I’ll do it when Dame Judi Dench does it. Song of Romania versus Arts Council England: A question of public engagement, relevance and diversity in theatre-making

Mihai Florea 
University of Bristol
10.18278/aia.5.1.3

Mihai Florea is professional actor and a part-time teacher/researcher in Theatre Studies at University of Bristol, UK, and recipient of a Duignan bursary for a PhD thesis titled Actor in a Second Language. He has presented academic papers at a number of universities in the UK, Finland, Germany and Lithuania. He is an Associate Member of the Brokering Intercultural Exchange group, a global network of academics and cultural managers, and a co-founder of Nu Nu, a theatre company that supports professional actors who use English as a second (non-native) language. He also established and coordinates CASL (Centre for Actors in a Second Language), an online research tool dedicated to the theme of second language acting. One of his articles, entitled ‘Egg-fying’ Hamlet: The Second Language Actor and Shakespeare Grammaticality” has appeared in April 2019, in Shakespeare Jahrbuch 155. The article entitled ‘BANDIT: Here to Haunt You! On Why I Became an Émigré Theatre Maker’ – was published in 2019 in Journal MIK – Art History and Criticism Reviews, published by the Faculty of Arts, Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania. The piece ‘Collaborating with a stick: Algernon Schtick Meets Nina Bambina’ will be published in 2020 in ‘The Oxford Artistic & Practice Based Research Platform.’ An article titled: ‘Un-bonsai-ing my bonsai: a plant-based adaptation of Oresteia’ is currently in preparation.

Introduction

Nu Nu Theatre was established in Bristol, UK in 2012 by two Romanian professional theatre-makers. Ileana Gherghina and I were both born in communist Romania and spent most of our youth in the much-detested and much-contested period of transition from a communist to a capitalist society. In 2008, we two theatre-makers decided to move to the UK for good. Here, we begun to timidly produce theatre work and as such, have several times applied (under Nu Nu Theatre’s banner) for funds from the Arts Council England (ACE). Such funds were expected to cover production costs, artists’ wages for specific periods of time, and unexpected production-related spending. ACE expects all projects submitted for funding to fulfil specific criteria. Most importantly, the applicant needs to convince the funder that the proposed work engages with, is relevant to, and includes at some point during development, creation, and presentation as many and as diverse members of the wider public as possible. Particular attention is given to participants coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and to people with very little prior engagement in/with the arts. In the words of an ACE representative, what is expected is that the funded project will engage its participants in life-changing experiences: “For example, a workshop has the potential to be life-changing for its six workshop participants” (Kapadia 2019). ACE’s candid ambition for life-changing experiences (in exchange for funding) in the short space of a few workshops (how many workshops can an artist conduct when, for instance, the funding for an entire small-scale theatre production is around £10,000, including artist fees?) is somewhat bewildering through its apparent mercantilism. On the other hand, the expectation that the funded artist will shake the participants’ conscience (even though they may not have had any prior contact with that art form) brings to mind Eugene Ionesco’s bitter exchange with the reputed theatre critic Kenneth Tynan:

I beseech you, Mr Tynan, to not attempt – with art or other means – to improve the fate of man. I am begging you! We’ve had enough civil wars up to now, and blood, and tears, and unfair trials, and “just” executioners, and “vile” martyrs, and dashed hopes and prisons. Do not seek to improve man’s fate, if you really wish him well. (Ionesco 1992:126)

It is by now probably evident that the funder’s expectations vis-à-vis public engagement/relevance and diversity have awoken in us, the artists of Nu Nu Theatre, feelings of suspicion and anxiety. There is – I argue – an unhealthy dose of prescriptivism behind the good intentions of the funder: detectable both in the mercantilist approach and in the misconstrued view that artists can somehow deliver mind-blowing experiences with the snap of the fingers. The particular expectations of the funder have haunted the way we have dreamed about, structured, and written about (on the application form) our future projects. The submission of an application for funding from ACE has influenced the way that we felt obliged to re-evaluate and question – in light of the funder’s expectations – the dream/idea behind our proposed project. This tedious process of re-editing and re-writing our ideas in order to get money often results in a sense of having lost sense of what had initially “moved” us to do that particular project. The overall sentiment is that the application process perfidiously takes charge of our imagination, displacing us as makers of the project. As such, we often prefer not to apply for ACE funding at all and resort to various other survival stratagems.

The purpose of this article is to thoroughly interrogate the source of our anxiety and suspiciousness vis-à-vis ACE’s public engagement, relevance, and diversity requirements. The aim is to determine if our anxiety is totally unfounded or if, on the contrary, it is a response to less detectable nuances in ACE’s funding philosophy. Inevitably, the discussion will have to visit graver questions, like what makes (or is) an artist? or what is (or can be) the role of an artist in society? In this context, the approach that I take might appear somewhat unexpected. I link the sentiment of anxiety vis-à-vis funding from ACE to the cultural propaganda that we, Nu Nu’s artists, were (often subliminally) exposed to during our communist and post-communist lives in Romania. Concomitantly, the working hypothesis is that the anxiety and suspiciousness felt versus ACE’s demands might indicate nothing more than an unresolved post-traumatic, post-communist fearfulness. Therefore, there is a danger that this article might be just a paranoid reaction triggered by a distant, traumatic, and unresolved past.

