Say anything

John CusackLike John Cusack standing, his stereo held aloft in Say Anything, the cultural sector can feel left in the cold.  Rejected, with no one listening and, worse, no one returning our affections.  The result – apathy. The next result – further isolation.

Does standing still, our hands aloft in supplication, get us anywhere when governments are ransacking the miniscule culture and heritage coffers and making off with society’s creative future (see Ireland, Northern Ireland, EnglandAustralia)? When our media and political debates are fuelled by scaremongering and misinformation, and our economy serves up quick-fix solutions and services the interests of the wealthy few?

I don’t believe in entitlement to public subsidy or that funding is the only thing that confers value. State policy does however fundamentally change the status of artists in those countries and it affects their capacity to create and innovate from which society reaps rewards.  In that respect, how governments treat culture is a barometer of civilisation.

I am as guilty as anyone else of losing the will with lip-service consultations, cliched media responses and engagement with ill-informed politicians and public officials.  I have wearied of trying to collectivise responses and trying to make the cultural voice bigger, louder and more effective, only to see the sector divide itself into ever smaller factions. But as my brain distills the conference I was involved in organising the last few days (about which more another day), I am returning to this post which I have been mulling over for two weeks.

We can all learn lessons from the many John Hughes’ movies that shaped my teens. John Cusack in Say Anything – just doesn’t give up.  Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink – determines not to be a class snob, even when she’s the poor one, because otherwise she’ll be ‘just like them’. Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club – because, well, because he’s Judd and he won’t succumb to a makeover like Ally Sheedy (big disappointment for little punk me I can tell you).

We, as the great cultural communicators we say we are, need to say something, say anything about the world. We cannot leave it to others nor can we give up.  For what it’s worth, here’s what I think we need to be saying something about and loudly:

  1. The livelihoods of artists & the arts sector – we need to speak up about accepting and offering poorly paid work.  There are a lot of campaigns about it(#PayingArtists, Professionally Made Professionally Paid to name a few) but across artforms something tangible needs to happen for our artistic community.  There is so much knowledge and so little security.
  2. Intellectual property – Connected to (1) but also worthy of discussion, we need to have an industry-wide conversation with our audiences (co-creators, whatever we want to call them) about how ‘content creation’, royalties, copyrights, downloads and creative commons, can not only liberate but also destroy the routes to making and enjoying art. (On point of principle, I don’t do free movie hacks and downloads, I don’t ask for free tickets although it’s nice to be invited, and I do use public libraries).
  3. Opinions on society – we talk a lot about contributing to society but we ARE society.  Are we engaged with what’s going on?  Are we part of the civic debate and are we actually listening to anyone else’s conversations? Campaigns like Devoted & Disgruntled are great but we also need to be in the bigger social forums (fora?).  We need to take ourselves and our concerns and energy to where the debate is at not have it between ourselves.
  4. Political decisions that affect us – not just our sector but US as people.  #Brexit, the Draft Programme for NI Government; debates on citizenship, censorship, abuse inquiries, the role of faith in our government and schools, privatisation, TTIP.
  5. Censorship – we need to ask ourselves if we have the right and obligation to speak out as companies and institutions.  Is public funding (or indeed commercial financing) a gag to our freedom of expression or are we simply fearful about stating our case? How do we inform ourselves to make a considered opinion through our art?
  6. And finally, we need to think hard about how inclusive we are.  I know we talk the talk about the arts being for everyone but actually our industry is floundering in inequality. I’ll write about our communities and audiences another day.  Our business practices exclude people because of their gender, sexuality, ethnic origin, geography, disability, age and parental responsibilities.  Guilt & witch/warlock/non-binary-hunts will get us nowhere. Actions and honesty will.

I’m not asking you to agree with me – my role as a citizen is to present my own rationale for why I choose certain positions and your role as a citizen is to consider your own opinions and act accordingly. So say something, anything.




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