mon 24/09/2018

Extracts: John Tusa - Pain in the Arts | reviews, news & interviews

Extracts: John Tusa - Pain in the Arts

Extracts: John Tusa - Pain in the Arts

Arts must stop moaning and politicos must trust the public's love of art, says culture chief

Banksy's 'Follow Your Dreams Cancelled' on a wall in Boston's Chinatown, 2010

In the midst of ferment as the arts world faces fast-shrinking public subsidy, Sir John Tusa, former managing director of the BBC World Service and the Barbican Arts Centre, publishes this week a brisk new book that urges arts and politicians to reject the emotive clichés and lazy token battles and focus on what matters. In Pain in the Arts, Tusa urges that both sides take personal responsibility for an essential part of human life.

His title, beyond the dubious pun, refers to the very real, and feared, pain in the long-established arts world right now, caused by current government pressure shifting culture towards a predominantly privately funded concern, and his book comes up with strict advice to arts organisations how to deal with it.

He urges them to stop adopting the political jargon that distorts what art is, to refuse to reduce ticket prices to seduce a new public, and to stop moaning. "No one will be impressed by hard-luck stories, every sector of society can tell them." But he also berates politicians for making arts a scapegoat for their own ignorance.

Tusa insists to both public and politicians that it is to civilisation’s advantage that the state should subsidise creative and performing arts, independently of their measurable economic benefit. He considers a wealth of positive recent developments at museums and music institutions in drawing the adult public towards art, but argues that the recent vanishing of art from schoolchildren’s lives and its marginalising by governments are damaging Britain’s values as a cultured nation.

If a goodly part of your mind and most of your time was spent on work, your heart and soul had to be free to roam more widely

He writes of his personal discovery of the vital place of arts in a healthy emotional life, growing up the son of the managing director of the Bata Shoe Company in Essex. His father insisted on all managers accounting for their decisions in weekly meetings. Tusa also learned from his father’s workaholism that "if some of your body, a goodly part of your mind and most of your time was spent on work, your heart and soul had to be free to roam more widely." Hence, after 30 years as a leading BBC journalist, his move into arts management (he chairs the Clore Leadership Programme for future arts leaders, is current Chair of the University of the Arts, London, and former Chairman of The Arts Desk).

However, the book will be uncomfortable reading for politicians and arts bureaucrats, several of whom he robustly skewers by name, and accuses of attempting to distract the public from their essential ignorance. "Why do MPs and ministers devote so much time to the least significant budget item - spending on the arts? Because they think they know something about it but know much less about far more substantial budget items." Tusa urges politicians to reconsider the electoral appeal of a more powerful government arts policy: "Surveys show that even families that are light users of the arts strongly want their children to be involved in them. It is time to put glib assumptions about general voter indifference to the test."

Here are edited extracts from the book, the third on arts policy by Tusa. The first extract is a robust attack on the jargon increasingly used in the politicisation and management-orientation of arts since 2007.


Some Abominable Words

  • Assessment: "Employed as a justification for excessive intrusion and attempts at supervision."
  • Benchmark: "A reductive notion that eliminates creative differences and variations."
  • Customer: "Gone are ‘audience’, ‘listener’, 'viewer’, ‘passenger’, ‘patient’, ‘traveller’, or any of a dozen different activities and relationships that define a myriad of distinct and particular transactions. ‘Customer’ is literally a one-size-fits-all concept, diminishing particularity and difference."
  • Discourse: "A pretentious, poshed-up kind of word to describe discussion, debate or any kind of extended intellectual exchange."
  • Engage: "Why not ‘get involved’?"
  • Holistic: "A grand-sounding word inviting approval of an elevated underlying concept but meaning less than ‘taking many things into account together’. Speakers who use ‘holistic’ are usually trying to bolster a threadbare argument."
  • Impact (as in "impact studies"): "Here intellectual or artistic activity must demonstrate its case for support by proving in numerical terms that it yields a real ‘impact’ for society, usually social or economic."
  • Legacy: "Increasingly deployed as a wrap-around word to demand support for a long-term project that it usually failed to deliver."
  • Narrative: "When I heard an interviewee saying he had been advised by his HR director to improve the way he ‘edited his personal narrative’ - that is, 'talking about himself at interview' - it was was clear how far this rot had gone."
  • Synergy: "A purely hopeful, pre-emptive word, inviting support for actions that claim to deliver hyped claims of success. Whether ‘synergies’ are delivered is rarely examined after the event."
  • Transformational: "It very rarely proves to be."

"The need to find and use language about the arts that belongs to the arts is as great as ever… The language of the arts must not be the language of management, business or the civil service. We need our own words to define our needs and activities, not an externally imposed lexicon of objectives, outcomes and deliverables in which a sense of purpose becomes a ‘direction of travel’, a difficulty always becomes a ‘challenge’, a dilemma mutates into an ‘issue’, serving your audience becomes ‘maximising stakeholder value’, and clarity and meaning dissolve into fogs of evasion or obfuscation.

