Art for art’s sake?

I’ve had an interesting week of culture in the last week that really got me thinking about the value that we place on culture. Every thought I have makes me think of more values that society and individuals place on culture. For example, describing my week chronologically I could start by telling you about “The Pitmen Painters“. Every year a good friend of mine books my group of friends a set of tickets for one show in the theatre festival. She’s a friend of the festival so she gets a nice discount for us. She goes to loads of shows during the festival and really puts me, the Drama Graduate, to shame. I use my kids as an excuse for my lack of cultural get-up and go. Nice of me eh? This friend says she’ll happily spend all this money as the Theatre Festival is like her Electric Picnic. I can see the attraction and understand her analogy entirely. She’s happy to spend money on events she finds fulfilling, thought-provoking, social and very often exhilarating. And there is rarely much muck involved.

That’s the value she places on the culture she enjoys: the same value others place on a weekend at Electric Picnic.

There are many reviews of The Pitmen Painters online including on which reviews the production on the very same night that I saw it. I really enjoyed the show. I laughed out loud and was interested by the characters and their journeys. The play is written by Lee Hall who also wrote Billy Eliot, a play and then film which, like The Pitmen Painters, examines the nature of culture and questions whether appreciation of culture, whether being cultured, is innate or learned. The Pitmen Painters is based on the true story of a group of coal pit workers in a town called Ashington who undertake a course in painting and art appreciation. The play focuses on 6 characters from amongst the group, how not-a-professor Robert Lyon brought the group along a journey from art ignorance to feted artists in Britain between the wars. The play addresses the pre-conceived notions about what is art, a question that was common in many art forms at the time, not least of all theatre. One of the aspects of the play that I really enjoyed was its nod to theatre practitioners of the time with its Brechtian set & scene changes, but socially realistic via its costume and props then sliding into socialist didactism and educational lecture style presentation. It even took the form of a processional or pageant at one point. (I’m really dredging this up from the far reaches of my BA in Drama Study memories!)

All of these forms were used to great effect to remind us of the types of theatrical culture that these men might have been exposed to themselves. The culture that they were exposed to or not was of great importance to the story and the play’s themes. Using varied forms and breaking down the fourth wall of realist theatre could have forced the audience to think about their role in the creation of meaning, “What does it mean?” being the first question that the Pitmen asked of their not-a-Professor. What does the story of a group of uneducatated, often illiterate pitmen mean to us today who, even in the roughest and most poverty stricken lives in Western Europe, have a far greater quality of life, greater access to education and more safely guarded rights and freedom than anything of which the pitmen could have even dreamed? Does it mean that we should re-examine what we consider artistic, cultural now? Much of the play’s dramatic tension came from the fact that the value being placed on the art that they examined was far in excess of what they might hope to earn in 10 years never mind in one pay packet. One of the painters, Oliver Kilbourn, is offered patronage by a woman of independent means, Helen Sutherland, and eventually turns it down, despite conflicting advice, from his friends and his mentor, Lyon. He chooses to turn down the patronage, which is about 2 shillings extra a week than he earns down the mines, because it will create too much of a difference between him and his society. He was concerned about becoming one of Them as opposed to remaining one of Us. There were many other ideas and themes throughout the play that were just touched upon(the value of lives half-lived, the use of men, the place of women, class, war, modernism, the list goes on…) but I want to keep a focus on the value of art because the next event I went to got me thinking about it again.

(Edit the next morning: I also forgot to add that the irony was not lost on me that we had paid €32.00 each for our front and centre seats. Four weeks ago in a one income household I would not have dreamed of shelling that out on entertainment or even art!)

Creativity as a way of life was brought into sharp focus for me as a result of an event I attended on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately although I had a notebook I forgot to bring a pen so I couldn’t take notes so please either correct me in the comments below or get in touch if I go very much astray. As part of Darklight X I attended (as I indicated in a recent blog post on The Dublin Blog). I got myself along to 2019 AC: After Copyright which was basically a public interview of Anna Troberg (also on Twitter) by Jim Carroll. Anna Troberg is the Vice-Chair of The Pirate Party. I thought Carroll did a poor job interviewing her as he maintained no objectivity. At one point he referred to lawyers as pompous and while I do not have any particular grá for lawyers I also don’t have a grá for biased stereotypes. To be fair he did push her for an answer on the final question from a member of the audience about the recent revelation that a new member of the German Pirate Party had been removed from his previous political party for an alleged child pornography conviction.