To begin with, it must be noted that all artistic and cultural activities in communist Romania were subject to state supervision, censure, and control by representatives of the Party. Consequently, all such activities were exposed to contamination from Party political dogma. In conditions of relentless surveillance, Romanian intellectuals and artists festered an acute suspiciousness towards any kind of institutional language or guidance/advice/order coming from above. Like a high-resolution scanning device, they directed a ray of cynical hypersensitivity towards anything emanating from the Communist Party and its numerous representatives: intellectuals and artists were on alert for inherently manipulative prescriptions emanating from the elusive above. Eugene Ionesco – in Present Past Past Present – aptly describes this kind of situation:

You can create a fleas’ circus. They will need to be trained, and the initial aim is that the fleas stop jumping. How to do that? The fleas are placed under a glass. They will try to jump, hit the glass wall, fall back. But from one point onwards, the fleas will stop jumping. The glass can now be lifted. And behold, the fleas are now advancing dizzily, alienated; they can now be pushed, blown over but they won’t jump anymore. (Ionesco 1993:160)

I dare say that Ionesco was wrong only in one way: whilst he perfectly describes the conditions and methods imposed/utilised by a(ny) totalitarian regime (seeking a political dressage of its citizens), he errs when describing the fleas as being reduced to catatonic, disabled, and dizzied entities. What Ionesco did not intuit was that many of the fleas trapped in the circus had metamorphosed into cynical beings, triggering their ultimate survival mechanism. With laser-sharp attention fixed on the dressage “master,” the fleas return to the catacombs of cynicism and suspicion in order to resist, expecting a very distant liberation. Such irony-laden, suspicious moods have continued to characterise intellectuals, artists, and normal citizens in Romania long after the fall of communism. Romanian citizens to this day display great mistrust towards political institutions (Parliament, national government, local government, and their representatives).

This deeply embedded cynicism has probably rubbed off on us too – the émigré artists of Nu Nu – and it has now become manifest in our attitude vis-à-vis ACE’s expectations from a funded artist. Such a particular state of mind (this time seen in relation to the wider question of Eastern and Western Europe united by the EU) is aptly described by poet and former dissident Ana Blandiana, in a speech given at the Babeș-Bolyai University, in Cluj, in 2016:

Those eyes that were trained for decades to sharpen their vision in darkness finally got accustomed to the light of freedom. It was observed though that those who had encountered the totalitarian dogma could not be convinced as easily as Western intellectuals to accept another type of dogmatism, no matter how noble its intentions were. At the end of the day, Communism was too the tragic materialisation of a beautiful utopia. (Blandiana 2016)

Therefore, this article is underpinned by a fear of manipulation inherited from a distant past: it consists of a keen, paranoid search for details that might identify state/political dogma or any intent to instrumentalise the artist’s expressive freedom, by seeking to subsume it to political and other kinds of agendas.

One additional question that characterises this article is: can the funded artist – faced with all the additional filters imposed by the funder (deadlines, diversity requirements, the extra chores of engaging with certain members of the community, etc.) – ever retain and act upon his/her artistic freedom? Evidently, the underlying preoccupation refers to the relevance and indeed the value of artistic freedom – the freedom to do whatever the fuck I dream about without you, the funder, holding me accountable in any way or demanding something in return for your money. Throughout the article, I define artistic freedom in a gradual fashion, adding extra nuances as the argument progresses. I start by quoting Felix Guattari’s concept of the “value of creation”:

Today, a technological innovation or a scientific equation will take its value from the register of exchange values if it can be found useful in the immediate process of production. But there are also values of aesthetic and scientific creation that do not have an immediate effect on exchange values and which, for this reason, actually deserve being funded. (Guattari 2015:31)

Artistic freedom is therefore an innovative mode of investigating life/existence, whose trajectory and effects cannot be fully quantifiable (or covered) in terms of political, social, or economic impact. At the same time, the value that artistic freedom produces cannot be immediately convertible through a measure of its potential usefulness to the wider society or to particular individuals. As such, it seems fair to imagine that one great concern for both the artist and the funder (for different reasons, evidently) is whether artistic freedom is a fundable thing.

In order to bring all these important questions under the purview of the paranoid critical eye, I attempt a comparative exercise between a famous cultural/artistic manifestation of the communist era, called Song of Romania (Cântarea României), and ACE’s public engagement, relevance, and diversity strategy. With regards to ACE, I am particularly interested in how the themes of public engagement, relevance, and diversity are outlined and “languaged” (Jacobsen 2018:18) in the application form and/or explanatory materials.

Song of Romania: Aesthetic Ratatouille

Song of Romania (Cântarea României) appeared as a result of the XI Congress of the Romanian Communist Party (Congresul al XI-lea al Partidului Comunist Român), organised in 1974, and launched the idea of “the creation of a multilaterally-developed socialist society and Romania’s advancement towards Communism” (Congress XI 1975:614). Song of Romania was imagined as a cultural and artistic event of great magnitude, delivered in the form of a large-scale (countrywide) festival, structured as a series of competitions run at local, regional, and national levels and comprising artistic manifestations of all genres. Song of Romania was a biannual event that lasted from 1976 to 1989, with seven editions in total. To give a sense of the size of the festival, it is sufficient to note that it grew exponentially from two million participants during its first edition to around five million participants in 1989.

The huge numbers fulfilled Nicolae Ceausescu’s vision:

The emergence of the new man presupposes the collaboration of activists, […] with the large masses of those who work, and on that basis, the creation of an ample popular movement in the domains of education and culture. Like in all sectors of material and spiritual life, the determinant role in the creation of the new culture belongs to the popular masses, to the unending, always innovative popular genius. (Ceausescu 1976:52)

The underlying aim of the Communist Party was to allow the masses into the process of artistic creation, which in turn would (supposedly) ensure an intensification and diversification of the cultural life of the country. Song of Romania would thus validate the Party’s strange theory: they believed in a national culture emerging from the masses and pitted against the bourgeois, “anti-revolutionary” artistic/intellectual elites. Arts and culture would now finally and fully “contribute to the education of the entire society, of the youth, in the spirit of endless labor for the growth of socialism in Romania” (Scînteia 1976:1). The Romanian Communist Party wanted to realise in practice the rather peculiar idea (which later on metamorphosed into an outright obsession) that working people cannot simply be neutral, silent beneficiaries and spectators of artistic acts or cultural activities. Quite the opposite, they need to take on the role of co-creators (if not sole originators) of the artistic/cultural act. The onus was put on them creating the much-praised communist “new man”: no longer ignoble, simple workers, but rather revolutionary creators of civilisation, art, and culture and architects of a long-awaited glorious era of equality, prosperity, and peace. Song of Romania unified – in a single platform – the regime’s keen interest to promote a new type of art and culture, with the phantasmagorical prototype of a “new, multilaterally-developed man” (the actual expression used by Communist Party authorities). The new man could by no means remain just a maker/producer of agricultural or industrial goods, but would become the artisan of a totally new artistic and cultural dawn. For that to happen, art (with its “bourgeois” elites of professionals) needed to be subsumed under the political discourse of progress.

