Tony Haynes, composer/creative director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.
“South Korean scientists have created an algorithm to determine whose work, out of 19 composers, was the most original.” (Arts Professional, January 14th 2021).
This is one of the scariest things, without doubt, that I’ve read in a long time: in the midst of all the horrors the world is having to endure right now, it still strikes a chill in the heart. AI: Artificial Intelligence or Artificial Imagination? The age-old conundrum of whether intelligence matters more than imagination or vice versa has certainly taken a sinister turn…
Then, equally scary, a couple of weeks later, an article appeared in the same journal carrying this headline: “DCMS announces economic model for deciding cultural funding”. It continued: “in a move years in the making, the DCMS has created economic guidelines for valuing culture it says will guide future funding decisions. Research based on the Treasury’s model of social cost benefit analysis aims to help appraise policies,..”
So, we can ask a machine to determine which is the best constructed, say, of Beethoven’s Symphonies or most ingenious of Bach’s fugues; the cleverest Broadway song; the most difficult classical Indian raga, the trickiest traditional West African drum rhythm or funkiest reggae bass-line; the John Coltrane solo that most clearly demonstrates his modal methods of improvisation… Then, by subjecting contemporary work of comparable quality to rigorous financial modelling, we could determine which projects are worth funding and which not.
Have we lost all sense of what art is, or what it is for?
Art and artists
In my 45 years as a professional creative artist, I have observed at first hand the gradual erosion of the value and importance that our country – or at least its leaders and ‘opinion-formers’ – attaches to the arts and the role of artists. Their voice is slowly being silenced, and culture scarcely registers on the political barometer.
We – my generation, my peers – have partly brought this on ourselves, failing to make the case, in effect, of ‘art for art’s sake’; instead, we cravenly accepted other reasons for why the arts matter. Few probably now remember the Arts Council’s Business Incentive Scheme in the Thatcher era, which aimed to encourage arts organisations to pitch their work to companies, and use their business models to improve management. Then we boasted of the economic benefits of our ‘arts industry’; we have advanced arguments that the arts improve educational attainment, address social issues, help promote equality and well-being and so on. But we’ve never really made convincing claims on behalf of art itself.
Of course, it is hugely beneficial that art can contribute to society in this way – to some extent it is part of the point of having a thriving arts scene – but it’s not its primary purpose. It’s also generally overlooked (by Trusts and Foundations looking for niche causes as well as public bodies) that such interventions will only be effective if the art itself is of the highest quality – authentic, exciting, stimulating and inspiring; otherwise it is more akin to therapy, or at worst social engineering.
The Road to Recovery
This is the fourth – and I hope last! – in a sequence of Posts related to our experience during the pandemic, and what might follow. They suggest ways not of ‘returning to normality’ (whatever that may mean), but reflecting critically on that experience, and using this unique opportunity to learn from it, make a fresh start and develop sustainable models for the future.
The first, Post 75, sang the virtues of improvisation – in life, not just in art! – in providing flexibility, adaptability and an imaginative response to Covid-19, and the effectiveness of independent artist-led companies in this respect. Post 76, ‘Staying Ahead of the Game’, outlined some of the strategies the Grand Union has been using to continue to deliver work with its loyal constituent communities, and examined the shortcomings of big cultural institutions in responding to the pandemic. The third, Post 77, ‘Artists Show the Way’, began to examine how the roles of artists need to be differentiated, and how their work can provide a far more radical, imaginative and effective solution to perennial questions of cultural diversity and equality, given the opportunity.
For this Post, I have cheekily filched the title of the Arts Council of England’s latest 10-year Plan, Let’s Create. In some ways, it seems to signal a return to their policy in the period which fostered a significant growth in ‘community arts’ – the late 1970s to early 1990s – when artists of my generation learnt their trade, and were deeply and permanently influenced by such movements. This was also a time when the Arts Council positively encouraged the development of artist-led groups, created subsidised touring circuits to reach more diverse audiences and so on. You could say it’s now in our DNA: companies like the Grand Union have never ceased producing participatory projects with community involvement as an essential part of their artistic practice, and are also well placed to share to advantage with a younger generation of emerging artists the skills they developed.
I might equally have asked at the end of my introduction “have we lost all sense of what artists are, or what they do?”
