Thursday, 13 June 2013

The best that we can be?

A theme is presenting itself to me this week, which reflects both personal practice and arts policy, a theme which refracts through our attitudes, assumptions and choices as artists.

I’m thinking about time, about the best use of our time, and how we measure the best use of our time. On a personal level this comes from balancing projects against income against contribution. Several of my projects are not getting the level of concentration I would dearly love to give them, and this jitters at me, because I know I have a lot to learn, and I know, that these projects are a perfect opportunity to learn this stuff, if only I had time to spend exploring, engaging and giving everything I have to give them. So why don’t I have this time? Why have I been so poorly organised? Is it a case of taking on too much? Overestimating my capacities, promising the earth or a pure a simple economic conundrum?

It is, possibly, all of these. As an ‘emerging’ composer (I picture myself crawling out of a hedge, covered in cowslip with a wry smile and smudged eyeliner), I am learning what I can do, how many hours it takes to do each thing, how to factor in unexpected delays (projects which eat your time regardless of how many parameters you put on them). In addition to this is our ‘lottery’ of a funding system, you apply for 10 projects, thinking you’ll get 3, and you get 6 (if you’re lucky) or 9 (if you’re superhuman) or none. None of this makes for easy planning.

Add in a chronic health problem which is pretty unpredictable, can eat up months at a time, stop you being where you should be when you should be with the appropriate amount of preparation, and this is one tricky balancing act.


Overall, this is an economic problem. Once I factor in 2 or 3 days in bed each week from illness, there is simply not enough income in what I do for me to have the time to learn from it. I am so busy churning out stuff to survive, that there is no time to take risks, think differently, make mistakes, start again, go for long walks, figure stuff out or just let it come to me when it’s ready. I am exaggerating of course…. I do all these things, but not as much as I would like, not as much as I need.

And I expect that I am not alone, not by a long chalk. Whether artists, academics, teachers, public sector workers, private sector workers, everyone I know is singing this same hymn, a hymn to busy.

We would all like more time to do our jobs properly, instead of just firefighting before charging on to the next deadline.

But why is our system set up like this? Why do we set up organisations, infrastructures and job descriptions to undermine the quest for brilliance? (Aside from our underlying cultural principles of work ethic, and an ever developing desire to point the finger of failure at those who don’t join in with this madness… of course?)

Well, my sense is, that the answer is capitalism. The need to profit, the need to do more, make more, sell more, eat more, buy more … all this undercuts our ability to think more, care more, create more, breath more, share more, grow more, learn more and love more.

So my question to me, as a self employed person, is ‘do I want to buy into this cultural madness?’ Actually the question is ‘can I buy into this cultural madness’. And luckily, in a strange way, I am not healthy enough to do this, the temptation has been ripped away from me by a particularly pervasive and unpleasant form of ill. In some senses, this has saved my life. It has enabled me to see this game which we all play, the chasing, the running. My answer to both the above questions is no.

So how do I create a working practice which allows the space to learn, to grow, to make mistakes, to take time over something? Especially in a cultural funding framework which could end up with no work, or too much work at any given time. I have no answers but it is something which needs careful consideration.

Looking at this reflexively, I am struck by two of our cultural leaders, who have embodied these questions on a macro scale recently. Maria Miller’s speech, demanding that The Arts and Culture justify themselves economically (note to Maria – we have been, for years, the data is all there) was a dog whistle, a set up, building a picture in the minds of the public that Cultural spending is something which can be cut, something which doesn’t pull its weight (note to Maria – it does by the way, we generate much more income than we are subsidised).

The arts reduced to a commodity or an economic output doesn’t make sense. It does not quest for brilliance, it does not enable us to learn, share grow, shine, make and show. It is the dead eyed chasing of profit in the form of an entertainment product.

Contrast this to Fiona Hyslop’s speech on Culture in Scotland, as something which defines us as a community, something which contributes on so much more than economics.  It’s heart, it’s community, it’s history, it’s stories, it’s learning, it’s language, it’s landscape, it’s our framework, how we see the world, where we come from, where we are going, it’s our values, it’s our identity.

One of the key thoughts I will be taking to China with me is ‘Why are we not allowing ourselves to build infrastructures and organisations which support our creativity, which make our artforms the best that they can possibly be?’.  Perhaps because we are constantly being told to learn from ‘business’ models – which are, ultimately, chasing a different dream from us. Perhaps it is time to set out our shop, identify what is really important to us and build a society and sector which enables us to be the best that we can be?