Olympic stupidity ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Olympic stupidity

Newsflash: Howard Barker's theatre company, The Wrestling School, has had its funding cut, as the first high-profile casualty of the London Olympics' raiding of the British arts coffers.

Barker has his say in the Guardian here:

In killing The Wrestling School the Arts Council has silenced a voice, and yet further diminished the range of theatre practice when its very purpose was to extend this range. Political interference is now seen to be the standard practice of the funding system. We live with the washed-out remains of a Stalinist bureaucracy obsessed not with art but social welfare projects, points-systems and 'public benefit' scrutiny, which annihilates (or rather, in the context, "liquidates") thriving and ambitious companies and artists.

Sounds familiar, somehow...remember the stoush over La Mama last year? And yes, arts funding is, among many other things, an issue to do with freedom of speech. George Hunka editorialises at Superfluities, and I'm sure much more will be said.


Alison Croggon said...

To be honest, Tim, I don't feel like entering into an argument about petulant spoilt artists. Barker is a great playwright who has for many years written brave, important work, and he has earned the right to respect.

TimT said...

Great, brave, and important he may be; nevertheless, that column is full of hyped up and overblown rhetoric. His line about the British Government being obsessed with social welfare projects (as opposed to the arts) is particularly bizarre: would he rather it be the opposite?

Statler said...

Alison, following our conversation on the Guardian site I had a look at your piece on La Mama and the comments that followed.

I'm afraid I fall in with Evilpundit regarding freedom of speech not being the same thing as being entitled to have your speech funded. Although I will happily concede that much state funded art leaves itself open to charges of being bordeline propaganda.

While I don't quite agree with your suggestion that removal of public funding would leave arts to the whims of the "aristocrats" my thoughts aren't a million miles away. Where are the philanthropists? We need a new generation of Carnegie's and Usher's, or at least more Paul Newmans with his recent $10m donation to his former college. It's time for some of those who have done very well out of the arts to start giving soemthing back.

View From The Stalls

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Statler - scattering ourselves across the blogs today! As I said in that piece, it all depends on what kind of values you think matter. If you think art matters (and I do, for all sorts of reasons that are articulated in all sorts of ways through this blog) you understand that its values operate in ways that run cross-grained to those values held as important in a capitalist/corporate economy. I think there are many very good arguments for arts funding in a modern society that considers itself civilised.

But to pick up on those values for a moment: in the arts, commercial value is much more complex than it appears to be: personally, I wouldn't mind the royalties from the Beckett estate. Some works generate a lot of money all at once, some hang around for generations and cumulatively generate a lot more. As Les Murray said once of his own arts funding, it was what he was due in the hereafter. It's a safe bet that Barker doesn't make a huge amount of money from what he writes, but many people value it highly, and I think it will be valued into the future.

Tim - Barker is one of my favourite polemicists, partly because he can be so entertaining (I don't always agree with him, but he's always stimulating). But I don't find this column "hyped" at all (angry, maybe): what he says is very to the point. He was objecting to arts funding policy, which is a quite different government department from social welfare. He wasn't claiming, as you seem to have misread him as saying, that his company should be funded instead of hospitals. In Britain, arts funding and social welfare rhetoric have become deeply entwined. Barker is saying that decisions on arts policy ought to be made on artistic grounds, not on extrinsic judgments that have nothing to do with art. That's an argument with which I am very sympathetic.

Statler said...

It's interesting, I do value art and think it matters, but *I* value it, it matters to *me* and *I* expect to pay for it - I don't really expect the state to subsidise it for me, other than for development of new artists. Of course funding could/should be made available to allow those on lower incomes to attend, and while this could simply operate as a different system of funding, it's one which would at least pay more regard to what people wished to see.

I appreciate your comments on art vs capitalism but even as a political socialist the democrat in me won't allow me to support substantial public funding for what is sadly but inevitably a minority interest. See the last two posts in this previous Guardian discussion by Fin Kennedy and myself for some better reasoning on this.

TimT said...

So you don't find terms like 'Stalinist' and 'censorship' exaggerated?

I agree with Statler on the need for more philanthropy.

George Hunka said...

The idea behind public funding (as even Adam Smith maintained) was that monies could be provided for that which serves a common communal good, but which individual private expenditure -- roads, for example, or water systems -- could not sustain.

In postindustrialised societies especially, the enormous wealth of the Western world can be spread to those aspects of society, such as culture and arts, which are certainly in and of themselves communal common goods. This is true even for those artistic endeavors that appeal to a minority of the community; new, innovative expression of human individual and community concerns certainly testifies to the health of that community and its communications dynamic.

There is also the fact that advances in arts and culture always take place within a minority before they are embraced by the larger community itself.

In the past, institutions like the Arts Council in the UK; the NEA in the United States (and before that, the WPA); and dozens of government entities throughout the world have come up with practical methods of determining those companies that deserve continuing government subsidy. In the past, that has included Barker's company. While I'm sure that the government's support of the Olympics will include arts presentations to take place at the same time as the athletic events, it's clear that Barker's work is not considered valuable enough as testament to European avant-garde theatrical achievement to be included. Given that the government has seen fit until now to support this work as exemplary aesthetic endeavor, yes, I think this can come under the category of "censorship."

