Success in Art: Bureaucracy vs Talent
Thursday, 21 October 2010
Let’s say right from the start I’m writing this in reaction to not getting a “commission” for some sort of arts project I entered. In more affluent days I think they used to be called grants. Sour grapes? Too fucking right! But there again, in my humble and misguided opinion grants and arts council commissions have always gone to the wrong people – they never go to the people with the great ideas, the great projects, instead they go to the people who know how to make out successful applications, irrespective of the artistic integrity of the project. They go to the people who know how to tick the right boxes.

For example – years ago, when things like grants (not commissions) were available, I ran a small theatre company and we needed some new lighting – I applied for a grant and was refused. I was then told to have a word with Miss X as she knew how to fill the forms in – she worked in the arts department of the local council. I got in touch and she filled out the form for me. I read it before sending it off. To me it seemed she’d answered questions that weren’t being asked. She interpreted the questions the form posed in a totally different way to how I had. Needless to say we got the grant.

Now it suddenly dawns on me that these arts applications present some sort of code and, if you know the code and answer appropriately the grants yours – a bit like a freemasons secret handshake. Like singing from the same song-sheet but two octaves lower. Perhaps I’m just too simple, too straight forward in my approach, I believe in calling a spade a spade, not re-branding it as “an earth moving leverage device”. To me a window cleaner will always be a window cleaner – never “a transparent wall maintenance engineer.” Perhaps that’s why crap agencies and crap practitioners who have no intrinsic value other than curiosity, and a morbid one at that, are lauded up to the eyebrows with arts council money – perhaps that’s why I don’t get a pile of wood on a gallery floor as meaning anything other than someone connected with the project had the right words to put on the form that got the funding. Perhaps these people spend so much time filling out the form and researching new key power-words that the actual creation of the art becomes secondary – again I refer you back to the pile of wood on a gallery floor. That’s why there are such people as professional form fillers, like the professional charity fund raisers. I have some dealings with a charity and seen first hand this new brand of professional fund raiser. They are people who bothered to not only to read but purchased the many hand and guide books that listed organisations that give to charity. They are a bureaucratic group of people who know all available sources for funding and, more importantly, know all the right forms to get and boxes to tick in order to open them, a bit like knowing the correct combination of oranges and lemons on a one-armed bandit or the correct combination to the safe that’s hidden in the wall behind the family portrait.

Having run my own gallery for just over year I feel I am slightly qualified to talk about the general public and its attitude to art. My little gallery is not trendy – its not in a trendy area – its on a pier surrounded by what remains of the fishing industry and situated above a public toilet that everyone believes is an organised council rip-off. The most common words I hear everyday of my life are “40p for a bloody piss!!!!!” usually in an angry West Yorkshire accent. My customers aren’t art conscious. They buy what they like and what their pocket can afford. I’m not precious about my art and I don’t expect them to be. When they come in I say hello, I’ll talk with them. I’ll chat on any subject under the sun, a bit of art, some football, bit of photography, some history of the pier and the fishing industry, some local geography and what to see and not what to see – even a bit of politics – I have music playing, sometimes the local radio station (especially the Russell Walker Show in the afternoons). I don’t believe that art should be sold, or exhibited in a sanctified, silent atmosphere, equivalent to an empty church. Buying or even looking at art should be a jolly, happy, enjoyable experience. Kids should be allowed to point and laugh and ask questions – for Gods sake you can even bring your dog in (providing it doesn’t bark at the cat pictures). Going to a gallery should be like going to the movies or out to a gig. It should be an exciting, visual and vibrant experience. Art should be more Banksy and less the stentorian, lecture-room, we-know-better-than- you-do, stuck-up attitude. There are some galleries around that intimidate even me and I’ve been around art (both fine and commercial) for the 45 years! Yes forty bloody five years and basically its still not changed. Sure styles and content have come and gone, but attitudes remain. The same snobby, stuck-up, pretentious attitudes that back in the late 70’s, in music, was knocked down by the arrival of punk. In fact come to think about it the whole essence of punk was to prick the bubble of pomposity. It did to Emerson Lake and Palmer what global warming or meteorites did for the dinosaurs. Punk was so very, very necessary. It stopped shit like Rick Wakeman’s “King Arthur on Ice” – it gave us The Clash and The Ramones – no frills heads-down boogie. It took the lameness of self indulgent prog-rock and shot it in the head before it disappeared up its own arse. That’s what we need in today’s art and today’s galleries – someone/thing to come in off the streets and kick all the pretension into touch. In these times of cuts and financial restraints we need accessible art in accessible galleries. We need galleries that have no pretensions, galleries that welcome the common man, woman and their kids – and we need artists who create saleable work for ordinary people. Artists who don’t need to know their way through a maze of secret key-words, phrases and handshakes before they can get a “commission.” As 10cc once sang please let’s stop all this “art for art sake”, just give us “money for god’s sake!”