Wednesday, May 04, 2011

It's About Balance

Public. Private. Who decides? Who pays? What is appropriate? I'd like to touch on a few big industries that have a lot of leeway in modern Britain: the publicly funded, publicly run Arts Council, the publicly funded, privately-run Rail Union, and the privately-funded, privately-run pain in the ass that is Big Telecom.

I am a theatre professional. Well, I would be if I was employed. I am a highly educated theatre-y person. (An MA in theatre and a sockful of nickels might get you a loaf of bread.) Maybe my opinion on this matter has the potential to be modified by employment, but for now, I have a thing or two to say about state-funded art.

It's a bad idea.

The UK government established the Arts Council in 1940 to try and give artists an income--to keep the vagrants off the streets, essentially. The arts council was founded on the notion that artists are otherwise useless to society and it would less unsanitary to fund them to do something than to have them begging. (Okay, I'm making some of that up. The arts council was developed to preserve and promote British culture, which is a valid enough enterprise, 'cos let's face it, the British don't have a whole lot else going for them now that all their primary industries have moved to countries that don't get their panties in a wad about workplace safety and living wages. And unlike Hawaii, British tourism can't just sustain itself on sunshine and pretty women.)

Back to the point. Many theatres in the UK would collapse if state funding was pulled from them. Tourism would be threatened. Culture would be compromised. An entire generation of artists would fade into obscurity. It would be a catastrophe.

This is unfortunate, because honestly the last thing art needs is tax money, and the best thing for the industry is for the state to turn away from it.

(You traitor! Arrrrg! No wonder no one will hire you!) What tax funding has done to theatre is allow the general population to have a voice in what types of arts programming get funding. And guess what. 90% of the general population does not think that "art for art's sake" is a worthwhile use of their money. I for one don't. You want to take my hard-earned (non-existent) cash and give it to some idiot so he can poop on the floor? Film herself scraping off her fingernails and soaking her bleeding fingers in milk? Tie herself into an awkward position and paint the walls with her teeth? No. That's a waste of money. Tax revenue must be used for the public good.

So the opposite has happened. The only theatres, music groups, and art programmes that get money are ones that have some sort of outreach motive. At-risk youth theatre. Music therapy for the mentally ill. Art in hospitals. History museums.

This is fine. No, really. Well, sorta. I have no particular beef with nice people providing art-based social services. I would never do it myself, as I've only ever seen it backfire, but surely some good has come from bringing a joyful noise into classrooms and shelters. Sure, half the time the troubled teens are just shouting "fuck off, little miss do-gooder" and it's impossible to quantify the effectiveness of cello music on coma patients, but I'm sure that on some level it's all making life a little bit more liveable for someone (and not just the bleeding-heart practitioners themselves).

But the availability of free money for the right kind of art has crippled arts development in every other sector, because every organization that could be doing something cool is instead flopping around like sun-baked fish, desperately modifying their programming and mission statement in the hopes of getting picked up for funding. People and groups that have no business influencing children and prisoners are out there, compromising their vision (and distressing toddlers) because there's no other money available to support creative expression.

The private sector may call for a commission occasionally--a new sculpture for the lobby, a cubist portrait of the founder--but because of the pervasive influence of the Democratised Aesthetic, unless a submission can demonstrate its Community Outreach potential, very few corporate managers will risk investing in art. It's just bad PR.

Back in the day--long before my day--artists sought patrons. Wealthy individuals and companies paid artists to be their entertainment-on-demand. Yes, the artist had to produce work that the patron appreciated, but these sorts of relationships were varied and could lead to quite interesting, diverse outcomes. The upshot of all this was that exceptional artists could create art that pleased the aesthetic and interests of their particular niche, and if nobody else liked it, it didn't matter. Consider the Shakespeare histories that made sure to portray ancestral competing claimants to the throne as evil, or the architects who told George IV that the onion-domed And crenellated Royal Pavilion he wanted for Brighton would be just beautiful (and very accurately Chinese).

But time has moved on, expectations have been raised, and theatre has gotten more expensive to produce. Meanwhile companies have merged and streamlined, grown and expanded until entire industries have come to exist under one corporate umbrella. The only companies that can afford to sponsor arts organizations are such high-profile institutions that they can't risk being too controversial. Even innocuous, good-idea helpful patronage, when it reaches the ears of the wrong community, leads to boycotts and protests in the streets (or did no one else notice the Teabaggers flapping their arms around outside Home Depot for supporting GLAAD?) Big corporations that decide to support the arts have to be very, very careful that they are investing in programmes that make them look good across the board.

Theatres that already are big corporations have to make shows that will please everyone, or at least not offend anyone.

Which results in porridge. Bland, colourless, gloppy, saccharin sweet porridge.

Germany does something different. In German culture banks, investors, and huge monolithic corporations have adopted a fashion where it's hip to fund a theatre. They still have something resembling that patronage system, and in a lot of cases, the money that it takes to run an arts organization is hardly a blip on the corporation's ledger--at least, it's not a big enough concern that the funding body takes any great care to monitor the theatre's output. This occasionally leads to them paying performers to masturbate onstage to a house of empty seats, but it allows for funded creative experiment--artists getting paid a living wage to try new things, develop new ideas, and push the envelope without worrying if their actions promote awareness of Sidcup's recycling programme.