The thinking behind Song of Romania encouraged most of all a quantitative expansion of the (so-called) cultural/artistic activity throughout the country, the focus being to involve ever-more working people in the act of artistic creation: people in the factories, in the fields, and on the farms were targeted. Song of Romania was preaching a type of art “inspired by the contemporary realities, by the history of our people, by the glorious past of our Party and of the working class” (Scînteia 1976:1). This could be achieved through an exponential, grandiloquent, and large-scale increase of popular participation in artistic performances and cultural manifestations. The masses – be they workers in factories or in the fields – had an obligation, as part of their job descriptions, to prepare various artistic “moments” for presentation in the Song of Romania festival. To that effect, everybody was (warmly or less so) encouraged to join the factory’s or village’s folk-dance group, amateur theatre group, etc. All participant industries, state institutions, factories, etc. would thus become involved in “promot[ing] a revolutionary and efficiently educative art” (Scînteia 1976:1). From the onset, the great festival was programmed to be eminently inclusive: the manifestation would reverberate – on its very wide performative canvas – in the much-claimed social unity of the entire Romanian people (who rallied behind the Party, of course). Diversity would be reaffirmed through celebratory kitsch and the false unity displayed during the gargantuan event: anybody and everybody regardless of ethnicity or social origin were included, except of course the “bourgeois” artistic elites.

Throughout the entire communist era and particularly at the time when Song of Romania was in existence, intellectuals and professional artists in particular were pressed by one grave concern. They feared that the festival – through its force-fed diversity and absurdly wide-reaching levels of participation and engagement – was mixing professional artists with amateurs and non-artists entering the stage straight from factories, shop floors, or the fields. In its politically motivated obsession with portraying the working man as the authentic creator of art, the state turned its full attention to amateur artists and non-artists to the detriment of professional artists. The professional’s role remained only that of safeguarding, nurturing, and supporting the yet-undiscovered genius of the working man: “Professional artistic institutions grant qualified support to amateur artists collaborating with them in order to increase the qualitative level of the performance” (Scînteia 1976:1).

The festival therefore functioned as an efficient instrument for depriving professional artists of their traditional status of innovators and creators of artistic work. Their aspirations, dreams, and creativity were deliberately diluted in the cacophonic soup of amateurisms and non-professional, semi-artistic, and proto-folkloric activities of Song of Romania. The professional artist’s message, expressed in a clearly articulated, skilful artistic discourse, was thus trivialised and lost. Professional artists saw Song of Romania as the regime’s perfidious way to deprive them of their basic identity, that of experts in a particular field of art. The Communist Party’s paternalistic, derogatory attitude towards professional artists is encapsulated in the words of painter Sabin Bălașa (himself an uneasy supporter of the regime’s thinking on art): “The artist’s personal happiness cannot be conceived but in the context of the happiness of the country’s entire community” (Bălașa 1975:4). How can that ever be true, when artistic freedom is not a question of happiness, but instead of investigating existence in all its peaks and pitfalls?

Professional artists suffered due to Song of Romania, lost as they were in a sea of pseudo-artistic activities. From an aesthetic point of view, the festival was indubitably kitsch on the grandest of scales. On the same stage there would appear, in succession, ballerinas, folk instrument players, military school students, artistic brigades from factories, folk dancers, mountain rangers, and Party activists, followed by choirs and poetry recitals. The festival was an aesthetic ratatouille. The audiences’ artistic taste was as such profoundly affected, given the illogical amalgam of genres, competencies, and talent on display. The expression Song of Romania was eventually adopted into arts circles’ parlance and used to denote the dubious artistic value of a particular artwork, show, film, etc. “This is like Song of Romania!” a vexed theatre critic would exclaim, condemning the aesthetic mishmash of a certain theatre performance. Song of Romania sought to put in practice what I argue to be the unfounded and dangerous idea that anyone can become an artist when and if the Party says so. At the time, subversively or less so, this way of thinking had been sanctioned by intellectuals and artists alike as dangerously utopian and as a political instrumentalisation of art.

3   Arts Council England: Public Engagement, Relevance, and Diversity

In this world and era, public engagement, relevance, and diversity are prerequisites to any successful application to ACE and its funding streams. The concept of diversity in the arts became popular during New Labour, after Tony Blair’s election in 1997. It was anticipated by the Macpherson report, which made seventy recommendations for eradicating institutional racism within the police. In the arts, the movement for diversity inspired the creation of bodies such as the UK film Council (2000) or Cultural Diversity Network (2000) that were intended to uphold diversity within television. As Clive Nwonka (2019) notes in The Guardian, “The vision was of arts and culture having a therapeutic effect on marginalized communities.”

