[A provocation written for Take Art’s Open Space on the future for the arts in Somerset, responding to the question ‘how can art flourish?’]
I’ve been asked to offer you a provocation.
So here is a provocation.
Apparently, more money is given each year to Donkey charities than to domestic violence charities.
I’ve been wondering and thought that maybe part of the reason for that is this:
Donkeys don’t speak back.
Donkey’s are uncomplicated.
They just get more or less healthy.
A donkey doesn’t question the underlying causes of the situation it finds itself in.
A donkey doesn’t suggest that there might be more to a problem than money
A donkey doesn’t stand there as an uncomfortable reminder of the inequalities and injustices and violence buried right at the heart of the society that we do our best to live in.
A donkey is a problem happening over there. Not a problem happening here.
A donkey is not something we might have to fix in ourselves.
Whilst we’re on the subject of animals, a few years ago Tracey Emin’s Fourth Plinth proposal was a family of meerkats standing on one end of the plinth.
She said that they were a symbol of hope, because every time something sad or depressing or difficult was on television, it was always followed by a documentary about meerkats.
She did not win the commission.
Who here has heard of the Health Lottery?
The health lottery is a new type of lottery, all the proceeds of which go to local health organisations
It’s an insidious little idea
As superficial and insincere as the Daily Mirror’s Pride of Britain Awards.
It feeds a basic desire to feel like we’re helping. Like we’re doing good things.
We are being uncomplicatedly good.
You buy your lottery ticket and you know that your pound is going directly to local people who are sick.
Now here’s the provocative bit.
If this is a success we are fucked.
Because the government has found a way to use facile big society populism to harness the resentment and confusion that people feel towards arts funding to channel money away from people and organisations that talk back.
We talk back.
The arts talk back.
We are difficult and complicated.
We don’t always make things seem uncomplicatedly better.
We can’t always have positive deliverable outcomes.
We don’t always appear to add value.
We sometimes tell people not only about the problems over there.
But also the problems back here.
We explore the things we need to fix in ourselves.
That is what art is to me.
It’s a place or an occasion where we come together to look at the world with a different kind of attentiveness.
To imagine and enact a better world for ourselves.
And if its straight shoot out between that and a donkey or a dialysis machine, we are going to lose every time.
So what can we do?
Let’s stop making the wrong arguments.
Let’s stop talking about the arts as value-adders. If we really thought that was the arts’ major contribution to society we’d all be building shopping centres not theatres.
Let’s stop conceding the terms of the argument.
Let’s stop assuming that the most sensible thing we can do is soldier on valiantly, stoically doing the best we can under the circumstances.
This is a moment of profound cultural and political transformation.
2011 will resonate in the same way as 1917 or 1968.
We are reaching the end of something.
We are in the midst of recession.
Climate change is at a tipping point.
There are protests on our own streets
Revolutions across the middle east
The medias illicit affair with successive governments is falling apart.
Has an opportunity.
Has a responsibility.
It sounds unhelpful and it’s certainly not going to get you any money from DCMS, but at a time of such crisis, art’s real value is in making things worse.
To speak back government and to speak back to society.
To help unpick the unravelling threads.
To stand alongside the dispossessed and the demonised.
The utopian dreamers and the feral underclass.
To imagine new ways that we might live together.
That is how we flourish. That is how we add value.
Otherwise the Donkeys have it every time.