Artists needed, to shovel snow

Feynman and Le Guin

Snow Shovel, by Marcel Duchamp

The week of the apparent discovery of superluminal motion is a good moment to reflect on how we move beyond our common assumptions.  We need new paradigms, as the Dark Mountain project so cogently argues.

Many voices now argue that late market capitalism with a compassionate mask is fighting a losing war for survival.  Is the consequence apocalypse, the only debate about softening the landing?  Small groups band together to generate local schemes, transition towns, gift exchanges.  There are hours of film, mountains of typescript imagining futures from Avatar to Blade Runner.  It’s not that no-one’s talking about it, just that none of it seems enough.

No single voice creates paradigm shift.  By its nature, re-describing our social frames of reference must be a joint effort.   Three other points seem to me self evident.  One is that we cannot address the economic and ecological challenges we (humanity, planet earth) face, by managerial, procedurally based solutions.  Keep the framework the same, just manage it a bit differently.  That’s what the Big Society seeks to do.  It is no surprise it shares initials with bullshit.

Secondly, the plurality of debate means different ways of addressing the issues.  Dance, film, hypermedia, philosophical examination.  As Le Guin’s magnificent Always Coming Home illustrates so well, discourse on the other side of the paradigm shift looks and feels different in every medium, every interaction.

We all know that feeling of being overwhelmed.  We’re all going to die so nothing I do makes any difference.  What can I do about the starving of East Africa or oceanic acidification?  I’ve still got to get my kids to school.  An alternative narrative says:  I’m doing my bit.  I don’t run a car, or I grow my own veg, or I work for a charity or I volunteer in refugee camps.  I’m even a member of Friends of the Earth.   I won’t be first against the wall when the revolution comes.

It is easy to deride both positions from the lofty heights of intellectual cynicism.  Let me take it as read that even small changes help.  That the local, the oral, the immediate have a direct connection to the globalised, the digital, the corporate.  We may not be able to trace precise causality or anatomise our contribution, but we should still be doing what it is in us to do to improve the future.

Two little stories help to illustrate the difference in approach I am trying to understand, and perhaps can help us think about how society might organise itself differently, even in the short term, which in turn can help us explore the job of artists in creating those new paradigms.

Shovel your own snow

The last two winters have seen unusual amounts of snow in southern England.   This has led to some absurd expectations that ‘they’, usually meaning the state in some form or another, will clear the roads, and that because ‘they’ haven’t cleared my road, my taxes are wasted and everyone (but me) is bewilderingly incompetent.   We’ve been told that you mustn’t touch a flake, or someone else will fall over and sue you.  Any attempt at local responsibility will result in losing everything you own in a disastrous court case brought by some feckless litigant.

In Germany, by contrast, it is your obligation to clear the snow in front of your own house or business.  In Scandinavia you can see signs which remind you that the paths are slippery, and if you fall over it’s your own problem.  Even in early 21st century advanced economies, not every society is as monumentally short-sighted as the snow-whingers of the UK.

Sure, you didn’t make the snow fall.  You didn’t make the road too narrow for the plough.  You made it to work, so why aren’t your customers enabled to reach you by those eejits whose wages you so reluctantly fund through your taxes.

Listen up.  Take local control.  Shovel snow.

Live Tigers!

A faith-based community group wants a celebration in an urban park.  Funfairs and prayers.  A day out for all the family, and friendly face for a group too often demonised by the surrounding society.  What’s not to like?

The artist and the tiger

Two weeks before the event, the local regulatory authority finds, via the community group’s website, that they are planning to have live tigers on the site.  In their own jungle enclosure of course.  Local residents would be astonished at a laissez-faire attitude to such animals in their park.   This comes on top of concerns about less dramatic safety issues, such as making sure a marquee, intended to hold 10,000 worshippers, is put up correctly.  Live tigers bring those concerns into sharp focus.     Not only the law but local feeling drives an intervention to regulate the event.  (I’m not even going to consider the ethics or politics of using endangered species in this way.)

Is our societal expectation that the event is cancelled at the last minute, or that the tigers are sent away, or that the community group be allowed to get on with it?  Where is the regulatory line to be drawn, and by whom, and using what commonly understood frame of reference?

Who are ‘they’?

In both these cases, there are many different possible expectations of the authorities.  Of course, that’s a loose word, with multiple definitions.  I’m being minimalist about it here, meaning some form of organised arrangement to enable us to get stuff done (bury the dead or manage a transport network for example), under which we allow some people to use coercive and non-coercive means to tell us what to do, and for which we pay a contribution.  The contribution is generally money and we call it taxes.

