Monday, June 1, 2015

"Artistic Vibrancy"

It is a never-ending source of amusement the lengths people will go to avoid making any kind of aesthetic judgement. Today's example comes from the Australia Council for the Arts. Say, what happened to national adjectives, anyway? I notice they have just about disappeared from the mainstream media and now they are disappearing from official government documents as well. Was there a memo I missed? I mean, shouldn't it be Australian Council for the Arts, or at least the Council for the Arts of Australia? Australia Council for the Arts is just bad grammar, as are the many manifestations in headlines such as "China Economy Weakens" (that should be Chinese Economy Weakens) or "Canada Dollar Gains against US" which should be Canadian dollar. This is easy stuff, you can even look it up.

But don't let me sidetrack myself, what I want to show you is what happens when a government agency responsible for funding the arts tries to decide who, how and how much.  Statistics are one way, which they like to call "robust" statistics as opposed to those weak-ass ones you and I use. Here is how that is explained from this article:
There is actually a considerable evidence base from which to form policy decisions in Australian arts funding. Both the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australia Council itself collect large amounts of robust data on cultural audiences, cultural events and the output of artists and companies funded by the taxpayer.
One crucial metric of cultural funding is innovation, such as the production of new Australian artworks. Supporting the creation of new Australian product has long been a rationale for cultural decision making. The Australia Council has developed a complex model it calls “artistic vibrancy” that explains how it approaches the difficult task of judging the merit of a particular company or work.
Another available metric is audience numbers: “bums on seats”, as producers like to say.
The trouble with statistics when it comes to funding, say, classical music, is that it is pop music that attracts the most "bums on seats" (and doesn't the excessive informality of that phrase just grate?). And, of course, pop music needs no government funding. So there must be another kind of criterion, right? That's where that lovely "artistic vibrancy" comes in. Here is the official website on that. And here they are:

The five elements of Artistic Vibrancy

Quality and excellence of craft
Audience engagement and stimulation
Curation and development of artform
Development of artists
Community Relevance
That all sounds delightfully useful, even if a bit wayward grammatically: "curation and development of artform"? I don't think that "artform" is actually a word. But all of this is simply an attempt to refer or point to aesthetic excellence without mentioning it. "Craft" has to serve aesthetic ends in the arts, otherwise it is just, well, craft, no different from ironmongery or bricklaying. Audience engagement and stimulation is a dangerous criterion because, like "bums on seats" you end up measuring only popularity and before you know it you are giving arts grants to André Rieu or Beyoncé (say, do you think I would be more popular if I found an accent to stick in my name somewhere? Maybe Bryàn? Looks rather Celtic avant-garde, doesn't it?) Development of artists, well, yeah, that's the whole point, but what do you mean by it? And finally, the real political stinker, "community relevance". I think that a genuine artistic statement would often tend to outrage the community, so that's out. Requiring community relevance in the sense that they mean is not too different from pandering to whatever illusions the community in question tends to hold about itself. That is not art, of course.

Mind you, a wise and experienced panel of jurors could give all the money to exactly the right people and gin up some justification that might look like they fulfilled these requirements for artistic vibrancy, but that bit of juggling would probably require more expertise than the choices themselves.

You know how you should judge the arts? Whether to appreciate them or fund them? By quality. Specifically that quality that is unique to the arts: aesthetic quality. Perhaps someday we might return to this obvious truth. If you want to know what I mean by aesthetic quality, just type "aesthetics" into the search field on the right. There must be over a hundred posts about it.

Let's listen to an example. Here is Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18 played by Malcolm Bilson on fortepiano with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists:

Now that's artistic vibrancy!

(Very subtle UPDATE in parentheses: the basic problem with government funding of the fine arts in an honest democracy is that if you put as your first priority aesthetic quality, then you are going to annoy the less-enlightened voters and politicians. Not everyone will understand or appreciate innovative pieces of art. So you have to at least pay lip service to the tastes of the average voter and unenlightened politician. But that means you end up funding stuff that doesn't need funding and in any case is probably not a piece of fine art. The fine arts, for better or worse, were historically invented and funded by the aristocracy. They are an uncomfortable fit with a modern democracy. Wealthy people who particularly appreciate the fine arts should be funding them, not the government. But governments like to make political hay wherever they can. The problem is basically insoluble which is why all government arts funding is hedged around with double-talk and hypocrisy.)

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