January 25, 2009

Down with Excellence!


“No one in their right mind would say we don’t want the arts to be excellent. It’d be a bit like saying you don’t want your child to do well at school” – Paul Kelly, NALGAO Magazine Spring 2008

That’s alright then, because I don’t have children thankfully and have no interest in schools. So it’s time for this idea – and/or the public policy jargon – of ‘excellence’ to be challenged. I should have done this sooner, so bear with me parsing the term from some of its early usage in government-speak. As Andy Burnham, the Minister of Culture wrote in “Supporting Excellence in the Arts”:

“The time has come to reclaim the word ‘excellence’ from its historic, elitist undertones and to recognise that the very best art and culture is for everyone;” – so no pretence then, it is about the government laying claim to the word ‘excellence’.

And in July 2007, Andy Burnham, the Minister of Culture, announced that

“Targets were probably necessary in 1997, to force a change of direction in some parts of the arts world. But now, ten years later, we risk idolising them. Without change, we risk treating culture like it’s an old fashioned, unresponsive public service – not a modern, complex network of activity, with plurality of funding, with a sophisticated and complex relationship with its global audience. Without change, we’ll create an overly technocratic approach when we should want a transformational one, where we give you the power to take risks and be the best.” (speaking as both an artist and a curator, the government doesn’t have the power to give me the power to take risks).

I’d dispute the premise that targets were necessary in 1997 – it was bollocks then and its bollocks now. As has been noted in many other places this centralisation of culture has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with command and control.

The Minister went on
“The arts are probably one of the most highly regulated parts of British public life – it’s just that instead of OFSTED, you have critics, and instead of parents and pupils, you have audiences. You are highly regulated, but through self-regulation.”
(for non-UK readers OFSTED is the schools inspectorate). Does it need to be said that this is nonsense? Distorted beyond credulity and a telling comparison: disingenuously it simplifies the critical engagement dynamics of cultural production and equates and imposes the constricting demand side model of learning as a codified entitlement over creativity practice.

But still, the minister commissioned the McMaster’s report

http://www.culture.gov.uk/reference_library/publications/3577.aspx setting out to examine:

- How the system of public sector support for the arts can encourage excellence, risk-taking and innovation
- How artistic excellence can encourage wider and deeper engagement with the arts by audiences
- How to establish a light touch and non-bureaucratic method to judge the quality of the arts in the future

Given years of damage caused by the layers of destructive restrictive bureaucracy, stop-start funding and funding tied to distorting non-arts targets and concomittant risk-aversion and de-skilling of the sector that the Government targetolatry (the Minister’s own word) has created, this sounds remarkable; the subtitle of the report is actually “From measurement to judgment”. The ‘excellence agenda’ is the new mantra.

So let’s not be in our right minds then and come out against ‘excellence’, challenge their right to appropriate the word. Because under the guise of ‘excellence’ most of the old nonsense is still there. I recall the later Robert Hopper
http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1P2-5031851.html used to say that the arts are 90% like plumbing, but is the 10% that is the important bit. A decade or more of cultural policy that favours the plumbers over the artists has led to the public sector arts themselves losing sight of how important the actual art is and, supported by the education system also tailored to targetolatry, increasingly a generation of arts administrators, curators (etc) and even artists think like plumbers rather than artists.

The excellence agenda becomes the pretense, the distraction from what is really being done. In support of it, we now have Improvement and Development Agency for local government (IDeA) (cute how they have appropriated the word ‘idea’ too) publishing “A Passion for Excellence – an improvement strategy for culture and sport”. One of the authors referred to this as “the result of a six year journey” – why didn’t the arts journalist who he said this to laugh in his face? Why didn’t any of the the artists in the consultation period just tell them to ‘fuck off’. Ah, ‘Passion’ that’s another word that they are co-opting: again Andy Burnham said: “I want to keep the passion and throw away the packaging of targetolatry. Setting culture free to do what it does best.” Government policy proves this to be completely untrue.

The author of ‘A Passion for Excellence’ said patronisingly “most of them [arts managers] know [what they are doing] and I’ve yet to meet one that doesn’t want to improve!” Apparently though one of ‘our’ problems is that CPA (Comprehensive Performance Assessment – yes, I know) was an opportunity, “but the arts never cracked the data sets”. Thank fuck for that! The day I crack or care about data sets is the day someone can put me out of my misery.

Anyway, the next ‘opportunity’ for the arts was Local Area Agreements – the latest Government targets regime imposed (sorry, agreed) on Local Government to make ‘local services better’ etc or make the targets they report look better. And surprise surprise nationally only 25% of LAAs have adopted in the government’s target on “engagement in the arts”. This is called National Indicator 11 (NI11) - “The percentage of the adult population in a local area that have engaged in the arts at least three times in the last 12 months”. Of course the low inclusion of NI11 in local council’s LAAs must be the arts fault too. I expect we didn’t crack some data sets, that’ll be it. Alternatively it could be that the arts actually don’t make it into corporate local government strategic planning because they are not a statutory service, so they can’t compete with the usual list of more important things like schools, bin emptying, highway maintenance, etc. Therefore obviously it’s also our fault because we haven’t provided evidence that the arts have any point - just prove how useful you are to these pointless performance indicator monitors (the Priests of Targetolatry?) and then everything will be alright, the money will flow. How many years have I sat in meetings when some arts bureaucrat has said all we need is more evidence of the value of our work? Even though the Minister concluded his statement with: “art has the power to change people’s lives, regardless of class, education or ethnicity… the arts would still matter – and I believe this passionately - even if they did none of those things. They are intrinsically valuable before they are instrumentally so. The arts hold the ring for our national conversation. They are where we find our meanings, individually and collectively”. Sadly the Minister’s passionate belief doesn’t stretch to supporting the arts without measuring them. With NI11 there will be a clear implication that excellence is to be judged on a scale of popular access, and how is that artistic excellence?

