Monday, 20 April 2009
The Arts, Money and Britain's Got Talent
I went into Cambridge yesterday and met up with friends at The Fitzwilliam Museum and managed to totally ignore, the Impressionists, the Chinese Jade exhibition, the Dutch masters, the Renaissance and simply headed for the fish pie and gossip in the café there. ( If you want a private tour of the museum this link will take you to a wonderful tour of some of the pieces in the museum which are really worth mulling over, I have got many a poem out of this museum ). As I savour my pie I wonder whether several popes in the distant past have sat under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel thinking only about what’s for dinner, which Cardinal is breaking his vows of celibacy and who is plotting what with whom and why? Great art and artefacts as backdrop rather than an end in themselves is nothing new, even Rothko did his four big murals for a restaurant and probably Michael Angelo if he were alive today would happily take a commission for some huge shopping centre ceiling if the money was right. Shopping malls are after all the twenty-first century cathedral at which people worship these days. It’s a funny thing about money and art, the two things seem to be thought of in opposition or at the very least that one compromises the other but then money has always been the bedrock on which much great art has been established. Without the rich patrons and the moneyed institutions much of which we now laud as great art, music, paintings, Shakespeare’s plays would never have existed. Of course some artists carried on painting and never received patronage but even Van Gogh only managed to keep going because others, usually his brother, financed his life style and freed him up to paint. The Arts Council appeared in the mix last century to ensure amongst other things that the patronage of the arts, of the little individual artists, the up and coming artists could thrive ( I count all manner of artists within that umbrella word, composers, new media artists, visual artists, writers, etc). One of its aims is to promote excellence and the only way they can be seen to be doing that is by giving money to a person to give them the tools to do what they do best, be those tools, time, resources, mentoring. An individual artist above all needs time and time is money. The Arts Council is cutting back drastically which in hard financial times is predictable and maybe even right. The big Arts Council projects supporting artistic institutions, publishers, magazines etc may well be the first to go to the wall or it may seek to support the middle men the institutions that foster artists and community access to the arts.
Individual artists themselves usually come quite cheaply in comparison to these kinds of projects. The usual grant for an individual artist is around the £5000 mark so if you get a novel, a decent play, an opera, a collection of poetry for £5,000 then it could be seen as quite a good deal and there is a definite product to point to which is harder with some community art projects which may only have soft measures to report back on how it achieved its goals ( people moving on a scale from 1 to 10 about something or other…i.e How often would you think of reading or writing a poem? 1 being never, 10 being all the time. On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you say this experience has been a life changing and enhancing experience 1 not at all…10 I am completely changed and happier person now with increased self esteem). I am not being cynical here I have seen these questions on arts projects evaluation sheets in the past. I wonder what the evaluation sheet for say Hamlet would have looked like if Shakespeare had to measure what difference his play had made. Of course much of his backing could not be deemed as coming from the public purse and he was also part of the financial syndicate that ran the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre so perhaps he was wise enough to steer as well clear of a reliance on the fickleness of patronage as he could preferring to put his money where his mouth was, ie if the play put bums on seats, he made money, if it didn’t he lost it. Genius may win out in the end with a healthy dose of business acumen thrown in to help. No one seems to castigate Shakespeare for writing entertaining work the aim of which was to make money as well as to be great writing. Would Shakespeare , like Michael Angelo be casting around for a good way to showcase his talent, would he have shares in a West End theatre or be writing a fantastic libretto for the next Andrew Lloyd Weber show. I have a feeling he wouldn’t be doing street theatre in Bolton, not that there is anything wrong with that and he may even have started out writing plays for youth groups in Stratford but he would have an eye for the bigger audience, an audience that made money.
I think this has bubbled to the surface in my head now because I have been studying Elizabeth Bishop who managed to survive on an inheritance, small residencies and bursaries and grants from Foundations. She was a writer who often seemed to live with people to save money or stayed in houses offered to her by people who loved her work. She needed time as she was a slow careful writer, some poems taking years to come to fruition. If she had not inherited some money or been given grants I wonder what would have happened. Living today would that slow careful worker have been nourished, the system as it stands at the moment needs immediate results, no-one wants to wait twenty years for a poem to be just right ( Bishop worked and reworked her poem The Moose over such a period of time). There was an article in The Times last week about young poets dubbed Facebook Poets, young poets who are media savvy and whose work can go global hot from the lap top. I sometimes worry about those other young poets I know that are choosing to take their time and want to wait until they feel ready to publish, will they appear to be being left behind, it is necessary to get into the thick of it all as soon as you can, make a name, a high profile for yourself (Facebook or otherwise)? This is not a criticism of being a young poet or these poets in particular as I have heard a number of them read and their work is excellent,it is perhaps a concern that nurturing a new talent now does not seem to include just giving them time away from the hype to produce their best and mature, you have to hit the ground running these days.
Hopefully these Facebook Poets will be around for a long time, being published getting readings and improving all the time but then once you get into the maelstrom of being a busy young high profile poet how do you embed yourself in the everyday life away from all the rush and promotion. However I am perfectly prepared to believe that sheer talent will always find its true level even if you spend every night out doing readings and every day updating your Myspace/Facebook/Website/Podcast or Tweeting etc and on the other hand it will also 'will out' even if you spend your whole life in your parents’ house doing very little but reading and visiting the odd relative a poetic talent will find its way beyond those confined walls, only maybe you may have to send out to a few magazines and let someone at least have sight of your poems. You might be posthumously hailed as a great poet but you will have an audience eventually. Emily Dickinson seemed to manage that, although I wonder if Facebook had been around then whether she would have subscribed, many of her poems would be almost short enough for a Tweet? Perhaps the poet is a different beast in these global interconnected times and the skill set of a poet has now got to include these things other than just the ability to write something stunning, over and above the ordinary and prosaic.
It may be that the current hype around Susan Boyle the 47 year old singer on Britain’s Got Talent has also pushed these thoughts to the fore ( I will not furnish you with a link as all the world and her mother seems to know where to find the Youtube site in which she features). That phenomena may not have happened if she had gone out with that voice in her twenties. Being the woman who never had the opportunity to leave home, who just sat at home with her elderly mother, the cat and her voice for years, people are touched or driven to see her as something beyond just a good voice. Does it tap into that feeling that talent will somehow always be discovered and time may not always be against you but with you, I am sure Simon Cowell or his goffers probably pre-chose which song she should sing to ensure maximum weep factor, and a grand choice it was too, not a dry eye in the house. Of course those that have wept over her performance as a Cinderella story may also be weeping just a little for all those that sit at home with a talent that never emerges.
I am torn and arguing with myself here, perhaps you do always have to be proactive no matter what your age or how great your talent, that the expectation has to be that you have to put yourself is the way of opportunity. Susan Boyle had to get herself to the audition and sing after all. It’s the old Chinese saying, ‘Good fortune is the marriage of luck and preparedness for luck’, and preparedness now involves not only the talent and good work but websites, Facebook, Myspace and other forms of self promotion.Poets are of course no stranger to self promotion, Byron worked the media machine of his day like a pro, max Clifford could take notes from him. However perhaps we could persuade Simon Cowell to run a Britain’s Got Poets show?