Monday, 13 May 2013

A midcrisis night´s dream?

I like the word ‘campaign’, it transmits to me the feeling of an ongoing effort to promote a cause. I don´t like that much the word ‘manifesto’, I tend to associate it to a momentary action, using big abstract words and doing little after. So, I got very curious the other day when I read a subtitle in a Guardian article explaining that “What Next? campaign aims to promote public investment in the arts by making culture a ‘manifesto issue’” (nothing unusual in this, of course, it´s just my prejudice regarding the two words...).

So the article talked about a movement slowly being created by leaders of arts organisations since 2011. They´ve been meeting every Wednesday (just in London, though) and at the time the article was published, they were getting ready for their first large-scale public event. Their main goals: to get every MP involved in the work of their local arts organisations; to draw in the campaign local councillors, businessmen, school and college directors; to harness the voices of audiences, visitors, members. In the words of Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler's Wells theatre, the long-term aim of What Next? is to "actually get the public to understand the value of culture, so that it becomes a manifesto issue… One of the primary aims, which the arts hasn't yet achieved, is to get the public on our side."

I saw a plan here. One that took time to build, but people (arts leaders) worked on it consistently and with a purpose. I am very interested to see how they are now going to go about meeting their goals, one of which particularly cought my attention: “to harness the voices of audiences, visitors, members”. At a time when the British government is once again aiming to pursue culture´s instrumental values (has any government ever given more money to culture because of its – proven - economic benefits?), the What Next? campaign wants to get people on their side, to harness their voices. But, there´s one issue for me here: What are the people expected to talk about? What is the value of culture the campaigners want to ‘get the public to understand’?

John Holden, in his essay Cultural value and the crisis of legitimacy, puts the essence of all this in just a few words: “The answer to the question ‘why fund culture?’ should be ‘because the public wants it’”. Are we ever going to reach this point? Maybe, if cultural professionals started listening (instead of trying to make people understand) and then got involved in a real debate, concentrating on issues that are important for both sides and speaking a language everyone understands. Most people do appreciate a form of cultural expression and they know why it is important in their lives, they know why they value it, they know why they couldn´t live without it. They also know what makes them feel uncomfortable, what is the kind of attitude that makes them feel excluded or unwelcome, what is not for them, for one reason or another.  So, let´s ask them, instead of trying to impose our views, make them understand or tell them what we think is good for them. Let´s listen and then share with them our views on why and how we think our offer meets their needs. Let´s identify our common ground, work together, campaign for something that we all value.

This makes me, inevitably, think of Portugal. In the last two or three years the cultural sector saw the emergence of a couple of so-called movements, more than one manifestos - the usual big and abstract words -, but no ‘aftermath’. There was no careful building of a campaign, no specific goals were either announced or pursued, no consistent and permanent action undertaken. What we share in public is our frustration or fury for losing public funds; our amazement at the fact that people are not coming to see our top quality performance (“don´t they get it?”); our conviction that they don´t care about culture (or rather the ’right’ culture). Is this a way of making friends...? Is this the way of establishing common ground?

Composer António Pinho Vargas wrote on Facebook one of this days (the post was re-published here) that he never uses the word ‘sustainability’ and he is obliged to hear and read it almost every day. I like to read him and I don´t disagree with the general point of his post. I don´t share his feelings and thoughts, though, regarding the word ‘sustainability’, probably because I don´t understand it the way he does: that everything has to pay for itself. And he was questioning: “Can culture be suatainable?”.

This is not what sustainability means when it comes to the cultural sector. Culture alone will never pay for itself, because it´s not a product that becomes more profitable with time (we need the same number of musicians as in the 19th century to perform Mahler´s symphonies; a concert hall has a specific number of seats and doesn´t grow in order to sell more tickets; etc., etc.). Costs of production and performance keep growing in the cultural sector, while we need to keep the price of tickets at affordable levels. So, our efforts to be sustainable mean that we need to try and fill the always growing gap between expenditure and income (and to depend on one income source is not a good idea, it never was).

This effort has got everything to do with people, the relationship we establish and nurture with society. Sustainability is not about money in the first place; it´s about people. In order to be able to say one day that culture must be funded “because the public wants it”, we still need to work a lot on this relationship. First we need to listen and better understand what people value in their diverse cultural participations.  Following this, our attitude, choices, priorities, the way we speak should unequivocally transmit our wish and will to include them. Our mission should be clear to all, our plans transparent, our choices understandable. And we should be accountable for our actions. This relationship should be about sharing, not imposing. This relationship can only exist because of something we all value.

Still on this blog:
Guest post: "A question of value", by Rebecca Lamoin (Australia)
More readings:
John Holden, Capturing cultural value

John Holden, Culture and Class

1 comment:

jose mateus said...

Concordo inteiramente com o "tom" do post. Esta é uma reflexão muito atual, necessária e mesmo urgente. José Mateus