“Dreamt I was arriving at a dinner with a family where the husband had arranged to have the wife killed. She knew it and had chosen to accept it. I was the only other person at the table who knew. But if I let on, I’d die too. Plus, the man had an empire of van rentals and I’d been told I could have one for the Edinburgh Festival really cheap. I woke up before I’d decided what to do. But it wasn’t looking good for the wife. I feel so bad knowing that the offer of a cheap van could weaken me to that point”.
Welcome to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This is a unique performing arts festival. Nowhere in the world is there such an enormous range of work performed in one city in a few weeks. And nowhere is there such an open festival: if you can find a space, anyone can perform here at the Fringe. In this way, it’s a democratic festival. And yet like all democracies, it’s incredibly hard work – enormously costly to be here, to find a space to perform in and live in and to promote your performance.
And so I’m sure the young writer is not alone in dreaming about the dilemma of a choice between murder or a van. And in your waking hours I’m sure you’ve faced – not maybe not the possibility of murder – but some pretty sharp practice to make sure that the show goes on.
Because that’s the curious paradox about being an artist, particularly one who decides to do something as reckless and rewarding as bringing a show to the Fringe Festival. At the same time, to be a good artist you have to be the person who walks in to a space with integrity and tells the truth. That’s what marks you out from the audience and why they’re sitting over there and you’re standing up there: you are the most truthful person in that room.
And how do you get to be there? Chances are by being a liar, a vagabond and a thief. Now, maybe as you get to be a bigger name, you can subcontract out the shadier aspects of the job. Liar? That’s what my publicist does for me. Vagabond? That’s what my agent’s there for. Thief? What else does a producer do?
But certainly at the beginning of your career you’re going to have to be – to use a well worn but suitably Edinburgh based metaphor – DR Jekyll (I’m the one who tells the truth) and MR Hyde (yes, damn it, kill your wife if it means that I get that deal on the van).
It’s a schizophrenic existence. If you allow any of the hucksterism, fakery and swindling to seep in to what happens on the stage then your work as an artist is compromised and so then why frankly bother doing the thing at all? But if you allow any of the honesty and integrity from the stage to enter in to real life then chances are you’re not getting that van, that venue, that audience.
The performing artist, I’d like to suggest, has got to slice their personality as neatly as they can right down the middle, just like a Bertolt Becht heroine. In Brecht’s play Shen Te, The Good Person of Szechuan, was only able to do good in the world because she was also able to disguise herself as Shui Ta who collected the debts owed to her and saw off her rivals I business. And Anna 1 was only able to survive in the world (and send her family in Louisiana the money to build a new home) because her sister Anna 2 inverted the seven deadly sins and insisted that each of them were necessary virtues for survival in the modern world. Although Brecht didn’t set out to write a survival guide for performers at the Fringe Festival, I’d suggest that you could do a lot worse than read The Good Person of Szechuan and The Seven Deadly Sins and use them as your inspiration for how to conduct your affairs.
Because there’s little doubt that the Mr Hyde – the dark killer – aspect of our natures are going to have to be working even harder in the years to come if the shows are going to carry on going on.
Let’s say it again – because still it somehow doesn’t seem quite real in our bubble of existence – capitalism has experienced its biggest economic crisis since the 1930s depression, a depression which brought us genocidal dictatorships and world war. Our world, in ways that we can’t yet understand, is totally different from the one we were living in six or seven years ago. The paradigm has shifted and new ways of living and behaving are going to be needed if we’re going to make our way forward. There’s no possibility of pressing a restart button and going back to – when exactly? What about 2005? When it was all really lovely and that nice New Labour were in power and the economy seemed to doing splendidly and the arts were really, you know, valued. That’s a false memory of course and we’re not going back there. Any party that gets in to power in Westminster at the next election will be committed to the ideology (and plain wrong mathematics) of austerity. So we’re going to be making our art in increasingly tough times for at least a decade or more. We’re going to have to be complicit in more metaphorical wife murdering if we’re going to get the metaphorical van for our show.
