Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Stroppy Author has been

stirring the pot on her blog again.  "I don't approve of Arts Council grants to writers" she wrote "The public purse should not - as a rule - fund the personal ambition of people who want to write fiction, poetry or non-fiction".
I can, I think, understand where she is coming from because she goes on to say,
"I see no problem in funding where the intended beneficiary is the public. A community might need a theatre or art gallery, or subsidised tickets to performances but arts funding should be targeted to the general good and not at individual authors in need of money."
I splashed my paws vigorously in the Stroppy Author's pot because, although I do not violently disagree with what she had to say, I think there are some issues there. Writers have always been the poor relations in the arts. They are likely to go on being the poor relations too.
This is because writing is not usually seen as being "work". It is supposed to be "easy". Writers will tell you otherwise but that is the perception that non-writers have, even when they tell you they think it must be "very difficult" to write a book. After all, you just sit there and put the words on the page (or the screen) and then send it off and it gets printed and sold in a bookshop or put on the library shelves. That's all there is to it - or so "they" would have us believe.
Musicians, ballet dancers and actors on the other hand clearly need to practice (although I doubt many people realise how much work goes into that) and artists need paint and canvas and a gallery in which to hang their work. An artist produces something unique too. There is a belief that makes it much more valuable than words in a book which can be reproduced over and over again.
The problem with the Stroppy Author's argument however is that by subsidising the theatre tickets for the general good (or indeed the library) then you are supporting some playwrights and authors over others. By keeping an art gallery open for the general good you are supporting some artists over others. By providing a grant for "experimental theatre", an "art installation" or some other arts related event you are still supporting one form of art over another. They may well be "important" and of "general benefit" to the community but they are still someone's personal dream and they are normally produced at a loss to the taxpayer.
Without taxpayer funds there would be almost no symphony orchestras. Operas and ballet would not be produced. Many popular music festivals depend on some taxpayer input. Open air art shows often rely on the use of public space. Our local council has a foyer gallery where artists can show their work for sale. If they sell anything the council gets a small fee but the space is otherwise free. There are many similar arrangements for artists and craftspeople in other places. There are almost no such arrangements for writers.
But the Stroppy Author argues that publishing is a business. If one book fails to sell then you can go to the library and borrow another. It is almost as if "it doesn't really matter".
I will splash the pot even more vigorously with my paws and ask, "Does it matter?"


Stroppy Author said...

Thank you for taking the debate further afield.

The distinction I want to make is between spending money to help an individual creator and spending money to benefit the community. Of course artists, musicians or writers will benefit from the commissions that come out of community help, but they will be selected in a market-driven way - the best musician/artist/writer for the job. The money is being spent for the public good rather than specifically to support an individual.

What I meant by my (throwaway) comment about going to the library and borrowing another book is that the existence or non-existence of any single, particular book is not significant to most of the community - there are alternatives. If the theatre exists, it doesn't really matter to the public who wrote the play that is put on as long as it's a good play. I think that's a better approach than 'here's a poor playwright, let's give him some money.' But I'll be interested to see the comments from your side of the pond, and thank you again for engaging with the issue.

Frances said...

Cat: To me there is a distinction between funding of symphony orchestras, opera and ballet, as these are performed by people who have spent unrewarded years and money to excel and earn the right to public performance; and the funding of "amateur", wishful and emerging artists in all fields.
These are two different issues.

Yes, as you say, some playwrights, authors and artists are thus supported over others. How could it be otherwise? Wanting to write a book, say, or paint, are common dreams.

When one looks at Art Council grants for writers, the same names reappear year after year. They are similar in this regard to the first category above: the proven performer. One needs, I understand, a quite substantial body of published work to qualify even as an emerging writer. There are few of their works that I enjoy, or, in the case of poets, even understand. J. G. Ballard said, "The funds distributed by the Arts Council have created a dependent client class of poets, novelists and weekend publishers whose chief mission in life is to get their grants renewed."
(That I don't enjoy or understand the work does not, of course, preclude the fact that it might be of great benefit to the community).

Having said all that, I do think that the grants do tell the community that the arts are of value, and that this is of public benefit. When I am in charge I will decimate sports funding and double arts funding.

Anonymous said...

Yes Cat, I think it does matter. As Frances says the same names appear in Arts Council grants year after year. The reason? They are good at writing applications for grants. They can sell themselves. It does not necessarily mean they are "the best" - some of them are not. They fail to attract an audience. Even some of those failures will get new grants because their work is considered to have "artistic merit" - and they know the right people.
I also understand what your friend Stroppy is getting at and, like you, I have some sympathy for that point of view.
In a world where connections are often everything however I think there does need to be some mechanism for ensuring that the good unknowns also have an opportunity. How do you choose them? I do not know.
There are "talent quests" for musicians, actors etc - even on the taxpayer funded ABC. Get past the initial audition and you can appear on national television. The rest is up to you and the fickle audiences. There are art exhibitions where anyone can enter free of charge. I have a watercolour on the wall of the office done by an artist who started out that way and can now ask for four figure sums.
Publication is a much more difficult issue. Yes, we are still producing some poetry (the Friendly Street volumes) and there are short story competitions which can be entered (both often at a fee). Books are a different matter and, while we can go to the library and borrow something else, there are other people who are also worthy of publication.
We spend enormous sums on sports training so that individuals can get medals or participate in a national team or the Olympics. That is not of general benefit to the community but nobody seems to really question it - or the right of the individuals to get great sums in financial assistance. (They then get paid enormous sums in sponsorship fees.)
Writing should not really be that different - once it is done. Publishing companies could be encouraged to take on new, unpublished authors perhaps by being told that the Arts Council will, up to a certain sum, pick up the tab if a loss is made on say one or two unknowns each year. No publisher wants a loss or a failure on their list and this would minimise the risk while opening up the market a little.
Unless we cut all funding to the arts (and to sport) however then writers have as much right to expect some support - at very least for work well done. Chris