In the US, private philanthropy has not in the least made up for a long 20-year history of shrinking government support for the arts. The international community will discover this next.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, George. Tim, Barker (a polemicist, as I said) uses "Stalinist" to describe a socially-driven arts agenda that focuses on whether one's theatre/art appeals to/employs sufficient minorities or runs special workshops for unemployed people or does other kinds of social work rather than whether the work is any good. This is presently the case in Britain where those who apply to funding spend a ot of time ticking boxes to confirm that yes, they are publishing people of minority race or sex or class or whatever and are not required to justify anything about the actual work they plan to do. And, it seems, it will be the case in France under Sarkozy. It is not (yet) the case here, where "artistic excellence" is still the major criterion in judging arts applications (cue argument on what that means).

TimT said...

I disagree. He used the term Stalinist because it had implied a direct link between the government in Britain and one of the most brutal and violent dictatorships of the twentieth century.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, yes, it does. I can't speak for Howard Barker, and I'm sure he'd eloquently defend his comparison; but the fact remains that under Stalin the arts were policed for their conformity to socialist aesthetic and ideology and any sign of bourgeois recidivism (Mandelstam, Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, name anyone you like) was punished by marginalisation (at best) and removal of the patronage of the State (which effectively meant banning - no membership of the Writers Union, which meant no publication or production). Bulgakov couldn't get his novels published during his lifetime and was sacked as director of - was it? - the National Theatre, because of what he wrote. It wasn't all, or even mainly, about being sent to camps.

Andrew Field said...

George - About the most eloquent defence of Arts funding I've heard.

I feel also that in a truly democratic society there is an obligation to support voices of dissent, and Barker has undoubtedly been that for around 30 years - opposing not only politially but in terms of the way we think and the way drama engages with politics. Arguments for a theatre comprehenisibly predicts the slide of English theatre into shallow satire and big budget musicals. Barker also (I believe correctly) implies that the modes of thought and expression generally open to us leave us unable to have any radical opposition to those in power.

When a government such as ours in the UK repeatedly silences dissent (note not only the cuts in arts funding but their history of antagonism with the BBC, the London protest exclusion-zone, their frequent attempts to cripple the freedom of information act...)I think its possibly justified to be alarmed (and even alarmist - as Alison has repeatedly stated - he is a polemicist after all) - we don't need to wait until we are in a country of Gulags, assassinations, the KGB, etc before good taste permits us to talk candidly (and make extreme comparisons) about what we see as a loss of geniunely oppositional thinking and the erosion of civil liberties.

TimT said...

Maybe I should just be relieved that he hasn't vindicated Godwin's Law by resorting to the hackneyed 'Nazi' cliche!

I note from a recent perusal of The Spectator that the Conservatives seem to agree with some of the points cited in this thread. I won't go into my approach to arts funding, as the results would be tiresome and I've already done so in the arts funding thread that Alison so kindly linked, but in response, Andrew - and noting your dislike of the current government - I have only two words to say:

Vote Tory!


George Hunka said...

Thanks, Andrew! And thanks for your own points -- all well-made.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks George and Andrew.

Tim, I'm perfectly aware of the history of Stalinist Russia. I think Barker is entitled to his polemic. I would have thought, btw, that the removal of Habeas Corpus alone would be sufficient to justify alarmist rhetoric.

TimT said...

Tim, I'm perfectly aware of the history of Stalinist Russia.

That's obvious. It's also obvious that you chose to highlight only one of the aspects of Stalinist Russia (the threat of removal of state patronage to non-conforming artists) to cast Barker's polemic in a more sympathetic light.

I believe that you are treating Barker in a much more sympathetic fashion than he deserves, but we shall have to agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...


Barker was specifically discussing "state patronage" and "non-conforming artists" when he made his "Stalinist" analogy and he made the choice to "highlight only one of the aspects of Stalinist Russia". Alison is accurately echoing his argument, and is not, as you claim, casting "Barker's polemic in a more sympathetic light".

Also, Barker referred to "the washed-out remains of a Stalinist bureaucracy". That description paints the British Arts Council as a pallid version of the real thing and he concludes that the British state doesn't need to be a police state to achieve similar results. So while he draws the comparison with Stalinism, he also makes that crucial distinction.

It seems to me that you're unfairly choosing to highlight Barker's Stalinist analogy in a way to make him sound as unsympathetic as possible.

TimT said...

No, Abe, it was an extreme metaphor in keeping with the exaggerated tone of the rest of his post. He was relying on the association with the brutal history of Stalinist Russia for rhetorical effect. I didn't have to portray him unsympathetically: he's done all the work himself.

But I can see us quibbling over every single word Barker wrote and the context in which they should be read. Must we? Barker's post, apart from anything else, has an unpleasant divisive effect: one either sympathises with him against those nasty metaphorical Stalinists or see his characterisation of the British Government as extreme, and therefore side with them.

Discussion about the merits of different funding sources for the arts would be valuable, but I just don't see it happening in a productive fashion as a result of this piece of polemic/propaganda/whatever from Barker.