On Monday, Arts Council England published its new strategy for the coming decade. Judging by the consultation document and the media coverage so far, it’s an important (and welcome) attempt at change. But I haven’t read it yet, because I’ve other things to do right now and – well, it’s going to be around for a long time. I’d rather read and think about it carefully, then I might write something here. This post is not a response to the strategy but to something that’s being said about it, in the press and online:
Arts Council England has said it will start referring to “creative practitioners” because people feel uncomfortable with the term “artist”The Times, 28 January 2020
This was picked up by the Daily Mail, which merely repeated the Times report in more outraged tones. Some artists are now taking to the barricades to defend their ‘self-identification’. I’ve been told that the strategy doesn’t even use the words ‘art’ or ‘artist’. It reminds me of community artists I met in the 1980s, who argued that the word ‘art’ would put people off. I thought they were wrong then, and I still do. Taking control of our relationship with art and culture means engaging with the language and concepts through which power is exercised. The art world often uses both to serve its own interests and that needs to be challenged, not ignored.
So it would be foolish or worse if Arts Council England had published a strategy that avoided the word art. But it hasn’t. It took me a couple of minutes (thanks to digital technology) to search the document: ‘artists’ are mentioned 27 times on 17 pages. The term ‘creative practitioner’ appears 17 times on 11 pages. Arts Council England has had responsibility for museums and library development since 2011, so it must speak about curators, technicians, administrators and librarians as well as artists. I’ve never much liked the term practitioner, except where doctors are concerned, but I’m old fashioned and I know that language changes. Creative practitioner is perfectly good way of describing many of the people on whose work the cultural sector relies – and who are not artists.
But even that isn’t the point. This strategy is three days old, and is already being reduced to a fruitless argument about a false story. There are many important questions of substance to consider, debate and very possibly to argue over in Arts Council England’s strategy, decisions and operations. But that is not helped by the indoor fireworks of a Twitter spat, fuelled by articles in a paper that has never liked contemporary art or its support from public funds. If we dig in to the entrenched positions prepared for us by those who do not have our interests at heart, what can we expect?