The theme of public engagement and relevance is intertwined with the vision for diversity, as detailed in the Creative Case for Diversity, launched in 2011. ACE is focused on “engaging the arts and culture sector nationwide to reinforce the importance of diversity in art, arts leadership and audiences” (Unlimited 2016). Funded artists must therefore pay increased attention to ACE’s programme of radical inclusiveness and diversity so that their work reflects the incredible diversity of contemporary British society. That means that every cultural/artistic event funded by ACE should demonstrate its response to the diversities, histories, opportunities, and provocations of the specific local communities in which the funded project is produced and/or performed. Similarly, any cultural/artistic activity funded should be faithful to the principle of including minorities and socially marginalised people as participants and ideally as co-creators of the artistic project. ACE motivates its requirements for public engagement and diversity with the fact that the organisation is put in charge of public money. The British state (through successive governments) has assumed a discourse of greater inclusivity, diversity, and relevance of the arts and by way of consequence, all funded projects must submit to the aforementioned principles, as ACE’s Cate Canniffe eloquently explained:

ACE is a subcontractor for the government, so they simply need to respect certain procedures and require certain information to report it to the government. […] ACE has the duty to hold to account on diversity and inclusion, so they intervene to make sure this has been abided by. (Shishkova 2019:2)

Whilst the aims of diversity and public engagement are laudable, the language that articulates them may appear (to a paranoid interpreter such as myself) particularly utopian. The problem is that ACE’s targets of diversity and inclusivity belong to the realm of the theoretical discourse and not to the realm of praxis: these aims seem conceived not by artists/practitioners but by managers and administrators of money and language. In a certain sense, the language employed by the Romanian Communist Party with regards to arts does not differ very much – in its power to articulate politically motivated discourse – from that of ACE: a similar prescriptivism, a similar imposition of utopian outcomes upon the work of the artist, and a similar sense that the funder seeks to control and direct the artist’s work. There is a similarly militant tone employed vis-à-vis marginalised members of the community (communists were obsessed with workers); there is the inclination to pre-empt, to generously indicate directions, to formulate expected outcomes, and to preach to the artist about the role of art in society. ACE’s policies seem to originate from above (from the makers of theories about art) rather than from below (from the artists, from those who actually make art). For example, Lyn Gardner (writer and critic for The Guardian) speaks at length about the role that theatres should embrace in the new century. Tormented by this existential matter (akin to Kenneth Tynan, whom Ionesco implored to stop trying to right society’s ills through art) and exhilarated by the solutions she manages to find, Gardner enlists directives (ambitious and well-intentioned, just like those of the Romanian Communist Party). In her view, theatres will have “re-think and re-imagine their purpose in the twenty-first century” and consider “who they serve, but also around who they do not yet serve and how they can address that” (Gardner 2019:2-3). Why should art (theatre in this case) be put into the service of an ideal, no matter how noble that ideal might be? Why should theatre be programmed to serve a particular social purpose? Gardner warns that “the danger is that unless theatre embraces a wider civic role, it will simply come to be seen as increasingly out of touch and elitist” (Gardner 2019:3). But what if, on the contrary, theatre needs to become even more distanced from the reach of the masses in order to preserve its uniqueness with respect to other media and other arts in this unpredictable century? Why shouldn’t theatre be out of touch (perhaps even as a form of conservation and self-reinvention) and be allowed to control its own value of creation? Why should theatre move in tune with fashion? Gardner is concerned with what she calls the “civic role” of theatre:

How can theatres and other arts organisations fulfil a civic role, engage with their communities, and find different ways to be fully embedded in their locale? How can they start behaving less like monasteries and more like town squares, a place to which everyone has access, and everyone is welcome? (Gardner 2019:3)

But where is it written that theatre should be a place for everyone? Are the studies in high mathematics less relevant or less useful to wider society simply because they are accessible only to an elite of monk-like mathematicians? Should philosophical discussions be broadcast in the marketplace, as otherwise they might risk being seen as not fulfilling a civic role? Should everything be for everybody? Should everything be measured for its worth in terms of civic role? Where does the assumption that art belongs to or should be accessed by everybody come from?

Furthermore, the Creative Case for Diversity stresses the idea that diversity is a key factor in the “dynamic that drives art forward, that innovates it and brings it closer to and in a more authentic dialogue with contemporary society” (Mahamdallie 2012). ACE’s proposition is, I argue, problematic, since artistic activity, produced under the impulse of what I call artistic freedom, is always directly linked to the unpredictable investigations of the artist. These investigations (produced outside theoretical discourse about art) do not move forward or backward and most importantly, do not move as the funder would wish to: the investigative journeys simply exist, describing trajectories steeped in freedom. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari note, artistic creation points to “the constitution of an earth and a people that are lacking” (Deleuze et al. 1994:108). Art occupies itself with creating “a possibility of life” (Deleuze 1997:4) and should not therefore be primarily concerned with its civic, social, or political role. In other words, artistic acts contain possibilities of life, which go beyond the socioeconomic and political arrangements of the day. Perhaps that is why many totalitarian regimes (and other types) fear the arts and artists, as they are able to propose new possibilities of life, outside, different from, and better than the status quo. The secret ingredient to provoking such new possibilities is artistic freedom.

At this point, it is useful to further explicate the way I envisage artistic freedom. Artistic freedom is the sole generator of value of creation, which, as we have seen, stands outside the register of exchange values coordinated by the state (through ACE). In other words, artistic freedom is unrecognisable in the funder’s (or the state’s) utilitarian register of expectations (the expectation that theatre should be like a town square, for example). Artistic freedom can be explained like such: I make theatre because I want to, not because I am on a mission to save my neighbour or because I want to improve the social conditions around me. I sing because I sing. Art represents a qualitative jump outside life as we know it. It is a branching out into an alternative equation of existence, adding elements (types of people or kinds of life) that are currently lacking. It is precisely artistic freedom that the state and its funding intermediaries want to capture and use for their register of exchange values, putting it to work for their various agendas.

