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.




Lost at the third click

Theatre 2016 Conference

There are few advantages to being on a bit of an island, off the coast of another island, off the coast of a continent with whom our relationship status would read ‘it’s complicated’. One of the very few advantages is the appreciation of nuance of meaning in the words we use to define who we are and what we propose are the important elements of that identity.

I was struck by this at the Theatre 2016 conference when the words ‘national campaign’ were used repeatedly to describe things that would only change policy in England (E-BACC, local government funding, DCMS, Arts Council England, etc.); and Britain and the UK were used interchangeably (they’re not, could we rename the British Theatre Repertoire Report?); and everything outside London was referred to as ‘the regions’; raising the question of whether this was or was not a ‘national conference’. Nuance and understanding the significance of terms is everything.

The removal of words such as ‘arts’ and ‘culture’ from not one but two government departments on this island in the last 12 months, sets off warning bells of much greater significance.  When it was first announced in 2015 in Northern Ireland as part of the ‘Fresh Start‘ agreement (again whose fresh start are we talking about?), we were told this was only a name change and that it was more about reducing government than altering the status of arts and culture.  Not great as the status of arts and culture was already at an alltime low.

Maybe because of size of the artistic community; maybe because they have not experienced the same deeply depressing disinvestment over such an extended period; the Irish arts sector’s response to a similar absorption of departmental function without departmental name has been loud, swift and has annoyed Minister Humphreys (always a sign of a good campaign).  Other people (Emily Mark FitzGerald and John O’Brien) are writing better about this and may this campaign be a success or the consequences will be dire.

Back to 2015 on this bit of the island.  When pressed on the lack of a top line inclusion of some element of arts and culture in the name change, the decision to name it the Department of Communities was cited as a policy decision to ‘give all departments single names’.  This will no doubt come as some surprise to those of us who thought that ‘Agriculture’, ‘Environment’ and ‘Rural Affairs’ were separate words – we could try to say them really fast so that they become one word.  Maybe it is still better than the Department of Social Welfare, Communities and Sport which was originally suggested and would have rendered pretty much all functions of the department in the title except arts and culture. But the reassurance remained – arts and culture would still form an intrinsic part of the new department’s priorities.

Cue 2016 and the new departments of the NI Executive were revealed.

Click 1

Click 2

Click 3


No definition needed.  Just lost.