• Mitch Riley

The (arrogant) Arts

As I wrote in my first post (here), this blog is a provocation, as much for myself as for you. This particular post is the result of thoughts I’ve been mulling over for some time now, and the more I think about them, the more they lay bare the need for me to change my own approach as an artist, as daunting as that may seem.

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There is something unsettlingly dishonest about the arts industry. We can see it in the question which is often asked:


“What do the arts offer society?”


It’s a simple and straightforward question which receives mostly vague responses evoking an inherent ‘goodness’ or ‘importance’ of art.


The dishonesty starts in the question itself, which craftily avoids engaging with society and allows the arts to define itself and its own contribution. When you are able to define your own importance, you can continue on your way without considering the need to change.


The responses then in support of the arts are always unconvincing, because they have little to do with society and everything to do with justifying the continuation of the arts industry and its way of producing art. It doesn’t matter what society thinks, because artists say the arts are good for it.


Such dishonesty is particularly unacceptable when you bring public funding into the equation. When an artist or an institution receives public money, there is a responsibility to ask a question which looks at the arts from the perspective of society:


“What does society need from the arts?”


It’s a much more difficult question which reveals an uncomfortable truth, and I suspect many artists, deep down, are aware of it:

Society does not need opera houses.

Society can be perfectly ‘good’ without symphony orchestras.

Culture can thrive without publicly-funded mega-arts organisations.

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In The Theatre and its Double, Artaud writes:

“What is most important, it seems to me, is not so much to defend a culture whose existence has never kept a man from going hungry, as to extract, from what is called culture, ideas whose compelling force is identical with that of hunger.”

If hunger stems from a deep need, what is the need at the heart of culture?


Expression


Expression (noun)
The action of making known one's thoughts or feelings.
Similar: utterance, voicing, articulation, assertion, venting, communication.

To express is to communicate - a word which shares the same Latin root with community, commune and communion, and importantly so. Living isolated, removed and voiceless will destroy a person or push them towards destructive acts.

If expression is the need at the heart of culture, then society is in need of expressing itself - it is in need of the creative act.

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What drives political and social turmoil? It is rarely stupidity or ignorance - we only arrive at those conclusions if we stay on the level of politics and ideas, where it is easy to ignore our shared humanity. If we go deeper, in search of what people are feeling, we discover rage.

Germaine Greer, On Rage:

“[Rage] is not the same as indignation or contempt or disgust...Rage is not irritation or even irritability or even bad temper. It’s not ire or wrath – it is beyond all these things. Rage is blind and speechless…Rage doesn’t even want to explain itself. Anyone who pleads, argues, expounds, demonstrates, has to be moved by love and optimism. It doesn’t matter how testy you get, the fact that you’re still talking, that you’re still explaining, means that you still have faith in the person who’s listening to you – you believe that truth will eventually triumph…Rage is what happens when you stop believing there is any point. Rage doesn’t just push you to hurt other people, rage puts the shotgun in your mouth and blows your head to smithereens.”

And Artaud, again:

“The poetry which is no longer within us and which we no longer succeed in finding in things suddenly appears on their wrong side: consider the unprecedented number of crimes whose perverse gratuitousness is explained only by our powerlessness to take complete possession of life”.

At the heart of this rage then, is

“our powerlessness to take complete possession of life”

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With powerlessness comes the loss of voice. The only way for the voiceless to express themselves is through destructive acts.

Acts against the injustice of being treated as insignificant and worth less than others, of having to work jobs with little meaning in order to survive, of having no way of bringing about any tangible difference in their quality of life.

Political parties change and leaders come and go whilst the day-to-day reality of life stays much the same or gets worse. All politicians come to represent the same thing. Eventually, even democracy doesn’t matter. Why would it if it has consistently proven to be indifferent towards the injustices which make life miserable?

The voiceless who are suffering impose themselves in an act of rage: by destroying and breaking or perhaps by voting for the politician who is willing to put the shotgun in the mouth of the system and blow it to smithereens.

And all the while, artists dare to argue that ensuring the use of public money to fund exhorbitantly expensive art is somehow benefitting those people, that having an opera house or ‘national theatre’ full of artists presenting work they will never be able to see or participate in is somehow making society better.

Artists! How willingly blind must we be, how selfish, to not see how wrong this is?

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Society is blocked, people are blocked.

The rage is building up. In the absence of other outlets, the politics of division channel this rage into hateful ideas. The powerful who rendered people voiceless now consolidate their power by profiting from the rage of the voiceless.

Artists could help people express themselves through something positive and life-affirming - the Creative Act. Creation, being built on personal expression, goes beyond politics and abstract ideas and reveals our shared humanity. In the form you give to your fears, your suffering, your hurt, your dreams, I see myself. In expressing yourself, you assert your humanity, and that is the greatest threat to an inhumane system.

And yet, many of us are too busy with our ‘career’ and worrying about funding for obsolete institutions.


We must be honest: funding models which direct the bulk of arts funding into large and ‘national’ companies, where only certain people have the right to participate in the true creative act, are not delivering for society. They are not even delivering for most artists, because the public money is ultimately accessible only to the chosen within the insular culture industry.

We cannot be amazed and outraged by injustice in our society without asking ourselves how we are benefiting from or contributing to the continuation of the system which has created that injustice. Change also depends on artists ending our complicity in the current way of things.

The arts have become arrogant and entitled. We must now be humble and give back.


We can start by asking the question:


“What does society need from the arts?”


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