But all this is neither here nor there in my current rant! While I admire the idealism of the Pirate Party I did not hear anything revolutionary in terms of how they are going to ensure a way of life for, among many others worldwide, my artistic and musical siblings. Those most at risk are, of course, those who produce work which is digitally reproducible. Once a work of art can be reproduced digitally, it can be reproduced infinitely and any product that can be infinitely produced at no cost reaches zero value. As physical infrastructure and display technologies improve, the quality of the  reproductions will be indistinguishable from the original, certainly to the untrained eye or ear. As society inches closer to this reproduction zen, digitised culture (music, film, writing) becomes, in economic terms, worthless. The Pirate Party wish to accelerate this process by revising copyright laws in Europe and by doing away with Digital Rights Management. I agreed with Troberg’s points on Saturday that the punishment for downloading copyrighted files must fit the crime. I agreed also that royalties should only be paid to living artists as directly as possible and no third parties should gain from art they have not created (meaning that the artists employ their record labels, not the other way around). I also agree that the times they are a-changing and that many will rail against these changes. But the railing is borne of fear and the fear is, I think, mostly a fear of the unknown and artists live with many more unknowns than the rest of us, even in these straitened times. The unknown is a workable alternative and I did not hear an alternative on Saturday. I did try to make my point on Saturday but I didn’t feel like I was getting a lot of support from my fellow audience members.*

Am I like Oliver Kilbourn, the aforementioned Pitmen Painter plucked by Lady Luck from amongst his peers, am I like him, so far and so long down a mineshaft that I cannot imagine this brave new world?  Will it not become the case that choosing a creative career path will revert to the privileged classes  (conceding that it ever really included anyone else)? And what if those privileged enough to create art or patronise it suddenly take up with another? Will the artist’s (he)art be broken? In the future how much amateur guff will we have to sift through to reach the gems? (There’s gold in them hills for creators of filtering & sorting software! And I use the word creator there deliberately.) Will those gems ever be seen or heard on this island when the economies of scale do not make it commercially viable to perform here when performance becomes the paypoint? And what about the monkeys who can’t or won’t perform? Or who won’t perform in a manner that appeals to the groundlings and the toffs? Is it off to the mines with them to live a benighted life listening to endless X-Factor phenomena surrounded by advertising aimed directly at the individual consumer thanks to the generous sharing of their Facebook profile? I’m all for the shock of the new but I’d prefer it to be a nice gentle surprise of the Oooh-that’s-clever flavour.

I think doing away with copyright or shortening it to a term shorter than the average life would have grave economic implications. It would open a whole can of worms about not only how we value art but also about how we value work and how we define it; about the meaning of creativity (is not a web developer a creative? Is not a parent creative?) It would raise questions about our motivations, our self respect and our worth. As society becomes more and more automated this question will loom larger and larger as more people have more time to spend on education, leisure and the arts. There was little mention of the role of education in tackling copyright infringement on Saturday which surprised me. I do wonder if I came from a country of nine and a quarter million who spent EUR 2.1 billion on the arts as opposed to a country of around four million who spent EUR75.7 million on the arts then I might also be more idealistic about the future careers of artists.

* I also pushed on to The Geek Lounge where many of the same questions were discussed: how do digital creatives extract payment when anyone with a digital camera is a media outlet? I got chatting to a real pragmatic graphic designer at the end of this session who said, “I’m just sick of working for free.” I asked her had she been to the Pirate Party session and she said, “No but I heard there was this wan in the audience who just went on and on.” I said, “Yes that was me.” It’s all about perception eh?

3 Replies to “Art for art’s sake?”

  1. Hey Abs,

    What do you think was interesting about it? Do you agree or disagree with anything? Where do you stand on copyright issue?


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