It's like that terrible waste of beautiful puppetry that's gone from nauseating the West End to annoying Spielberg's viewers: when you burden a show-horse with a plough, you wind up with both a broken horse and a poorly turned field. Art has been crippled by its failed attempt to Do Good. Art is not good. It is not bad. It is art, and if you try and give it a social purpose, you wind up with the abomination that is War Horse.


But let's look at the flip side for a second. What happens when publicly-funded organizations get to do whatever they want with no accountability to anyone but themselves, despite the fact that they affect everyone? When they don't have to do good, even though they should? I am referring, naturally, to the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union.

The Tube. It is London's life force--an arterial system that provides almost every neighbourhood with workers, taxpayers, and the occasional vagrant. Like theatre it is also paid for with a combination of tax revenue and ticket sales. But unlike theatre, in the past year transit prices have gone up twice, services have been reduced, and the union has gone on strike at least four times, effectively shutting the system down and putting an undue burden on the separate unions of the buses, suburban rail, the Overground, the river, taxis, and the highway. Theatres tried that--nobody showed up and eventually the theatres closed.

RMT are striking for what at first sounds like reasonable causes--safety, hours, wages, job security. Fair enough, right?

Except. Except they don't really have a leg to stand on. Tube employees' base salary is £15,000 higher than any other transit workers'. More money is sluiced by the state into the Tube than into any other system--into maintenance, employee benefits, maintaining jobs, and line development. Particularly now that the Olympics are rapidly coming closer, ensuring that the city has a safe, reliable, attractive public transit system has been declared utterly vital. They are getting as much money as anyone can afford.

And we live in the Future. The city also has a lovely train service called the Docklands Light Railway, which is every four year old boy's favourite thing on earth for one very important reason: he can sit up front and pretend to drive. The DLR is essentially a large network of robots that functions quite well almost entirely without human involvement. It's on time, it's safe, and it runs itself.

Sure, in the evenings it's a good idea to have transit employees on board to ensure that when drunks fall onto the tracks, the machine doesn't carry on without heeding their plight. But under daily circumstances, drivers, door operators, and signalmen are more trouble than they're worth. Unfortunate to employment rates? Sure. But what is better for commuters--employing train employees to do an okay job, or having machines do a very efficient job?

This kind of gimmick of course makes transit employees very, very angry. And to an extent I understand them--why should people lose their jobs to machines, just because machines do them better and without needing to buy food or nappies or pay mortgages or take sick days? We've had to face the crushing truth that computers and machines work better than we do since the industrial revolution. As we innovate ourselves out of usefulness, we must take a moment to ask--why do we cling to the notion that a task that is better and more cheaply performed by a computer programme should still be a career? No one seems to mourn the obsolescence of the scullery maid or the lamplighter. And while home-made cakes do taste better, I have a hard time believing that the DLR is somehow inferior without that human touch. If a machine has been made to streamline the inefficiencies of human performance at any task, surely this is an indicator that the best human operation leaves room for improvement.

So far, the rail unions have kept the machines from completely eliminating their jobs, but this success has empowered them to take more bold moves, which may get them into trouble. Their regular, crippling strikes over ticket office layoffs (the computerized system works better, faster, more fairly, speaks 17 languages, doesn't yell at you for waking it up, and doesn't pull the shade at 4:45pm) and their planned strikes over the legitimate firing of two employees have endeared the soulless DLR to Londoners more and more over the past year.


But what about private companies who have never done good, have never had to do good, but keep getting in the way regardless? I'm referring, of course, to phone companies and net neutrality.

Why does the phone company think it is owed something in this digital age? We have always paid for phone service--it's not like the entire history of telephone operation has been some sort of philanthropy on their part--but now that a video phone call can be handled for free and with minimal bandwidth occupation on the Internet companies like BT are determined to get their just deserves. Courts are filled every day with phone lawyers and lobbyists doing whatever they can to prevent companies like Skype from letting people circumvent their communication toll. Just because it Can be done for free doesn't mean it Should, surely.

The problem is the people who would add a surcharge to free services so as to hold onto their profit margin are convinced that the Internet is a closed system with a speed limit that can and should be enforced. Despite the truth that the interwebs just expand as new information enters them, and so long as people keep buying servers there's no reason the net won't just grow indefinitely, they are trapped in a 1980's version of the world where a town's long-distance jacks were limited and had to be handled by an operator. The extents they're going to now to impose their analogue fees on the digital world are akin to priests raving that, despite all evidence that a skilled surgeon removed your infected appendix safely, prayer actually saved your life. Get with the program. Manual telephone operation and religion have been dead for years, but for some stupid reason they won't stop kicking or demanding our money. You've had your day! Just let go already! Better, faster, smarter and cheaper systems have replaced you--namely computers and soap. The reason we're not paying you is because you shouldn't be paid anymore. You want a job? Invent a new service we can't live without. Don't demand that we keep paying you for a service nobody needs that you don't even provide.

So. I think it comes down to: art should not be public, transit should not be private, and anyone who tries to force consumers to pay twice for internet and internet services should be shot. I already pay my monthly net subscription to BE AND a trumped-up "line rental" fee to the privately-owned BT--don't try and charge me for using Skype because I'm not paying your free-money long-distance fee for a piece of software to automatically connect me to my mom. I'm paying you for internet access. What I do with it is my business.

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