Any debate about a new paradigm has to grapple with the question of collective payment for common goods.  The gift economy is great when it works, but it won’t build many miles of oxtrack, or solar panels, or maternity wards capable of an emergency caesarian.  Some other arrangement is needed for that.

No, I haven’t buried the clever answer in all this.  I just wanted to clear up that I’m not talking about democracy or anarchism or dictatorship.  Just reminding us that moving beyond where we are towards some more planet-friendly, people-friendly future still needs various forms of collective agreement.

For both snow and tigers, there are adequate managerialist responses available within our existing paradigms.  We can be cleverer about our resources, more explicit about our regulatory expectations, communicate better with stakeholders.  All good stuff.  But it won’t address the bigger challenges of changing communities, failures of responsibility, unreal expectations.  And it certainly won’t prepare us for extreme weather events, imploding urbanism or species migration.  Those need a different approach, some new narratives.

Wicked imagineering

Keith Grint, prof at Warwick University, has done some clever analysis around decision making and leadership.  He differentiates three kinds of problem, needing three different kinds of response.  One is the command solution to an immediate crisis.   Someone’s set off a bomb in the Underground: get out of the way and let the medics through.

The second category, which he calls a ‘tame’ problem, is one which can be solved by a standard operating procedure.  You may not know the procedure needed, but someone does.  Those solutions work for the problem as defined, even it’s very complicated and calls for special skills.  He talks about heart surgery for example;  if you’re a heart surgeon in an operating theatre, you follow well-established protocols which work.

The third category are the ‘wicked problems’.   In his typology, these are challenges which cannot be solved by a single approach or set of rules.  He says  There are no known solutions, partly because there are no simple, linear causes – the actual causes are themselves complex, ambiguous and often interconnected – multiple causes and causal chains abound. Similarly, multiple, partial solutions are the order of the day.    He sets out some of the multiple approaches to developing responses to wicked problems (which I’ve paraphrased a little) to include:

Deriving clumsy solutions – call for the bricoleurs! (what we might call designer-builders who make existing buildings work in new ways)

● high levels of connectivity – within and between organisations; sharing of knowledge and skills across functional boundaries enables the development of novel solutions and new knowledge creation

● positive deviance & constructive dissent – where people move away from the conventional wisdom, and challenge existing policies and practices

● Are essentially unique and novel, so the problem is not fully understood until a solution has been developed and applied. Analysis of the results achieved drives more learning

● Are ‘one-shot operations’. The solution applied is rarely, if ever, repeatable. Applying the solution changes the original problem, and this requires new analysis and the development of a new solution

● Have solutions that are not right or wrong, but better or worse

● Have no given solutions – there is no best practice. It is not possible to transfer a successful solution from one place to another. It is, however, possible to transfer the method that was used to develop a successful, partial solution

Grint applies this to some of our all-too-familiar public policy challenges such as reducing crime, or eliminating substance abuse. The challenge of paradigm shift is also a wicked problem, needing complex, untried, multiple approaches.

Excellence and authority

The list above could be lifted and used almost verbatim to describe artistic practice.    The demand that it (whatever it is) works, that it draws on unexpected connections (and fractures), that artists are dissenters, producing unique work, that the work is a specific response in time and place (even it the product is global, digital, disintermediated).    Is there something here which helps us to think about the job of artists in moving towards new paradigms, and the role (or not) of the state in supporting artists undertaking such work?

(I’m using artist here to describe anyone involved in creative practice, in the whole range of artforms, from writers to opera singers, and digital sculptors to dancers.)

This is a pressing question, as the state, nationally and locally disentangles itself from subsidising art.  Liz Forgan, Chair of the Arts Council of England, has eloquently set out her central concern with excellence, when she says 

[Excellence] is a tricky word, … it is simply the bravest, most original, most innovative, most perfectly realised work of which people are capable – whether in the creation of art, its performance, its communication or its impact on audiences. …  It ticks no boxes but it is to be measured in its effect on both those who make it and those who experience it – and it is the opposite of the safe, routine and imitative.

Her words echo those qualities set out by Grint.

The expectation of promoting the best, the role of the state (as the Arts Council is an arm of the state in its distribution of collectively-amassed resources) also has similarities to the job of regulation, the expectation that standards will be met, that upholding or stretching expectations is a legitimate role for our collective endeavours.

This elision raises an obvious and further question.  Who sets the standards?  What does excellence mean?  Perhaps tigers in your park would be great.

