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.
I’m writing this Post in South Australia on January 6th 2023 –Twelfth Night. I’ve always felt that Twelfth Night is the most significant of the special days that make up the festive season which includes Christmas and similar celebrations in so many religious faiths. It often presages a short carnival period, so ‘twelve drummers drumming’ (promised in the traditional song) would surely be a welcome gift in any culture wanting to create a forward-looking end-of-season party groove! And not for nothing did Shakespeare subtitle his play Twelfth Night ‘What You Will’: its plot revolves around a dizzying array of assumed identities and love triangles, cross-gender attraction and sexual ambiguity…
Artists and social responsibility
These of course are all grist to the mill of any present-day creative artist, but but it set me thinking: what issues might the Grand Union be wise to espouse during 2023 to retain a presence and standing on the cultural scene, particularly when it comes to funding, support and commissions? Here are twelve current phrases we are likely to hear a lot more of this year (they could even be sung to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas!):
with a view to bringing about ‘lasting transformative change’.
Now I fully acknowledge the wisdom of all these as guiding principles, and completely approve the outcomes they are intended to produce. In fact I and the Grand Union have adopted them (or their equivalents) as tenets and absorbed them into our artistic practice for 40 years, like many other serious creative artists and independent arts organisations. Indeed, as in many aspects of the development of cultural or educational policy since the 1980s, it could be argued that we and our peers pioneered these principles, and our example and advocacy has led them to become more widely adopted.
However, they are not in themselves the primary purpose of an arts company, nor could they be. Our job is to create the imaginative, responsive, inspirational art that can answer these needs and demands; if that art is inferior or less than compelling, it will not be able to deliver the benefits their proponents seek and desire: it cannot be fabricated to order. At best it is akin to therapy, at worst social engineering.
Take ‘social prescribing’, for example. To follow the metaphor literally: it is a doctor who has to diagnose the illness and prescribe treatment for a patient. That treatment may not necessarily be clinical, but provided also by a non-clinical agency. The output of most arts companies includes opportunities to participate in, and contribute to, creative projects or practical workshops. Our job is to make those providing care aware of what is available, and how it may prove efficacious; it is not to create ‘medication’ on spec, like a pharmaceutical company (or legendary snake-oil salesmen), identify those who might benefit and prescribe it ourselves!
A change of balance in arts funding
I should like to make it clear that I am not at all disparaging these ideas – indeed, I should like to see them more effectively realised! A healthy society needs this kind of guidance, much as it also needs well-informed political debate. It should therefore be funded fairly, independently and through appropriate channels; not by diverting money from what are already severely restricted arts budgets.
In effect, these principles are in danger of becoming the sole criteria on which grant applications are judged and decided – by public bodies like the Arts Council and local authorities, and private Trusts and Foundations – rather than assessing their intrinsic artistic quality and originality. Moreover, artists themselves – working on the front line or at the coal-face all their lives! – are rarely consulted for their advice and insight. It’s really disappointing that managers, policy-makers, ‘cultural leaders’ and boards are reluctant to tap into this priceless resource of professional ‘lived experience’.
In reality, such prescriptive funding rarely works. For example, to be eligible for grant aid, for 25 years now ACE has encouraged NPOs (formerly RFOs) to be ‘black-led’ (ie with a majority of formerly BAME board members); yet still in the 2020s complaints of racism and inequality of opportunity are rife in cultural institutions, while their repertoire and performers (and audiences!) remain largely white.
As a general consequence, over the last few decades we have seen art and creative artists – who, as I say, have tackled many of these issues very successfully – gradually sidelined and starved of funding. Without it they cannot develop their work and contribute to the social causes to which they are – rightly – also seen as valued contributors. As long as funders (particularly the independent charities) focus on their favoured causes rather than art and the artists themselves they expect to support them, the declared goal of bringing about lasting transformative change will never be achieved.
Some practical examples
I have argued this case from various perspectives in earlier Posts, notably in the last one 83: Breaking the Spell and a series of three lockdown-related articles:
However, by far the most compelling argument is the work itself achieved by creative artists and independent artist-led companies, when it is not only first-rate, imaginative original art in its own right, but also illustrates the ‘twelve principles’ in action.
The Grand Union Orchestra did not specifically seek to do this during its 40th Anniversary Year in 2022, but what happened was precisely that: a programme celebrating every aspect of our work, showing how social, educational, welfare and community objectives can be met side by side with ambitious artistic objectives – and attract great audiences, reviews and feedback into the bargain. Here is a short, lively, unvarnished account of that programme:
And by the way, Shakespeare did not set out to create a play that portrayed and/or sought to ameliorate various aspects of the human condition. He did what every serious creative artist always does: seek compassionately to illuminate and celebrate humanity in all its foibles and failings, hopes and aspirations, joys and misfortunes; devise the most effective form to express it to move audiences; and allow them to draw their own conclusions, taking from the experience their own inspiration, empowerment and self-healing. We really need to articulate and reassert these fundamental artistic principles if our society is ever to recover from the damage inflicted on it by recent years.
Meanwhile, very best wishes to all for a calm, productive, radical and progressive New Year!