But let’s look on this as a good thing. Didn’t the arts become safe and well behaved during the New Labour years? I think they did. I think they weren’t telling the truth – the dirty, dangerous, hilarious, upsetting, disruptive, noisy, beautiful truth – as often as often as they should have done. Why? Because most artists are decent, liberal, if only everyone were nicer to each other and let’s heal it with a hug sort of folk and so voted New Labour. And when New Labour came in to power there was much Gallagher brother greeting and talk of ‘creative industries’ and after a while for a few years a modest but real terms increase in government funding for the arts. And we artists were so grateful for that relatively modest bit of attention and money that we changed substantially what and who we were as artists.
Suddenly, we were talking about working in the creative industries, about the parts that the arts could play in urban renewal, about business plans and strategic thinking, about sponsorship relationships with the corporate sector that would allow us to fund educational work with our developing audiences, about the role that the arts could play in social inclusion.
What were you doing Mummy in the decade before the world hit the biggest economic crisis in almost a century?
Well, darling, I was learning not to talk and think like a grungy, angry artist but think and act more like New Labour cultural commissars and their friends in the banking sector.
Mummy, would they be the ones who got us in to the whole mess that I’m going to be dealing with for my whole life time?
Well, now you put it like that darling, yes I suppose they rather were.
And you spent a decade trying to be more like them, Mummy?
Well yes I rather did.
And wasn’t that a rather stupid thing to do?
Well, not at the time, darling, no; because you see I thought it would get me some funding and then I could build a career path for myself in the creative industries.
And did that work out for you Mummy?
Shut up and go a nick a can of beans for your tea.
In short, I think the arts sector as a whole went astray during the last couple of decades. Just as the Titanic was heading towards the iceberg, we were attending seminars and workshops, learning how to facilitate more effective refrigeration in our sector of the cultural industry when we could have been looking through the telescope and plotting an entirely different course. The bankers and the politicians weren’t looking ahead to spot the approaching iceberg. But neither were we: we were entertaining the same bankers and politicians at our latest gala, corporate sector friendly, socially inclusive performance evening.
As we were heading towards systemic collapse, the arts sector were teaching themselves to think and talk and act the language of the problem and not the solution.
Of course none of us were blessed with supernatural foresight – although there were plenty of signs that the economy that we were living in in the last decade of the old millennium and the first decade of the new was an unsustainable bubble. But let’s not regret what we did wrong then. But let’s look at where we are now. A moment in time when the political vocabulary is bereft of any other ideas than the barren path of austerity, with no major attempt to change the way the banking system or housing market or any other part of the system which proved itself to be so at fault. Politicians and a large part of the electorate are still playing that ‘bit of local difficulty, hang on for a couple more years then we can get back to 2005 again’ game.
Which is why the artists are needed more now than ever before. You’re the ones who have the freedom if you choose to use it to think of new possibilities, crazy ideas, bold, idealistic, irrational, counter-intuitive, disruptive, naughty, angry words and deeds. Because these are the only things that can adequately respond to such a huge meltdown in capitalism and the only way that we might find a way forward in to a different future.
Now is the time to ask the impossible questions and try out the wildest answers. What really is the value of love, of friendship, of work, of sex, of education, of gender, of ownership? Question them, destroy them, rebuild them. What is the value of money? And is capitalism as both practice and ideology the best way to live? The least worst way to live? The terrible but only thing we can come up with way to live? Something that we need to dismantle and start all over again to save ourselves and our planet?
Questions, questions. No easy answers. But we have to think that big if we’re going to catch up after the lost years of cosying up to bankers and politicians.
So thank god we’ve got a government in Westminster that we can properly hate and whole-heartedly attack. Because anger and hatred are some of the best fuel for the artist – strong enough fuel to maybe take us all the way in to imagining totally different ways of living our lives.
I said the freedom to think the impossible but of course the freedom to choose what to think is a difficult place to get to and often an economically costly one. The challenges before us all – particularly new, young artists from who we so desperately need our new ideas and new ways forward – are massive.