Authority is one of those resonant words, which changes its shape depending on your stance.    Is the Arts Council the source of excellence, the arbiter, or neither?  Is your local Council the decision maker on acceptable hygiene in your corner cafe, or the enforcer of some other body’s expectations.  Should your local GP’s consortium (now entrusted with so much policy making in local services) have the ability to raise its own taxes to pay for your health care?  Is the maker of a piece of art the only or the best person to comment on its meaning and implications?

Let’s talk about artists then

In 1973, a group of directors of Arts Centres created a document known as the Beaford Declaration.  They argued for the importance of earmarked, transparent investment in community and local arts activity, and for the Arts Council to move away from a view of culture that was overwhelmingly shaped by Enlightenment taste and Victorian philanthropy.  The Declaration argues strongly for the value of state investment in cultural (specifically artistic) activity, even in what was also a time of ‘financial stringency’.

Fast forward to today, and the debate about state funding of dissent through artistic works remains active.  CorporateWatch did a short survey of the discussion in 2010 which usefully reminds us to ask what the motives of individual artists might be, although we may well consider (with T S Eliot) that the motives and intentions are irrelevant to the work itself.

There are two questions that I am not hearing in the discussion.    One is whether as artists (rather than people who need to eat) we need and want the organised collective of society (the state) to fund or enable the work.  Even if the state chooses to support cultural work, I have not seen much by creative practitioners themselves describing what that relationship has done to their implicit or explicit assumptions.  Where such material exists, it tends to be in the closed loop of jargon often inhabited by cultural commentators:  it’s certainly not framed in a way which helps non-practitioners to take part in the debate.  We all need to be involved in asking how state support, or the expectation of that support, influences the narrative of the creation?   The argument tends to run that supporting artists is something society should do, and the debate is therefore focussed on the amount of support and the strings attached.

The second question relates to that of authority.  In the publishing world we’re seeing an intense argument about quality thresholds.  Is it the market which decides?  In that case bring on self-publishing so algorithms of reader ranking can determine who floats upwards.  Or do we expect (traditional) publishers to act as the readers’ quality assurance as well as signposting us to the books we might like to read?  If so, those trad publishers will need to work out how to publicise quality in a way which sustains their business in the epublishing world.  Similarly, how do we, through our social organisations, through the state, establish and promote excellence?  How do we understand what it means?

Beyond the paradigm

Even those discussions, important though they may be, and urgent though many believe they are,  do not address the opening challenge.  We need new paradigms.    Many of us have stopped believing in the stories our civilisation tells itself (from the Dark Mountain project again).  A core task of our story tellers, our artists, is to begin to tell new stories, bring out new narratives about the different futures we can and might create.

The story telling is not the job of the state, our collective arrangement for doing stuff.  To make it so is the path to the cliches of 1984.  We live at a time so obsessed with spin that many people seem unwilling to accept even the views of 95% of the worlds scientists on the subject of our deteriorating biosphere.  So if (when) the state tries to tell us some new stories, we have become unable to believe them.

Further, we are so distrustful of authority, that we have trouble accepting the narratives of anyone remotely funded by, or connected to, the state.  That distrust, it seems to me, goes far deeper than the disconnection or anger of the 1960’s, and is continually fed by the viral cynicism of the blogosphere and immediate iconoclasm of chatrooms and internet fora.

So the challenge, it seems to me, is to find ways to tell and distribute new stories that help us, together, to move into new paradigms.  What is the story of a society which does not assume economic growth is essential?  What would it look like (here in the UK, in the rich world) if resources really were spread equally?  How do we draw the picture of a post-industrial world which does not rely on the re-enslavement of women to domestic drudgery?

Should we expect the state to fund this work?  Do we want the state to fund this work?  And, if so, can it genuinely move us somewhere new?  For what it’s worth, I suspect we do want some continued collective support to our cultural endeavours, and we do want our work to move towards excellence.  But, just as the old patterns of funding cannot remain the same, artists need to review their practice in the light of the need for change.

I would like to see the bargain redrawn, so that we are explicit is expecting our socially funded artists to help us move to new ways of seeing the world.  I don’t want more regurgitated stories of what is wrong with the present, or how we are all doomed.  Instead, let us have the thought-experiments, the dreams, the narratives of different futures.   I want our artists (not our economists) to be the harbingers, the creators of those narratives.  What’s more, I think it’s crucial for us all, and so it is right that we (the state, the collective society) should contribute to the costs.

Continuing subsidy then, but only for bona fide radicals.  Artists needed, to shovel snow.

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About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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