Bearing that in mind, how can ACE talk about art as moving forward? Has art ever remained behind the times? How can that be conceivable if, as seen, art deals only with possibilities of life? Has art ever gone backwards, when we know for sure that even in the darkest times, artists have pointed towards previously unhoped for, undreamed of worlds and types of people that are lacking? Art, therefore, cannot be seen as moving forward or backwards on a horizontal axis. Instead, it engenders new axes, puncturing the stratosphere of life as we know it, creating openings into worlds that until then had been lacking. These leaps into unexpected referential systems that offer new colour to our existence cannot be contained in a geometry of horizontal lines in which we measure either progress or regress (proportionally to how “civic” an artistic act is). Artistic freedom involves a lightning bolt, high-voltage electricity that punctures through the circumstances of the present. That leads us back to the question of art’s so-called “authentic dialogue with contemporary society.” Talking about art in these terms is completely erroneous – there can be no measure of authenticity fixed in art’s dialogue with the wider society. If one day a theatre-maker or actor decides to walk the streets of Bristol reciting lines from Christopher Marlowe, does that put him/her in a less authentic dialogue with contemporary society than another artist who writes a play about the financial strains of people in a particular Bristol community? Every artistic act generates a new axis oriented towards the “cosmos (or the future)” (Young et al. 2013:169). In practice (as opposed to talking about artistic practice), the idea of an authentic dialogue with contemporary society is out of the question: all dialogue (as long as it creates possibilities of life) is contemporary, authentic, and relevant, even if it speaks about people who died during the plague or about the feelings of amoebas. There is no measure of contemporaneity, authenticity, or relevance when art punctures the known/familiar to disclose alternative universes: all these values are intrinsic to the artistic practice and do not need to be displayed at the request of an external force (the funder, in this case). Anything that might limit artistic freedom keeps art on a horizontal axis. Later, I deal with the question of how art leaps from contemporary socio-political realities to overcoming them and creating relevance, authenticity, and contemporaneity on a different plane.

Similarly, diversity is a value that is imposed at the level of discourse (rather than enabled practically, as I exemplify later) on the artistic process. Here is one example of the type of language/discourse of diversity and inclusion circulated by arts organisations and charities in the UK:

A continuous drive for equality is imperative to remove barriers in the art world, releasing and realising potential and helping to transform the arts so that they truly reflect the reality of the diverse country that we have become but still do not fully recognise. (Unlimited 2016)

Doesn’t such militant, energising, and triumphalist languaging resemble the mobilising messages of the Communist Party in Romania, in the seventies? Isn’t this bureaucratic, slogan-saturated, wooden language (it was called wooden language in communist Romania) the coffin of imagination for any artist wanting to apply for funding? Or is it just my paranoid reading of an otherwise generous stance? Art possesses the inherent power (inscribed in the value of creation, energised by artistic freedom) – in its search for arranging chaos through “affects, percepts and blocs of sensations” (Young et al. 2013:169) – to do away with the barriers between people, races, and cultures by proposing a new way of life and types of people that are currently lacking. The moment that art is instructed from above about which types of possible (diverse) worlds are desirable, artistic freedom is arrested and lost. Similarly, art does not need to be transformed, as it engenders its own transformation and liberation: “Art consists of liberating the life that man has imprisoned. Man never ceases to imprison life, he does not cease to kill life. The artist is the one who liberates a life” (Deleuze 2007).

The confusion that the discourse of both Song of Romania and ACE propagates is the following: the barriers existent in art institutions have very little to do with art or with the artists themselves, but everything with to do with the complex bureaucracies, policies, policymaking, theorising, and languaging that oversee money, the management of institutions, and, most of all, the discourse about the role of art in society. All such, bureaucracies will always be tributary to various governments, councils, counsels, and so forth, and their agendas will never be primarily concerned with proposing an Earth and a type of people that are lacking. They will be eager to motivate their expenditures through assessments of impact and immediately measurable utility. That explains Ana Blandiana’s poetic, yet valid, point: “Had it been created by the poets our world would have looked radically different” (Blandiana 2016). Diversity must be created at a practical level, from the bottom up, by the artists themselves, and not imposed through a detached, rhetorical discourse on diversity. Diversity is a diversity of worlds and people who are lacking, not diversity on a piece of paper.

The artist cannot be made tributary to such bureaucracies and policies: artists are tributary to affirming their experience of moving like a lightning bolt through chaos, towards the liberation of a possible life. In this way, artists serve the community in all its diversity, from below, because their quest is oriented towards the liberation of new understandings about the prisons in which we (with our own diverse bureaucracies) consistently lock ourselves.

There is also (deliberate?) confusion between equal access/participation to the arts/culture infrastructure and equal access to the artistic act. Judi Dench cannot be asked to create her roles alongside amateurs or non-artists in a community centre somewhere in rural England: it is the non-artists (or amateurs) who need to be allowed entrance to the National or to the Old Vic to see Dench rehearsing/playing her roles. Amateurs/non-artists must be given access to all the necessary instruments and funding if they want to become a professional. I return to the question of techne (vocation, knowledge, and expertise in the arts-making process) in the fourth part of this article. I only note here that encouraging participation in and co-creation of the artistic art (which leads to mixing various degrees of expertise and professional with non-professional abilities, like the Song of Romania model) can never enhance the quality of the artistic act. On the contrary, it drags it into the ground, into the banal, overturning its real aim, which is that of lightning bolting through chaos on ever-new axes. The mixing of competencies and abilities under the banner of diversity and engagement denies the emergence of a “deterritorialized plane from chaos to the cosmos” (Young et al. 2013:169), trivialising it. As the artistic act is pushed into quantitative growth (engaging more people and co-authors of various competencies), the process always loses its sharpness and focus.

