Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

At the Senedd: Good Intentions Over-valued

Arts Policy Report

Not Much to Be Said , Culture of Wales , September 19, 2020
Arts Policy Report by Not Much to Be Said “The last four years of his life were one long flight from politics and assassins...He killed one man with a dagger in the groin during a game of tennis in Rome...wounded several others including a waiter whose face he cut open in a squabble about artichokes. He was sued for libel in Rome and mutilated in a tavern brawl in Naples.”

That was the description that Robert Hughes gave to Caravaggio on page 279 of his book “Rome”. (“Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2011). David Frum across the Atlantic has been an acute observer of his country since the election of 2016. Earlier in 2020 he made an aside about artists. Chopin was an anti-Semite. Picasso abused women. Degas was an ant-Dreyfusard. Cellini committed murder.

In a subdued and emptied London the Royal Academy is hosting an exhibition from Ordrupgaard outside Copenhagen. It is made up of only three rooms of which the last shows five Gauguins. Three were painted in Polynesia and are mesmeric, wonderful in their mastery of colouration.

They are also unsettling. The curators talk of the artist's fantasy view of Tahiti. “Problematic” is the adjective they come up with, although “repugnant” is a closer word to how a modern sensibility regards the artist's actions. That is the difference. The art is undiminishedlly great. But it disturbs the view, common across the public discourse in Wales, that needs artistry to be a flow of emblematic goodness.

That the universe comprises good and evil is uncontestable. But artists are not automatic vessels of virtue. The psychological profile indicates the opposite, high egoism being a common elemment.

Much official discourse in Wales is driven by a need to demonstrate virtue. If the intentions are good then that is taken as a sufficient yardstick for judgement.

Except that they are not. Not in the world beyond the cloister that is Cardiff. In the world-as-fact public actions are valued by their results, by what is made material.

This is a dire year of suffering and deprivation of all kinds. The Culture Committee reported in June on the impact of Covid-19 on the arts. This site covered in some length the Committee at work a few years back on the arts and cash. A lack of intellectual drive, rigour of approach, insight or much curiosity about its subject were its conclusions.

The report of the Committee in 2020 sought evidence on the situation. Its first page included:

“Nick Capaldi told the Committee that the majority of people in the arts industry work as freelancers and have lost all of their commissions. They cannot rely on the safety nets available to employees. He said that the UK Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-Employment Income Support Scheme are unsuitable for many people working in the arts. He described the self-employment income support scheme as ‘not fit for purpose’ for the sector because many individuals ‘can’t offer a track record of financial accounts’ and do not have three years’ worth of accounts. He is calling for the qualifying criteria to be more flexible.”

This is direct, it is observation, and it is clear on a course of action. The self-employed have been hit calamitously. The patchwork collection of income sources, while good enough for HMRC in usual days, has not fitted the automated processes of the Treasury announced in March.

Compare this with other evidence cited in the report. From the NHS Confederation:

‘The pandemic has also underlined the importance of partnership working across different sectors, such as arts and health and social care. COVID-19 has impacted all sectors of public life, and it is important therefore that Wales’ adopts a cross-sector, joined up response.”

The first sentence is made up of six collective and abstract nouns. The Committee lacks discrimination to notice. The contributor is full of high motive but it is language that has been put to sleep.

The Report has no words about the actual art forms- the stuff of dance, sculpture, exhibiting, performance go unmentioned. In its place is an uncritical obeisance to “digital”, employed ungrammatically as a noun. This is not the case with the writing standards of the Civil Service in London.

Thus the Deputy Minister acknowledges the importance of investing in ‘new methods of communications and new platforms...there are huge possibilities for the future for people to be participating in all sorts of different ways in art forms that are based digitally in the audio-visual spheres.”

In the real world we are suffering a loss of the social, the reality of co-presence of others. It is the deprivation of friends and kin that hurt most. The closure of all sport is felt deeply and so too the absence of the works and the reality of artists. I am sure the Committee members feel this personally but it is submerged collectively.

So to the conclusions. The reality is that culture has been deprived of liquidity for six months, a situation that might continue for as long again. Livelihoods are in ruin. The view from the top:

“In order to renew and sustain the sector the Welsh Government should begin conversations with representatives from the arts sector to set a long term policy direction which is sustainable, inclusive and accessible.”

This sentence- lackadaisical, empty, void of specifity- would never appear from a counterpart in Holyrood or Westminster. It appears in Cardiff because everyone knows that no-one will notice. From not noticing it is a short step towards not caring. The most important thing is to sound good.

Many of those in work are stressed and stretched. But they are not going bankrupt. Read this sentence.

“The Committee heard that there is an opportunity to build a more inclusive future for the arts sector. The enforced hiatus allows time to think about how a wider range of people can tell their stories.”

As a reader I perceive a protected inner circle steeped in complacency. Real decision-makers are having to make hard choices, about priorities, about cashflow day by day, about survival.

Lastly the monist political culture comes to the fore.

“There is a clear need for the Welsh Government to show leadership in setting out the future direction for the arts sector. The conversations about the future direction of the arts should include all genres and all sizes of organisations.”

Again the banality is striking. The Arts Council, which presumably has some knowledge of the arts, is shoved out of the way. The Government has a greater wisdom about culture.

And, as usual, there is the claim to Welsh exceptionalism.

“We believe that Wales can lead the way in setting out a future for the arts sector which is inclusive, accessible and engaging for all.”

The need for Wales to be better than anywhere else is not a sign of a mature polity. It communicates a lack of confidence. No-one I have ever met needs Wales to be better. In the meantime the actual citizens to have to suffer a report like this. But then it is not supposed to be read by any citizens. Its goodness of intention is its yardstick for evaluation and that is enough.

Meanwhile a comment at another time from ACW deserves to be remembered:

“One of the most significant sources of non-public funding in the arts is the unpaid time committed by professional artists and creative professionals to delivering projects that they’re involved with.

When public funding is tight, arts workers will often absorb the costs themselves by reducing the fees that they take for their work. This isn’t public funding. Nevertheless, it represents a significant hidden ‘subsidy’ to the arts.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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