I was accused of slipping into polemic here the other day – though that was the original reason I started the blog – so here is a more specific rejection of their ‘excellence’:

The bureacracy has a contradictory patchwork of policy agendas which don’t actually allow the conditions for artistic excellence. Even in Arts Council policies it can often be hard to find mention of art. The government and its apparatchiks confuse excellence and access. Maybe we should be grateful for the small mercy of the demotion of idolatry of children from arts targetolatry in the new performance indicators: the other performance indicator is the number of visits to an art gallery by people over 16 (NI10) – but there are so many fallacies in these indicators. The statistics are gathered by something called the Active People Survey. A telephone research sample of 500 people in each borough. Are the arts really to take this form of information seriously? I was at a meeting of arts officers this week were, while there were looks of distain and weariness with it all, someone also said that these indicators were important to us all, and of course there were the younger officers who have been brought up in this environment (I think we are supposed to call it this ‘ecology’ nowadays) so don’t know any better.

One problem with the NI10 and NI11 is that they assume only to local impacts. Culture operates in a globalised context which makes the notion of local culture amputated if defined as an inward limitation (ie being local is only saying what you are not, not what you are). The Minister himself referred to culture’s “sophisticated and complex relationship with its global audience”.

It should also be noted that for the last decade the priority for public galleries has been number of school children visiting and number of school groups – the damage to art this causes I have bemoaned here before; but the criticism here is that suddenly galleries that have built (dumbed-down) programmes and staffing around a child-family audience are suddenly shifted to prioritising visitors over 16 (NI10). But of course this is disingenuous: very few galleries could get away with following the indicator and re-orienting the service to adults, because children are sacred and, as Paul Kelly indicated above, are verging on a standard against rational argument should be measured. What is actually expected is that you keep the child visitor numbers up and increase the audience which has been neglected – and it’s very few galleries that could make sense of a programme, interpretation or curatorial practice that can respond to the competing audience profiles. That word ‘respond’ is significant, because it is always about the response to the ‘needs of the audience’ not the direction of cultural production from the artists. As the man from the Passion for Excellence report says: ‘We as a sector need to be comfortable with setting our own objectives and standards that reflect what our communities want and need and delivering against them’. How can that be a recipe for excellence? Bury is a good example of many small towns – it is interesting as a place because it is equiconsistent with most other places. The baseline statistic for Bury’s level of engagement is 45.3% with the national average 45.2%. Meaningless surveys; you can bat then against each other. A recent demographic (Mosaic) analysis of the Bury population classified the largest proportion of local people (again about 40%) falling into the category “responsible workers with unsophisticated tastes”. A pretty desperate classification to belong to. “Our own objectives and standards that reflect what our communities want and need”: So what will they want? What will their needs be? More sophisticated taste? Irresponsibility would be contrary to government policy, I guess. John Maynard Keynes observed: “We have reach the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be”. Maybe the average is actually the new excellence.

The word they have appropriated is not what they mean. Excellence is a quality, but despite the McMasters “from measurement to judgment”, the State performance indicators for the arts measure only quantities. The Arts Council of England attempting to paper over the cracks created by their paymasters are piloting peer review processes. There is a philosophic question in relation to their current model because it moves excellence from being an absolute to being a relationship. But the cultural policy problem is that the statisticians of the Government and the UK Audit Commission will completely ignore whatever evidence peer review generates. Last time the regional Cultural Development agencies tried to introduce quality into local government assessments (via the Regional Cultural Commentary), it failed to make it into CPA on the grounds that it had no objective measurable factors. So the arts will continue to be judged by the standards of plumbing.

All that said, I think also use of the actual word ‘excellence’ in the arts (rather than whatever they mean) is problematic. I have to say that I don’t believe that that is what artists do. I don’t think you would ever hear an artist say that they are driven by the goal of artistic excellence. On one level there is an implicaton of technical finish in ‘excellence’, it is a word you more comfortably expect to hear in commentary on the quality of orchestral playing rather than in relation to risk taking and innovation, because risk and experiment can be messy, unsuccessful, and maybe disappointing in immediate terms - that's why it's risk; but in risk artists move practice forward, make discoveries. It is interesting in Burnham’s speech that the artforms he most readily references are orchestral playing and theatre, and despite his aversion to “its historic, elitist undertones” both forms fit more comfortably in a critical framework of excellence because of their relationship to an original score/script, and especially in classical music a canon.

Burnham said: “The arts hold the ring for our national conversation”, that conversation will remain vacuous as long as the vocabulary of cultural dialogue is corrupted by the politics of central control and bureaucracy.

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