With this kind of language regarding diversity/public engagement in and through the arts, we are clearly in the territory of the instrumentalisation of art, expected to serve the state’s (neoliberal) theorisation of desired/imagined social and political outcomes. Art can of course help clarify or better frame matters that are often of a political or social nature, but it can never be asked to solve them. That is not art’s role or its power. As Deleuze and Guattari note, the job of art is to “deterritorialize the system of opinion that brought together dominant perceptions and affections within a natural, historical, and social milieu” (Deleuze et al. 1994:197). Art cannot be rendered captive – under the civic duty banner – to the dominant perceptions and affections (existent, unbalanced socio-political and economic conditions identified by ACE). Art’s role is to surpass discourses about art, by undergoing a qualitative jump (the search for the possible) onto always a different axis. Art could not transform Romania’s working classes into communist new men and art will not be able to save the disadvantaged and marginalised in the capitalist UK society from their plight.

Diversity must become not an optional extra but part of the fabric of our discussions and decisions. Let us banish forever the wrong notion that diversity in the arts is a problem. It is in fact a map to all our futures. (Unlimited 2016)

An artist’s work must be overshadowed by the requirement for diversity or relevance. That amounts to a politically driven imposition upon the artistic act, which should not be confused with the political character of the artistic act. Hannah Arendt identifies theatre as “the political art par excellence” (Arendt 1998:188). The distinction that I make is the following: the terrain from which the artistic act shoots off is evidently determined by economic and socio-political markers. Secondly, the effects of the artistic act (its echoes) attain, through subsequent interpretation, a political nature. However, the act itself (the lightning bolt) exists outside and beyond the political. A coin has two sides, but it cannot be said that the coin is the two sides. The source/terrain of an artistic act and its subsequent reverberations are political, but the core of the act (the artistic act itself) is not political. Undoubtedly, any artistic act draws its inspiration, energy of revolt, and references from concrete political or social circumstances, but these pass through the filter of artistic freedom, which produces a disruptive, unprogrammable amalgamation and deterritorialisation, an unhinging and reorientation towards unexpected, random axes. The effect of this process returns as an echo to the reality on the ground, as it were, and creates subsequent political reverberations and interpretations. Fuelled by artistic freedom, the artistic act is political in the way it opposes the political (or social, etc.) references that it used as launching pad to the possible life and people that appear thereafter. It may also be noted that to explore new, possible worlds is an act of criticism of the current world, and therefore a political act. Like Arendt, this argument appears to say that theatre’s core is political. I argue instead that at theatre’s core lies not the political, but the random algorithms with which artistic freedom deterritorialises the political to transfigure it onto a different axis (the effects of the appearance of this new axis can be interpreted as political). If theatre had a political core, it would cease to be theatre and would instead be politics.

For the communists, it was important to demonstrate – using art–- that their utopian social system was perfectly valid (thus justifying the violent way the political system had been imposed on Romania). For ACE (and ultimately the state for whom ACE acts as an intermediary), the idea of diversity is just part of a wider political discourse. As Clive Nwonka (2019) notes in his article The Arts were Supposed to Champion Diversity. What Went Wrong?, the diversity strategy “employs language to conceal the pathological inequality and exclusionary labour processes at the sector’s heart.” As such, Nwonka notes, all political meaning is extracted from the concept of diversity: it is neutralised by being turned into theoretical discourse. A purely social and political agenda for diversity would have to identify an issue with certain artists being systematically marginalised because of their race, ethnicity, social status, etc. This would render diversity a question of social justice as opposed to an issue of simply including marginalised artists into a particular creative sector, for specific projects. For instance, non-British actors (like Nu Nu’s actors) are not invited to the National Theatre London to audition alongside their native counterparts for all the roles available. Non-native actors are employed only for specific theatre projects that seek to make a point about diversity.

The state (at least its neoliberal side) is not – it seems – primarily interested in making access to the arts infrastructure and funding more equal for all artists. The big theatres, the big opera houses, and the big venues would not in a million years accept small independent troupes like Nu Nu in their performance spaces on an equal footing with their own “mainstream” productions. How many independent artists/troupes have been allowed to perform their shows at the National? How many free tickets has the Royal Opera House offered to people on benefits or to people from outside London? It is indeed the state (of which artistic institutions are a part) that needs to create free(r) access to vocational education for people from marginalised communities and to give those people free access to the highest quality art (free tickets to the National, to the Royal Opera, to the RSC, etc.). Why can’t the RSC come and perform for the poorest neighbourhoods in Bristol, free of charge? Why can’t everybody benefit from the best productions of this world-renowned theatre company? One probably will not see Benedict Cumberbatch or Placido Domingo performing for the residents of a retirement home in London.

Whilst talking about diversity, the state preserves the status quo: inequality of access and participation to – most importantly – the arts infrastructure (not the artistic act). Why, as an independent theatre company in Bristol, can’t Nu Nu perform one production per year in the Bristol Old Vic? That would provide us with the exposure to Old Vic’s already established audiences and the wider public would be able to see what we create. The strategy for diversity (both in the case of Song of Romania and of the Creative Case for Diversity/public engagement) – if it wasn’t just utopian – errs (?) by putting the cart before the horses and by (deliberately?) confusing what artists are expected to do and what governments and state institutions are expected to do. Society at large needs structural reform so that it can correctly incorporate its diversity. I argue that arts infrastructure and bureaucracy should become central to such reform. Unfortunately, that shift can never start from the artistic/creative act. Fair access should be given to all minorities and the marginalised (including artists) to mainstream venues, good schools, good theatre, great music, good healthcare, and fairly paid jobs. Artists should not be asked to engage with all sorts of disadvantaged communities, making projects that will remain implacably attached to the periphery in which they were created.

