Theatre in Wales

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Act Versus Process: A Perspective on Government & Culture

Summing It Up

Letter of Remit , Public Arts of Wales , August 15, 2020
Summing It Up by Letter of Remit In this time without public art the clear-out of the digital cupboard continues. It is a small consolation, no substitute at all for direct experience. Among the files a Letter of Remit from the Government of Wales to the Arts Council of Wales has come to light.

It thus has a double existence; it is first a communication between two public bodies. But the fact of its location in the public domain means an intention that the public be implicated. This involvement of a wider audience invites participation. But, at the same time, it is likely that participation is not just unanticipated but may be not really welcome. (The elision of government with nation has been discussed as a false category overlap earlier in the year. See “Summing It Up” below 16th February.)

The article in the same series of 28th March dealt with the topic of tension. Every action is a resolution of elements in opposition. The Letter is a piece of writing and a piece of writing, as a linguistic act, may be interpreted by looking into the elements in opposition that it seeks to resolve. In the case of the Letter of Remit there are three that jump out immediately.

The first is ontological. The actions of government, whether by legislative or directive means, are instrumental. They exist to generate further and consequential actions. A court exists so that statutes of general application may be extrapolated to make judgements in particular circumstances. A policing organisation exists to ensure, and to enforce, security of citizenry and nation. The acts of government are made for the engendering of a chain of future actions. It is a thing-in-process generating acts-in-process.

The observation of process goes back many thousand of years. A useful guide for the modern era is A N Whitehead. His “Process and Reality” from 1929 delineates the difference. Whitehead used the term “actual entity” as a reference to the entities that have existence in the world. All entities in the world have a spatio-temporal existence as processes. They are things that are happening; as happenings-in-action they are subject to change.

The ontological condition of the art work is precisely the opposite, being a thing-in-completion. Whereas a law seeks to render simplicity from complexity the lifeblood of the aesthetic endeavour is the containment of complexity within a patterning of order. This is a part of its satisfaction, the other being its refutation of time and the morphological effect of time's passing. The acts of government are divergent. Case law opens up a host of new actions. The artwork is convergent, elements brought into a form of finality.

Its interpretation, however, is variant and a constant condition-in-becoming. Critical reaction oscillates all over the place. A century ago Roger Fry was a pioneer in the appreciation of extra-European sculpture, The art of Oceania flowed into the painting of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The critic J P Stern (1920-1991) once reviewed a century of critical writing on Adalbert Stifter. Each age saw in the author a reflection of its own, the work shifting terrain from naturalism to existentialism. Criticism too is a thing- in-becoming. It may offer good words but never a final word.

The Letter of Remit under-appreciates this categorical difference. Its focus is on yoking expenditure on culture to instrumental ends. It supposes, as an example, a link to health outcomes but offers no scientific substrate. It proposes art events as a driver for urban regeneration. But it is well-established that public art expenditure is not a sole causal factor. On its own it can cause a flurry of interest in a place but plant no deeper seeds. The biggest thrust to urban renewal is dynamic political leadership at the civic, that is the local, level.

Another instance of values-in-tension in the Letter is the relationship between sender and recipient organisations; to be addressed in a future summary piece.

Postscript: Looking at the Letter of Remit

“Acceptance of the artists' role to question issues of state and to offer critiques of public policy- to challenge both rulers and the ruled. Arguably, this is particularly important in Wales where visceral issues of language and identity are contested issues. Throughout history, literature, plays and exhibitions have offered an alternative to issues on which there was a prevailing political orthodoxy.”

That was Geraint Talfan Davies.

There is not much of that acceptance in the Letter of Remit from Minister to Chair of Arts Council of Wales.

The Letter comprises 1800 words and runs to 6 pages It asserts again the subordination of artistic activity to the government's view of the world. The language is admittedly careful.

“This letter sets out a number of priorities that I would like you to consider when preparing your Operational Plan for 2019-20 and in subsequent years.”

“An important recent development is the decision by my colleague Eluned Morgan, the Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language, to develop a new strategy for International Engagement. The Minister has made it clear that she expects the Arts Council, through the work of its international team Wales Arts International, to play an important part in the development of this strategy.”

I have been impressed by the Minister. Fair enough. Wales runs a balance of payments deficit in performance, although it is unspoken.

The bulk is an annex titled “Key Deliverables.” The words “dance”, “literature”, “theatre”, “music”, “art” or “sculpture” make no appearance.

“Encourage local authorities to maintain their support for local arts services, projects and venues, and for national initiatives like the national youth ensembles.”

Government is government. From the WLGA in evidence to the Culture Committee in the Senedd:

“Libraries have experienced a cut of 35% since 2009/10 whilst culture and recreation has been cut by 42%.”

If Government wants something to happen legislate.

Ditto “Continue to advocate for local authorities to support music education.”

“The arts sector can support wider efforts to create the right conditions for better health, well- being and greater physical activity.”

The effect is miniscule. The aspiration has not been thought. Physical activity results from local groups and local authority buildings offering activities and facilities.

The people of Wales, with their interest in artistic experience of highest quality, are excluded and play no part in this Letter.

The document is solely concerned with the interests of Government, treating the Council as an executive body under its instruction.

Illustration: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner- Berlin Street Scene

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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