There is a bewildering plethora of descriptors related to the world of art and culture these days. It’s not just jobs like ‘composer’, ‘writer’, ‘director’ etc or the generic ‘artist’, but ‘arts practitioner’, ‘creative producer’, ‘cultural leader’ and the generic ‘creative’, who work in ‘the cultural sector’, ‘creative industries’, or as ‘arts professionals’. We seem to regard all these as interchangeable – often for soundbite or media convenience – but they are not at all the same thing. ‘Creative industries’, for example, describes perfectly what goes on at Old Street roundabout, but not at the nearby Barbican Centre.
We do ourselves no favours by this lazy approach, especially when the arts are so crucial at this turning point in our recovery from the depredations of the virus. I accept that the world has changed out of all recognition since the 1980s, and I embrace new technologies with enthusiasm and, I hope, imagination. And I’m certainly not suggesting one role in the current ‘cultural ecology’ is more important or prestigious than another: they are all complementary, and indeed the crucial thing is that they all mesh effectively. That can only happen if we understand and represent them clearly.
There are fascinating reasons why, and in whose interest, these roles have become so blurred – and too many to go into here. There is one however that I think is dangerously overlooked or misunderstood – the ‘creative artist’. Creative artists have a part to play that transcends their particular discipline. Not all writers, composers, painters, choreographers fit the bill: they may have imagination and a mastery of their craft, but don’t necessarily have that drive and ambition to communicate a vision of the world and how it might be a better place. This may also require crossing disciplines, and hence negotiating serious artistic collaborations and unusual partnerships.
Throughout this series of Posts, I have consistently argued that the key to cultural recovery lies not with big mainstream cultural institutions, but with smaller, independent, artist-led companies.
The hierarchical model is fine for orchestras, opera houses, theatre companies and so on, since a strong (and traditional, conventional) management structure is important to executing their core business; but they are nonetheless dependent on creative artists if they are to produce anything new, different or radical (including effective outreach, education or community projects).
Now consider this in reverse: a company that exists to produce new, different and radical work has to develop an administrative structure that suits the artists themselves, and facilitates what they wish to create. This will certainly not be hierarchical, with standard jobs advertised and filled by interview; it will be nearer the collective model, with musicians, actors, writers, directors, designers, technicians and digital specialists all contributing creatively to the project in hand. Moreover, tasks are often swapped or shared.
This is the classic artist-led company, and its virtues are obvious, especially at the present time. It is highly cost-effective with most members freelance self-employed; its roots are often in a local community or country-wide diaspora (Chinese, South Asian, African, East European, Caribbean etc); many of their artists themselves share the religion, language or customs of these communities, and can thus form a strong rapport with them, which is simply not possible for institutions.
They will therefore also create work that reflects and responds to the rapidly changing demographic of Britain today; and above all, they are best-placed to lead, inspire and bring together audiences and participants of any age, class, location or cultural background.
Let’s create, in short, a strategy for change and recovery based on two powerful, progressive alliances: first, between the younger generation of artists with their energy and fresh ideas and the older generation with their finely-honed skills and wealth of experience; and secondly, between the artist-led companies with their independence and unfettered imagination and the institutions or cultural organisations who have the infrastructure, relationships and resources to promote and benefit from true creative collaborations.
Finally, some music
Obviously, no single piece can validate musically the points I make in the Post. This Blog abounds in examples, but if I had to choose one, it would be this, 20 minutes of highlights from perhaps the Grand Union’s finest and most recent large-scale participatory show, Undream’d Shores at the Hackney Empire Theatre:
And going back to the very beginning of the Orchestra’s career, here is an excerpt from our début CD The Song of Many Tongues (a complete description of the piece and its genesis can be found in Post 67):
I can’t imagine what the South Korean scientists might make of this music, but I hope fervently that our political masters can begin to value art seriously in emotional currency rather than pounds, shillings and pence.
The image at the head of this Post is one of many created during a Grand Union event for the first Family Arts Festival, The Isle is Full of Noises at the Hackney Empire Theatre in 2013, typical of the Company’s community participation work for over 30 years.
Tony Agree with it all Thanks for putting the time into articulating… Important that the new artists learn about our experiences in alternative and democratic arts structures as integral to getting to the crux of what ‘culture is as opposed to an arts industry…
Keith A Preston M 0418 839 264E email@example.com