"For ‘policy’ is nothing but ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘Vision’ means simply ‘What’s your big idea?’ ‘Process’ signifies ‘How will you do what you want to do?’ What are ‘outcomes’ but ‘results’? What is ‘risk analysis’ but spotting dangers? Raising objections to managerial cant is not in itself mere pedantry. The lack of clarity of faux-managerial words and concepts not only has the effect of undermining meaning; it is intended to do so.

"Make no mistake. The pressure on the arts from some funders and policy makers to use these alien terms and concepts is often considerable. It is far easier to wrestle an opponent to the ground when the terms of the debate are yours. The first task of the arts world is to refuse to be bullied into using words and concepts that belong to a different world - the world of bureaucratic jargon and management speak.

"Words must be recognised as slippery, ambiguous, rich and risky. They should be used with care precisely because they are powerful and dangerous. At their best they can change minds.”

In the two following (edited) extracts Tusa points out that how arts are actually operating has little relation to the lazy truisms that predominate in much of the political and media debate about them. "Elite" organisations are some of the hardest-working in reaching wider publics, and independent artists will always find opportunities to exist, even when they have no financial support. Yet this should not be the end of it.

Feeding the Roots

“This is one of the times of the year when the front doormat resounds with the heavy thump of glossy magazines from arts institutions great and small - the Royal Opera, the Royal Academy, the British Museum, the Art Fund, the Crafts Council, to name only a few. Such glossy magazines lure the reader to the promised, strongly anticipated delights of blockbuster exhibitions, dazzling performances, creative revelations beyond any conceivable greedy hopes - but they do far, far more. They bulge with details of the talks, discussions, debates, lectures, films and study courses that the organisations assume they must provide to their audiences.

"Museums, galleries and concert halls are radically and wonderfully different places from those they were or thought they should be 15 years ago. This dizzying buzz of arts programming - much of which can be enjoyed free - points to something else: the sheer weight of intellectual activity generated by, in and around the arts. In most discussion of the arts it is easy to become fixated on the great exhibitions, the epic performances, the blockbuster projects, as if these were the only ones that really mattered. They are important, but... something else is going on; it is taking place in the foothills of the nation’s creativity.

Arts colonise where business, industry and commerce have fled. Such arts need no permission, no policy

"‘Go to Peckham and Bermondsey,’ a colleague advised, south London boroughs not instantly associated with high levels of arts activity. Here visitors will find many large, ugly, empty commercial buildings occupied by artists and impromptu galleries. ‘Do you know about the sculpture show in a car park there?’ I didn’t. ‘Well, it is just an ordinary car park in Peckham, the show is called Bold Tendencies, and by the time it closes it expects to have had 100,000 visitors!’  Those would be numbers that any ‘official’ gallery would die for.

"What did this represent? ‘It’s a fringe,’ said my friend. ‘But it’s a fringe without a festival.’ And why not? Arts colonise where business, industry and commerce have fled, Such arts need no permission, no policy, no theory, probably no public funding. They exist because they choose to exist. They are a sign of the depth and breadth of arts activity and experience all around us but that we pay insufficient attention to.” (Below, from Peckham's Bold Tendencies 2012, Mary Redmond's Seven Split Overglide)

mary redmond seven split overglide 2012

A Future Agenda

“The last decade in the arts might have left organisations in a stronger position financially - albeit one that will now come under real pressure from budget reductions. But a decade of wrangling over policies, purposes, functions, objectives and outcomes has contributed little or nothing to the quality of the arts produced. The arts have succeeded because they have stuck to their artistic purposes; the policy makers have only got in the way then failed to make any contribution or any difference.

"Funding apart, is there a wider, more forward-looking agenda for arts organisations and government to adopt, one that will exist in good times and in bad? Conversations with a number of arts leaders suggest there is such an agenda and it could be one that significantly alters the way arts organisations behave in future.

"First, do they act like organisations or like institutions?

"Second, are museums, galleries and even performing arts venues more like visitor attractions than centres of artistic excellence?

"Third, how far is it true that the age of the gigantic - whether art gallery or concert hall - is over? If so, how do arts organisations behave when the next capital plan is no longer a key part of their planning agenda?

"Fourth, could the arts be truly and deeply inserted into schools’ core curriculum? Could arts organisations cooperate and work together with universities?

"Fifth, can arts organisations respond to the possibility that policy and programme-making should shift from being a mainly top-down process and instead acknowledge the power and potential of ideas that emerge from audiences?

"The agenda for any future government is also searching. Will it place arts at the heart of education? It was a common Whitehall observation that matters such as the arts - which in practice impinged on a dozen different ministries - tended to be ignored by all except the one with culture in its name. Will governments cling to the traditional funding model of a third, a third, a third - public, private, box office - which has served the arts so well? Will the Cameron government cease flirting with the fantasy that private giving and privately funded endowments are a more desirable way of funding the arts, setting aside their impracticability?

"New Labour once promised to ‘write the arts into our core script.’ The time for that act of political inclusion has surely arrived."


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