I just spent the best part of a week putting together an application for a show next year. Eight hours after applications closed I realised I f**ked up the application in not one but two ways; by sending the information in four files instead of one and by forgetting to attach images. In between calling myself an arsehole, I cracked up laughing at the thought of sending an image-less application to an arts organisation. Though its an oversight that will likely get a good proposal thrown out, it was quite apt to send an image-less application into the form cluttered void the artist has been forced to inhabit.
These days its understood that you need a degree in adminstration to be an artist but do we really understand how deeply it has changed the face of the arts?(It is worth noting here that artist’s applications are often for unpaid residencies or exhibitions that cost the artist money). While other professions have often looked down on artists as layabouts looking for handouts, there are suddenly a lot of ‘professionals’ – administrators, accountants and so on – living off arts funding, some getting salaries an artist can’t even allow themselves to dream of. Certainly some organisation is necessary and while some administrators are even artists themselves trying to make ends meet, it is important to realise that when we talk about arts funding these days we are not necessarily talking about supporting artists.
Being an artist has changed utterly since funding began to be channelled through organisations in the early 1980s. Decades before, it was artists who had, in undermining the structures of modernism , rebelling against its elitism and market orientation, championed a wider use of skills and materials allowing more people a voice and a say in how our culture develops. This developed potential for the arts to cross occupational boundaries and facilitate social engagement. The arts then began to be adapted to particular ends. This gave rise to organisations – art centres, youth organisations, health professionals and more – being inserted between the artist and funding sources, a situation which favoured group activities and result-driven funding models. That is to say that by opening up the arts to all, the artist has also paradoxically opened it up to those seeking to control the artist’s output, to direct it to specific market-based or political ends. This system threatens more experimental work with extinction.
Something else to think about are the people who are controlling what you, the audience, gets to see or hear or partake in for unseen ends or through personal prejudice. I can’t help thinking that the trend towards minimalist, conceptual art in Ireland is driven by accountants with an obsession for neatness…
Then there is the impact of administrative frameworks on the individual artist; those who can’t write well because it’s difficult (dyslexia, illiteracy, disability), because it’s just not their métier, because visual art is visual, poetry is poetry, music is music, performing is performing. These frameworks put the application form, not the work, front and centre.
Changes in the arts – powered by artists – in the last century have touched many, many people in beneficial ways but what we have gained in breadth we may sacrifice in depth and ironically these changes have put the potential of the individual to explore, to speak up in a precarious position. Still, precariousness is part of the game and though the stakes have been upped it does not mean we should stop playing.
How do we continue to expand possibilities for all and yet allow space for experimentation, humour and subversiveness? Perhaps redefinitions or clarifications of what the arts are, and how they are used. Perhaps separate funding streams – one for arts – awards made on evidence of a body of work – and one for organisations and projects. Or better still, embed in society some sort of infrastructure that makes it easy for all of us not just artists, to use our time more flexibly, to access space, money, education, travel and so forth. For instance dedicated art space in new commercial buildings, universal basic income, low or no rates for pop-up galleries and theatres, time off from work for personal projects.
On an individual level perhaps the dreaded application process could be a target for deconstruction. While I chickened out of doing that with this weeks application I took a chance last year…
I got the show.