe for disaster. So what about web2.0, about co-production, about social media, about new performance forms, about a potential shift towards an enabling and participatory public sphere characterised by digital flows, networks, hybridity, mobility, radical decentralisation, and tailored individual experiences, with all the opportunities and challenges that such a shift represents? Never mind all that, it's simple! Excellence will do the trick as a justification for funding culture.

The report as a whole has very little to say about communities, cities, people, places, festivals, neighbourhoods, schools etc.. all the CONTEXTS in which arts organisations operate: the places and spaces of the everyday cultural practices that underpin the making and partaking of art. It's these everyday rituals, small gestures, specific differences and special perspectives that mark the importance of the arts in people's lives. Rather it appears to be about the concert hall, the theatre, the gallery as 'temples of culture'. Very, very disappointing. Where is arts for health, for wellbeing, for learning, for provocation, as part of the formation and reinvention of identity and community? Some of the most 'excellent' and innovative work of the last ten years has been in these areas, where organisations have reinvented their role in communities and opened themselves up to collaboration, and radical independent practitioners have challenged the dull platitudes of the bourgeois art marketplace. This is the area - characterised by participation, partnerships and provocation - in which the UK is something of a world leader.

Interestingly it marks a sharp shift away from cultural economy/creative industries about which it has nothing, at all, to say - it prefers to deal with the 'intrinsic power of the arts' which is a rhetoric that has been endlessly critiqued over the last half century. I suspect that DCMS will have an uphill struggle if it tries to work with this script against the Treasury. The report's very narrow conception of 'innovation' seems entirely to be in the domain of artistic autonomy and have nothing to do with society at all - it certainly jars with the script that other bits of the Government have developed about creative business and social innovation; and it doesn't have a lot to say about the wider value of innovations in the cultural domain for quality of life more widely. Surely the arts are important because they enable conversations between communities, and, sometimes unsettling encounters - they help us to make sense of the world, express ideas, make places distinctive, enhance our living environments, tell stories about ourselves, learn about others, give pleasure and sometimes anxiety, express hopes and fears about the future, and find ways of communicating by analogy, metaphor and poetics.

The tone of the report contrasts sharply with all the broadly progressive work that DCMS has developed over the last 10 years, embedding arts in regeneration, in learning, working in local authorities, in communities; beginning to acknowledge a cultural dimension to policy decisions about health, schooling, education, communities, etc. and developing contested, but at least reasonably transparent frameworks for cultural planning. And then there is the explosive growth of the 'experience economy' to consider in which tourism, media and culture have formed such a significant part of placemaking strategies. Acknowledging the role of artists as catalysts, connectors, sometimes radical disruptors is indeed important but there is little on offer here that will make much difference to the profoundly marginalised status of much innovative work in the arts...or to those seeking to get a foot in the door. "More mentoring" is a pretty dubious response.

I suspect that what we will now get is a big debate about what 'excellence' is - which might be interesting, but more likely will just get us trapped in the high art/popular culture divide once again.

Surely 'assessing quality' is both about judgement AND measurement. Not one or the other. And there are many different sorts of criteria through which one might ascertain 'quality'. Not just a conveniently vague singularity called 'excellence'. Isn't there more than a whiff of a suggestion in there that culture is what 'cultured people' provide for the less cultured? ["Once the initial barrier of engagement is overcome, audiences must be given the opportunity to deepen their experience and be introduced to more complex work]. So, once people have 'engaged' they can 'move on' to 'more complex' (read:'high'?) forms? Hmmmmm.

There certainly seems to be a failure of 'cultural leadership' going on here. Poke the foundational ideas just gently and the whole edifice comes crumbling, who's going to decide what is 'excellent' and what is not? On what basis exactly?