In the state’s vision for diversity, arts organisations should turn into social hubs (just like the Communist Party wanted them to become laboratories for the study of communist doctrine) and artists into social workers whose aim is to support communities and wider society in rekindling their local economies. The aim is – in theory, evidently – that the artistic act achieves a rebalancing of social inequalities and brings marginalised communities to the centre of artistic life. That is simply an impossible task for the artist (for the professional one, in any case) to see through. Angela Gheorghiu – when rehearsing her Tosca – cannot be asked to salvage disadvantaged communities. Her role, her voice, and her act point to possible new compositions of sound and affect. Her voice and her art are liberating in themselves. The soprano will sing for any audience, but that audience needs to be de-marginalised and enabled to reach Gheorghiu, and that must be the task of the state, not of the artist.

ACE has recently revealed that it will now decide which projects to fund based on how relevant those projects are to audiences. As such, it will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work to receive funds. Simon Mellor (ACE’s chief executive) says:

Relevance is becoming the new litmus test. It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value. Large parts of the communities have lost all confidence in what they view as an out-of-touch establishment. Is the Arts Council viewed as part of the establishment? If so, how can trust be rebuilt? (Masso 2019)

Certainly not by distorting artists’ instinct to reach for lives and people that are currently lacking, as Deleuze suggests. Evidently, arts and culture contain – in themselves – valuable seeds, directions, and propositions for balancing/alleviating inequalities and marginalisation, but to push art and the artist towards social work (in exchange for money) and into the neoliberal discourse of diversity is a grave reductionist exercise that favours only the petty calculations of funders, policymakers, the government, and the state.

4   The Artist’s Role

William Deresiewicz (2015) – in his article The Death of the Artist – And the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur – proposes an overview of how the artist has been perceived through the ages. Deresiewicz illustrates how the condition of the artist has shifted from genius to artisan/professional to artist-entrepreneur. Today, artists can no longer be seen as exceptional individuals who possess vision and inspiration – mysterious gifts received from above. In their present-day condition, artists are no longer solitary geniuses, or creators of cosmologies, magicians who tame and order the chaos to create – for the rest of us mortals – new imaginings of life. These magicians and prophets left us long ago: the sorcerer, possessor of a unique method (talent, gift, vocation?) for interpreting or experiencing the world/existence/chaos in the name of all the others has disappeared from today’s stage. According to Deresiewicz, artists are no longer masters, professionals, or artisans either: they are no longer seen as possessors of strenuously accumulated wisdom in a certain discipline of art. The artist of today is no longer associated with ideas of individualism, originality, selfishness, and reclusion. Instead, the artist of today is a creative entrepreneur.

The language employed by ACE and the traumatic memories of Song of Romania convinced me to propose a fourth option for the artist of the twenty-first century: that of social worker and political activist by proxy. That is how ACE (and the state) seem to envisage the role of the today. In that direction, Goran Tomka’s essay, Escaping the Imaginary of Engaged Arts, provides useful insights. Tomka uses the expression “activation of artists,” which is, in my view, an apt way of suggesting the instrumentalisation of artists. Tomka (is it a coincidence that he too comes from Eastern Europe?) poses what I believe to be a fundamental question: “What is the activation good for? What cause does it serve?” (Tomka 2019:2).

What ACE does – conditional upon the release of funds – is to ask artist-recipients to activate themselves and provide a social service (subordinated to a neoliberal political thinking) in exchange for money received. Tomka comes with a pertinent explanation for such a strategy of barter imposed by the funder:

At the foundation of it [activation] is the belief that communities are on their own.… To their aid, the arts should come. Arts organizations should turn into social hubs whose aim is to support communities and wider societies in rekindling their own local economies and finding patches to the broken health and education systems. (Tomka 2019:2)

In effect, ACE expects artists to make use of their skills and professional competencies/talents to support less advantaged or marginalised communities. What is the aim? Certainly not that of proposing a new way of life and types of people who are lacking, but that of reigniting local economies. What happens in practice? The artist co-opts in the creative process people without a techne or skill in a particular artistic domain (public engagement is key). As in the case of Song of Romania, the effect is a diminution and dilution of the skill, an unfortunate mixing of competencies, resulting in ratatouille-like, pseudo-artistic acts. Surgeons cannot lend their scalpels to amateurs to cut into the organ, can they? None of us would like to be flown by non-pilots. Why do we assume that art is not like heart surgery or like flying planes and that it can afford a mixing of competencies and levels of skill?

Artistry (whether we choose to call ourselves artist-entrepreneurs or artist-seers) implies the existence of an inclination (a set of personal qualities) coupled with the emergence and expansion of techne, of method and competency, or of a sort of professionalization, a red line for composing chaos through affect, sensations, and precepts. This consistency of techne produces palpable effects (which are not necessarily and immediately relevant to a particular local community) of the deterritorialisation and composition of chaos towards possible lives and possible people. Van Gogh never healed the ills of his local community, but his work remains, oh, so relevant! If Nu Nu were to consult members of a certain community during the staging of Hamlet, for instance, we might not be able to elicit interesting opinions about the text or the characters because the themes that Hamlet deals with might not appear immediately or directly relevant to that particular community. That does not render the staging of Hamlet or the text itself irrelevant. The relevance for that community may appear delayed or mysterious and does not need to be explicated in the utilitarian, urgent terms laid out by ACE. The economic effects might also appear delayed, but they nevertheless will appear. To want to know whom a particular theatre project will help here and now is another way of dismissing the value of creation and regimenting the artist in the register of exchange values controlled by the funder.

