Democratisation of the Arts

Democratisation of the Arts

Hello Dear Blog Readers, Actors, Acting Students or Occasional Passers-By.

I am feeling much better today, so thank you very much for your messages of the ‘get well soon’ variety. I’m now in Dublin still feeling a bit under the weather, but sat in the lovely ‘green’ room at Rua Red in Tallaght. I’ve had an idea buzzing around my brain all morning. It wouldn’t leave me alone in the shower and I think I need to let it out. Much of this relates to the UK system where we have a Church and State divide (at the moment) between university education and conservatory training.

I was thinking about Performance, Video, Sound and other art forms that clearly derived from a university education. Malcolm Gladwell in his latest fascinating book Outliers talks about the notion of 10,000 hours. That is that it takes 10,000 hours to develop significant mastery of a skill. The difference between conservatory violin students was not talent (they had talent enough to enter the conservatory). Instead, it was which of them put in the hours. It’s not a coincidence that Sanford Meisner used to say it would take an actor 20 years to be a master actor.

Anyway, thinking about all of this stuff made me think of the origins of Performance, and its university progenitor ‘Performance Studies’. It could only be conceived as part of a university education, because only in university do people need to democratise art. In order to make enough money by putting enough bums on seats you need to remove two requirements, 1) talent – which is an innate ability to be good at something or learn it faster than your competitors and 2) 10,000 hours practice.  University does not require either of these. It requires good grades and a willingness to prostrate oneself to letters after someone’s name. And I say this after many years as university lecturer, with plenty of letters of my own.

If you’re willing to submit yourself to academia, you may enter devoid of talent and the 10,000 hours – you need something to do for 3 or 4 years. Knowing that they couldn’t offer the students (talented or not) the 10,000 hours of the appropriate instruction, they needed to offer them something to do between student social events. The answer was to democratise the arts. They transformed anything they could into something that anyone could ‘have a go at’. Whilst convincing themselves that 2 lectures and a seminar per week was a liberal arts education and worth the tax payer’s money.

  • Acting became “Performance” or “Performance Art”
  • Music became “Sound and Sonic Art”
  • Film Making became “Video Arts”
  • Painting became Tracy Emin’s Unmade Bed

Universities then spent time convincing enough students that this was not only a good thing to do, but that it was also worthy of their investment of time and energy. As they graduated, they took it with them and made this subversive, edgy, sub genre that’s fed by arts councils everywhere. Who runs the arts councils? Well, it’s not the conservatory musicians! They’re too busy being good at what they do. It’s our old friends, the university graduates, devoid of meaningful pastime, real skills or 10,000 hours of practice. They’ve got to make a living somehow.

The final element is money. Training artists is expensive. The democratised version is cheap, literally anyone can get involved, have a go and feel like a proper ‘artist’. But it’s fake, no, it’s a fraud. It’s a fraud that they are ‘taught’ these lowest common denominator versions of the arts, and it’s fraud that it has been legitimised by the ‘establishment’. Legitimacy occurs twice. Once when it’s paid for by the tax payer when they are in university (and it is STILL funded by the tax payer – no matter how much tuition fees you pay, we still have to pay out too). Then AGAIN by the tax payer when they subsidise it through the arts council, or your local council (or if you’re particularly lucky both at once, making the insult count THREE times).

Have good people come from these democritised courses? Of course. I’m not saying they haven’t. I’m saying, that this mutant spawn of art isn’t necessarily a good thing, and possibly favours mediocrity over excellence.

 

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