Friday Ephemera
Elsewhere (105)

Because Art is the Fourth Emergency Service

In the culture pages of the Guardian, Charles Firth recounts a tale of exasperation, injustice and heroic suffering. Specifically, his struggle to find funding for an artistic work space:

In 2007, four idiots who thought of themselves as writers scammed an awkwardly inaccessible office in a beautiful old building that had very few tenants… The enlightened trustees were happy to let a group of earnest young writers use the space until a “proper” tenant came along, charging us something like $230 per month.

$230 a month for a large office in the heart of Sydney. A bargain by any measure. One that attracted other Creatives In Need Of Comfort™.

Slowly, other writers came to hear about the space. A well-respected essayist, a proper novelist and a budding popular historian moved in, and the room acquired a certificate of incorporation as a non-profit arts organisation, a set of stern rules (don’t be loud, don’t be messy, don’t interrupt)...

Stern rules regarding mess and noise. I suppose selling out was inevitable. Almost as inevitable as the end of that temporary peppercorn rent.

Meanwhile, the rest of the building had filled to capacity, and the 17 writer-members now had to find $2,300 plus GST per month to cover rent. As I spent increasing amounts of time on administration, my attention turned to arts grants. 

But of course. 

My understanding of the system was that it was there to support those producing cultural works: artists and writers. This proved naïve. The true purpose of arts grants is for one set of arts bureaucrats to provide funding to create a new generation of arts bureaucrats. The qualities most highly valued by funding bodies are the ability to reproduce accurately the funding body’s logo, and to file a report that can be included in their annual report alongside words like “new,” “innovative” and, above all, “successful.” 

Mr Firth, it turns out, isn’t too impressed by socialised arts funding and its box-ticking apparatus - sentiments with which some readers may feel empathy. But those feeling empathetic may want to avoid applauding just yet.

Unfortunately, the Sydney Writers’ Room was none of these things.

Being artistically innovative and successful is something rarely said of office space. Even office space with rules regarding mess.

Its mission was to provide a space that placed no expectation on success or failure. You just had to be quiet and write.

Office space, in short, for those who consider themselves deserving of special favours and perpetual indulgence. Those “legitimately worthy,” as Mr Firth puts it. Not worthy because of what they have produced, but worthy because of what they may produce, possibly, at some point in the future, should muse and ability permit. And so taxpayers must be given the old shakedown, not just for written works they didn’t ask for, but for the potential for works they didn’t ask for, and to ensure the further inflation of Mr Firth’s self-regard. You see, it’s simply impossible to write anything at all unless one has a large office sited in a beautiful old building in the heart of Sydney, all bankrolled indefinitely by the taxpayers of Australia. Bloggers of the world, please take note.

And so, faced with the sheer awfulness of not being given money he hadn’t actually earned, Mr Firth devised a cunning plan:  

If I could print out a few words, put them up around the room and call it a “museum,” perhaps that would be the “project” that could fund our space. I could pay lip service to the bureaucratic needs of funding bodies, the funders could help launch a whole new “museum,” and the room could scrape some cash out of the system for a legitimately worthy space.

And lo, ker-ching. $30,000. A “cultural grant” from the City of Sydney.

During his tearful tale Mr Firth coughs up several candidates for our series of classic sentences. Among them, this:

Art provokes. Art bites the hand that feeds it. And, most of the time, art fails. That should not be a reason to not fund it. 

Meaning, “Fund it with someone else’s money, taken forcibly via taxes and distributed without their consent to art and literary projects that they, the people being fleeced, may not care about.” This, then, is the definition of enlightened, a word Mr Firth uses three times - whenever someone else’s cash is made available to him or to someone much like him. It’s a bold position to take, especially for someone who uses the word “scammed” to describe his own behaviour.

The above is immediately followed by this:

Arts funding systems, by their nature, are not set up to fund failure, or things that are too provocative.

The idea that our socialised arts bureaucracies don’t fund failure or attempts to provoke may strike readers as comical, dishonest or pathologically oblivious, given that examples to the contrary aren’t exactly hard to find. And apparently we’re to believe that world-shaking iconoclasts such as Mr Firth are being stifled by inadequate state largesse, due to an insufficient readiness to hand over other people’s earnings to artists who are entitled by virtue of simply being.

Tickling my tip jar will only encourage me.