By asking me to put the problems of the community before my own concerns, obsessions, passions, and psychoses regarding Hamlet (be they as random and detached as possible), ACE asks me to help it deliver something akin to community and social work and ultimately politically motivated work. But that cannot be the primary role of the artist, because, as noted before:

Issues that produce social, economic, and moral deprivations cannot be solved by arts, creative industries, or whatever we come to call them next. They should and can be solved with meaningful social and economic measures. (Tomka 2019:3)

Tomka continues by pointing out that:

The best arts and culture can do is to mask social-economic inequalities by having people from diverse backgrounds participate in local cultural life. If we accept that game, we are not alleviating troubles but relieving responsibilities. (Tomka 2019:3)

In ACE’s public engagement/relevance requirements and Creative Case for Diversity, arts and culture are seen as a facile solution to deeply ingrained socioeconomic problems:

Arts are increasingly seen as a cleansing solution. Don’t worry about that bloody stain, that social divide, that urban deprivation – just throw a brand-new arts centre and your social fabric will be as good as new! (Tomka 2019:3)

An experiment on Hamlet can never be reduced to disenfranchised communities or marginalised people or to the lack of access to education or jobs. Entwining socioeconomic problems (which evidently points to a sort of political activism) of a given community with the moral dilemmas in Hamlet is diminishing the amplitude and the breath of the dramatic text. It is detrimental to turn a staging of Hamlet into a debate on social, economic, or political issues, as important as those issues might be. ACE demands that untrained people or non-artists become co-creators of artistic acts, in a similar way to how the Communist Party wanted to force the multilaterally developed new man out of the basic condition of creator of agricultural or industrial goods. Let’s remember the communists’ advice: “Professional artistic institutions grant qualified support to amateur artists collaborating with them in order to increase the qualitative level of the performance” (Scînteia 1976:1). The idea that artists can be anything you want them to be is utterly false. According to van Houte (2019:5), “not every artist is a social artist.” I argue that no artist is a social artist and whoever is a social artist is not fully an artist. The artist’s role is to shout, to suffer, to never be content, to tell unpalatable truths, to be the king’s fool. The artist cannot be a politician or a social worker, but someone who primarily points to possible life and possible people. No one should ask artists (in exchange for money or whatever else) to automatically engage with the wider public or to ensure diversity by all means in their work. In the same way, artists cannot and should not be required to engage with birds, ugliness, old age, blonde ladies, or the colour purple. The artistic act is the result of the artist living through and consuming a unique, individual experience, albeit emerging from within a given community and in a given political context, which overshoots into a possible, new world. The artistic act cannot be anticipated nor programmed towards any desired outcomes.

5   Conclusion

Isolation, solitude, madness, stubbornness, foolishness, and uselessness in concert with the day’s social or political priorities should be praised; the moving askew from so-called relevance measured against the immediate, concrete, and next-minute wishes and needs of a community should not be dismissed as unproductive. These are key to the artist’s ability to point towards imagined worlds, towards better, different, and not-yet-existing types of people and ways of life. Guattari’s value of creation (an effect of what I have defined as artistic freedom) differentiates – in a definitive way – arts from the social and political activities and theoretical discourse from praxis. Art must remain a bed for the flowing river of our inner lives, which are not made only of economic, social, and political needs. Art is also not a festival, nor a celebration. Art fulfils other, different functions: it contests, by opposing its possible life and possible people to current states of affairs. In order to achieve valid possible worlds, artists must be allowed to choose their own path. The aspect that both regimes (communist and capitalist/neoliberal) overlook is that art must necessarily puncture through the political, social, and economic givens. Art must not be put under the control of theoretical discourse, but be allowed to produce new discursivity as an effect of praxis.

I note that in similar fashion to Song of Romania, ACE’s petty (commercially motivated) dealings with artists appear rather primitive and short-sighted. I have read a number of official reports about the role of arts in British society. All those reports talked about the arts and creative industries in terms of contribution to GDP. The Office for National Statistics’ report for 2018 shows that “the arts and culture industry has grown £390 million in a year and now contributes £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy” (ACE 2019). That suggests that arts are regarded as primarily a moneymaking activity. No reports seem to be concerned with a new way of life or the new life and new people that artists propose. By pulling artistic praxis into a socio-political and economic type of discourse, art is forced to abandon its role of illuminating new possibilities. It might indeed bring more money to the state coffers, but to a great degree, it stops being art and functions just like any other industry.

Returning to Blandiana, who talks about poets not being allowed to become the makers of our world, I add that if artists were funded to freely dream about their projects and ideas, there would be a guaranteed increase in diversity and an abundance of relevance of their artistic acts: “Had it been created by the poets, our world would have looked radically different” (Blandiana 2016). ACE should give money to marginalised people to go and see the best opera, theatre, and music shows produced and performed by the best artists. That would materially change the lives of marginalised people and inspire them to become true artists themselves (those ones who truly possess an inclination). ACE should encourage the big arts institutions and educational/vocational establishments to open their doors generously (not just in the name of the box ticking) to less well-known artists (of great potential) from marginalised communities. ACE should pay both big venues and less well-known artists to take risks and fail. That would trigger a true diversification of the arts and automatically augment the relevance of arts for everybody.

To conclude, I note that it is possible that my paranoid eye masks the immigrant artist’s insufficient understanding of the philosophy behind the funder’s strategy. It may be possible that my feelings are the result of an improper, incomplete understanding of the more intricate ethical and historical/cultural implications and explications for the funder’s strategy. An example in that direction could be the UK’s class system and the way it has historically operated in the arts: a chronic lack of opportunity to engage with the arts that UK’s marginalised community members have experienced through the ages. Perhaps the ACE strategy – although eminently theoretical, as I have argued – is producing its desired effects. However, the BAFTA awards of 2020 did not illustrate that, as there were no black/BME artists nominated in any category. The latest report on diversity in the arts institutions in England shows the following: “a slight rise in the BME workforce (from 12% to 14%) … only 5% of staff at major museums are non-white … disabled workers across the national portfolio has risen from 4% to 5% (despite 20% of adults identified as having a work-limiting disability) … the female workforce in the national portfolio has fallen from 55% in 2015 to 50% in 2028” (Brown, 2019).

Perhaps ACE’s strategy needs more time … perhaps it will work … perhaps it’s just me and my inescapable paranoia.

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