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October 06, 2010

Holey/Holy/Wholly Pockets

Once upon a time, most new cultural forays like Polarity existed thanks to the toner-cartridge pulsing of the government's bureaucratic heart. Used to be, so I've heard, you could walk up to the offices of the Arts Council, or whatever it was called back in those days ('Official Bureau of Questionable Public Spending'?), act strange for half an hour, show a few pencil sketches of your mother having an epileptic fit and pass yourself off as a bona fide Artiste. After which, you walked away with £10,000, or more if you'd washed that day, with which to do something artistic and, hopefully, not blow the money on stacks of jellied eels and a lifetime supply of broken wing-mirrors.

These days, not so easy. Buried within the squawking of New Labour's sloganeering and buzzwording (“Accountability!” “Education!” “Military spending!”) was the germ of the Arts Council's erosion. Now, sadly, public money must be transparently totted up, penny by penny, into a list of targets, effectively or ineffectively attained. Forms forms forms. The application annd evaluation processes are so form-based these days that they even set up a roadshow to try and explain to us poor provincial taxpayers how we're supposed to fill in some of their boxes. Not with a set of colouring pencils, clearly.

(As a side note, I should mention that there are other places that offer start up funding, or loans, who could be considered a little more qualitative in their approach, compared to the Brazilian dystopia that the Arts Council has become. If you're still in puberty, or whatever they call people under thirty these days, The Prince's Trust is a good place to go, but I remember them expecting a high degree of business acumen from me when I met them, several years ago. I also heard about something called IdeasTag recently, but still need to look it up. Also lots of art foundations and trusts around, like The Moose Foundation, or the Paul Hamlyn, but I'm not sure how rigorous they are in their processes now.)

Most of the funding applications I've written involve attempting to learn another language in order to convert an artistic idea into a string of meaningless statements. 'Teaching kids from refugeee backgrounds how to play with language and use their imagination' becomes 'Community outreach in minority ethnic / BME communities to improve language skills, build confidence and increase cultural cohesion'. (Well, my language might be a bit out of date now, but you get the idea.) Done well, a funding application can tickle all the right phrenological zones in a bureaucrat's target lists, but ensure that the artists delivering a project can actually get on and do whatever they want without having to think about the evils of reducing humanity to a stack of statistics. They can just imagine, create and throw tantrums, like they're used to.

Yet the more applications I wrote, or consulted on, the more I felt like I was becoming one of them. My facial features began eroding and dark staining in the shape of a grey tie began forming around my neck, complete with an Arts Council England tie-clip mark just below my sternum. The vocabulary and administration you have to lean begin to colonise you annex your creativity. I've been involved with supporting organisations receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds ('RFOs' as they're cunningly acronymmed to) and peanut-sized writers' bursaries. I no longer feel the offer of money outweighs the price of the administration, in terms of the damage it does to my creative drive; and there's also the question of whether I want the funder's Rottweiler's sphincter of a logo slapped all over my produce. Eventually I made the decision to stop asking government offices for money. I signed up to the idea that if my artistic ideas could not survive independently in society, then they didn't deserve to survive.

The current government might agree with me for different reasons: art should stand on its own two feet, like any industry, without government bailouts propping it up. A free market would allow the public to decide what stays and what goes. The Arts Counci's days may well be numbered and that's ultimately a bad thing - some people are good at writing bids, playing that game and getting some great art made along the way.

In reality, though, artists have survived through community, giving, long before government funding existed – friends, family, other artists, bring support in the form of things other than hard cash and red tape. The Arts Council is very nearly anathema to the spirit of gift-giving and community-building that artists need to survive, in my opinion, and Polarity is one way of proving this to myself. So for the time being it's entirely funded by me and anyone willing to offer me money towards the costs.

What tends to happen – what's always happened, I reckon – is that heads turn when you do something ambitious. Some of those heads will like what you do, and some of those heads will choose to give you something – a handful of lentils to keep you going to the end of the week, a free website redesign, or maybe some money towards print costs. You then become responsible to them for certain other things – maybe a list of patrons on the wall of the theatre, or free tickets to performances, and so on.

Did I mention Lewis Hyde's The Gift? It's a great answer to all this.

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