This year, as I entered my sixth decade on the planet, I began to wonder if the coincidence of climate, the virus, politics, AI and social media had all conspired to make me feel utterly vulnerable or whether the combined exposure to years of creativity and conscience had finally begun to take their toll on my ability to grasp the hierarchy of things. But perhaps it is just me who finds it hard to reconcile on the one hand, the sublime beauty of Piero della Francesca’s visionary tranquillity, whilst hearing the news of how we are essentially discharging more raw sewage into our water courses than the Romans even thought possible when they invented water-based sanitation.
Surely there is something deeply amiss with our news media and sense of what is important when the toxic corrosion of all-pervasive ‘celebrity’ social media takes journalistic precedence over the seemingly routine suicide bombings in Uganda, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, tragically, you can probably insert your own nation name here also. And on the day when the Kunsthaus Zurich made headlines for displaying a fine collection of allegedly ‘looted’ works donated by the former Nazi sympathiser/arms supplier Emil Georg Bührle. I am sure that renowned fellow Kunsthaus exhibitors Walter De Maria and Pipilotti Rist must be in the process of considering their respective, concurrent contributions in context. Not.
What I highlight to you here is the increasingly stark contradiction between the utter brilliance and higher callings of the human condition through the arts on the one hand, and the guttersnipe ugliness that betrays our baser instincts and misplaced faith in systems and institutions on the other. Institutions that are based, fundamentally, more or less, on capitalistic self-interest. In short, I feel really worried for culture. In the UK 55% of arts jobs were furloughed during the pandemic whilst artistic production (however you measure it), apparently fell by 60%1. This is a figure echoed in the US and EU similarly. This week, French composer and e-music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre stated with chilling clarity that “We are learning the hard way the truly essential value of art in our society”.
Now should you mistake me for a bleeding-heart liberal who is bemoaning a lack of governmental support for the arts, please don’t. What I decry here is not the absence of artificial propping-up of a set of lame-duck creative industries, but of the near-deafening wall of silence from politicians and media globally, who essentially have vested interests in not recognising, and indeed probably never willingly resuscitating, arts production for the future.
I differentiate carefully here between arts production and consumption. The consumption of the arts may well be offered institutional lifelines in terms of audience recovery, but I firmly believe that the funding for new producers will be constrained for a prolonged period. The basis for my supposition is threefold: firstly, museums and galleries have enough stock to move around/rotate to present ‘new’ shows of old work for the next 40 years+. This with a smattering of unknown or emerging talent just enough to ensure credibility leavens the inevitable procession re-presented masterpieces of Warhol, Hockney, Riley, Picasso, Matisse, Rothko, Pollack, Derain, Van Gogh… I am sure you get my drift.
My second point similarly is that there is enough existing music and sufficient theatrical content for performers and audiences not to run noticeably short.
Third and finally, and with somewhat sad resignation, I refer you to the alleged Churchillian epithet “ Never let a good crisis go to waste”, which seems to be close to the hearts of a good many governments when it comes to the arts. The advent of Covid has necessitated and enabled a more serious remodelling of national budgets for decades to come, but it seems almost sure that the climate crisis will take over where Covid eventually leaves off. The costs and mitigations of climate change (if indeed there can be any mitigation), real or otherwise, will probably present equally lucrative opportunities for venture capitalists, political cronies and presidential school chums to line the pockets of the few at the expense of the many for the foreseeable future.
Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg and their ilk will probably indulge whatever space/other fantasy they wish, whilst rogue and other states will be armed to the nuclear teeth with hypersonic AI, and the poor of the developing world will experience famine, flood and submersion. I paint a bleak picture here, but can anyone explain to me how the creation of new art can make a financial case in this kind of resource/culture headwind?
In conclusion, and by way of a glimmer of hope, I would assert that the argument for the arts, in the end, has to be a human one and it has to be evidence-based. I personally see no point in making a sophisticated case for the arts based on the merits of creative practice as research, or of a social sciences/anthropologically-based justification, or even on a pseudo-scientific rationale. To give my argument here some context; as an artist/writer, one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given came from the renowned sculptor Lesley Thornton: “Don’t match wits with a psychopath”. I believe similarly that matching wits with politicians to be a simply unwinnable task, this to try to persuade, cajole or otherwise lever such to support new creative producers using rational, sensible methods.
So what is left is passion, enthusiasm, emotional intelligence, financial sense and an unshakeable commitment to simply tell the powers that be, that the arts, and particularly new art will be the conscience of our age. It is the only antidote to the blatantly apocalyptic paths we may follow without the gift of otherwise unimaginable futures provided by the visionary minds of the creative arts. A world without art would absolutely be a poorer and potentially pointless place to live.
1 Finding from the Report by Chamberlain Walker Economics commissioned by the UKRI/AHRC-funded project Responding to and modelling the impact of Covid-19 for Sheffield’s cultural ecology: A case study of impact and recovery which took place between July 2020 and October 2021.