Tuesday 28 February 2012

The artists of austerity Britain

This essay was written for the PANDA Arts performing arts network, for whom I am a patron.

‘Austerity conservatism’ is the buzzword I’ve been hearing at countless national conferences during the past year. Whether those conferences were about the effect of the government’s cuts on families, urban life, charities, social and public service users, university students’ education or Britain’s artistic and cultural development, “austerity conservatism” has cast a dry grey wartime pall over the proceedings. It conjures up a mothball-scented, dingy, rationed, shrivelled image of contraction, of depression, of make-do-and-mend. It creates the impression of limitation, poverty and stringent asceticism.

But for all the pessimism and justified critique surrounding the budget, the arts scene isn’t looking so terrible. Yes, the BBC has had to do away with hundreds of posts, offer voluntary redundancies and make its remaining producers re-apply and re-interview for their own jobs. Yes, Amazon have killed bookshops, iTunes has killed record shops and social networking sites have created a generation of net-addicted sofa oafs who type ‘lol’ into their bedroom keyboards instead of actually laughing in reality. Yes, countless small to medium sized arts organisations have seen their funding cut. Yes, newspapers have had to axe half their staff and give their remaining contracted writers a fifty per cent pay cut. Yes, some university humanities departments have had their funding slashed by 80%. Yes, much paper content and written media has been superseded by the free Internet, putting a generation of journalists out of work and condemning the upcoming generation to a career of working for free. Yes, advertising revenue is down, forcing all its associated industries – from lifestyle magazines to mainstream television – into a trough.

But while tangible things decline – small things like income, job security, family stability, the ability to pay one’s food bill – something else will remain forever strong: the human spirit. Admittedly, the human spirit does not pay the mortgage. And admittedly, the financial model of culture is changing so drastically with the digital revolution that even the strength of the human spirit couldn’t halt the trend to put all content online for free, paving the (virtual) way for a culture in which, in a decade’s time, there will be no newspapers or magazines and all cinema and music releases will be streamed directly to a home computer.

And yet I’m optimistic. Every arts producer, editor, commissioner, executive and general cultural impresario I’ve spoken to has mentioned a culture-wide reaction against the austerity, contraction and limitation I’ve described. While the social, financial, technological and cultural framework – or ‘paradigm’, to use that yuppie buzzword so favoured by thinktankers – has changed, human nature has not. Even in the digital era, people need people. People like people. We enjoy the buzz of an exhibition, a music festival, a cinema or theatre visit, a panel debate, a live dance performance, a meal with friends, a book reading, a party. The digital revolution will never replace that drive or match that experience and as our lives become ever more virtual, atomised and isolated, the desire to connect in person, in reality, grows ever stronger.

The industry people I’ve interviewed during the last two years, across all disciplines and art forms, tell me the same thing: that audience numbers for live events have not dropped and may even (in some cases like the music industry) have increased; and that the numbers of live events across all art forms has increased dramatically in spite of the scarcity of money. There has been a boom in grassroots cultural events, people starting up their own local literary festivals, groups of artists forming collectives and putting on shows, small drama companies collaborating to produce and stage new work, countless conferences aimed at building links between those innumerable tiny organisations who produce fresh, exciting work but have found themselves on the wrong side of the Chancellor’s ledger. The government has said no to emergent culture and emergent culture is fighting back.

This seemingly instinctive urge demonstrates the necessity and power of creative art. Daily life moves quickly, as does political life. But broader ideas move slowly and deeply. We come to understand these ideas not only through immediate debate, newspaper commentary and discussion but at a much more profound level, in which we examine the meaning of the experiences around us. It is from this deeper, often slower and certainly more expensive and time-consuming level that the best art arises. Its benefits are equally profound, subtle and longstanding but it’s no wonder that the government, looking for a quick fix to the country’s financial problems, cannot see the value of this small drama centre or that avant-garde dance company.

The curtailment of funding towards the creative arts hasn’t curtailed the creation of art. Instead, it has inspired it, spurred it on, provided new impetus as artists and audiences alike absorb the implications of the new regime we are living under and the emotions it has provoked. In any time of recession, depression or oppression, there is always a tremendous and corresponding resistance which creates new forms, new work, a new language and a new way of seeing the world. It’s natural to want to create and to reflect the world around us – all the more so in times of great restriction.

I am therefore optimistic, not at a financial level but at the level of creativity and artistic fervour. Artists across all disciplines are instigating their own no-budget version of cabinet meetings, thinktanks, management consultations. Just because the money for creation isn’t there, it doesn’t mean the desire to create will die. It will simply find new ways of reaching the surface, aided by a great deal of lateral thinking, co-operation, dynamism and organisational skill. When money is scarce one uses other resources to survive: networking and collaboration; exchanges of labour; clever ticketing, membership and incentives schemes; grassroots, word of mouth, local and social media organisation rather than big-scale marketing; collaborations with charities, with larger cultural institutions or with volunteer and interned workers. It’s not ideal – it may even be on the poverty line – but it is original, it’s unifying and inspiring. It’s a new form of creating cultural power.