For a start there’s the real possibility that in the next decade we may see the end of all public investment in the arts – maybe not in Scotland if it goes its own way – but in the rest of the UK. I feel it’s worth saying this. There are lots of people I work with in the arts who won’t even think that thought ‘the possible end of all public investment in the arts’, as though if you don’t allow yourself to think it then that somehow makes it less likely to happen. But I feel we need to say it if we are going to come up with a full blooded concerted defense of public money for the arts.
But also I think we need to have a Plan B. What if the public funding of the arts, which has earned itself an unassailable position in some other countries, was a passing moment in British life? After all, it didn’t even begin until the 1940s, had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s and has been eroded and shrinking since the 1980s. Historically, that’s a very short period of time. Business as usual would be the arts operating entirely within the marketplace with patrons and sponsors. Can you in any way see yourself making your work and speaking to an audience in that context? Or is that so abhorrent to you that you will enter in to a massive fight for public investment in the arts over the next few years? And if you are going to enter in to that fight – what are you really saying art is for to your community?
Because I think the message in the last couple of decades has been very mixed, in many ways downright confusing: we are a place that offers luxury, go on spoil yourself evenings where in new buildings paid for by a national lottery (a voluntary regressive tax) you can mingle with our wealthy donors and sponsors from the corporate sector and treat yourself to that extra glass of champagne but we are also a place that cares deeply about social justice and exclusion as the wonderful work of our outreach and education teams show. So we’re the best friends of the super-rich and the most disadvantaged at the same time? That’s a confusing message and the public has been smelling a rat. If the arts are for something, who are they for? And what are they doing for them? Does the Westminster government’s attack on the very poorest in our society amount to a class war? Might an artist have to choose what side she is on? In a society which has reached such a wipe gap between the rich and the poor as ours – as wide a gap as almost a century ago – then the artist can’t I suggest be for everyone and if we don’t do something pretty brave then we will be by default for the super-rich.
So it’s at least worth thinking: ‘no public money’. Would that mean all of the performing arts becoming safer and duller? Would I be able to choose to ask the impossible questions without public investment? Or maybe even would I be more able to ask the impossible questions without it? Maybe the artist free of any relationship with any public funding body is freest of all? If I didn’t have to fill in forms, tick boxes, prove how good, nice, worthy me and my project are to a well meaning gatekeeper maybe I’d make something better – more truthful, more radical? Anything and everything is worth thinking about and questioning.
But I would suggest that if anyone tells you to think and act more like the business sector, laugh at them and tell them that we tried that and it didn’t work and it meant us colluding with a system in collapse. And if you meet young artists here who use the words ‘this industry’ or ‘my career path’ or ‘ working on our policy document so that it fulfils all the criteria for the next funding round’ smile at them with sympathy for they are speaking a language that became redundant some five years ago.
Because the truth is that you are already fantastic entrepreneurs but you just find that word for what you is a bit naff and rightly so. Who wants to be like some wanker off Dragon’s Den? You’re much better than those tossers who line up and try to get themselves a mentor for their business plan. You have raised, begged, borrowed, stolen the money to get your work here, you are pounding the streets day and night with your flyers in your hand talking your audience one at a time to come and see your show, you are sharing overcrowded vans and flats and working out how to build the most incredible teams to get your shows on. And you do all this using your own ways of doing things, using your own vocabulary. You don’t need to be more like those in the corporate sector. They need to be more like you: your inventiveness, your imagination, your ability to co-operate, to promote yourselves, to genuinely engage with the people who come to see your show.
You are artists. You are making art. You have your own language. You have your own unique way of doing things. You are making your own rules. You don’t want to put yourself in front of a panel of people who’ve been successful in this ‘industry’, who will turn their chair around if they like the sound of your voice, who will mentor you to do things in the same way that they did them. Do you want to be like the X Factorrunner up who speaks in today’s Guardian about his delight at being invited to perform at the Walmart shareholder’s convention? Delighted to sing cover versions for a bunch of arseholes who profit from scandalously low paid workers on zero hours contracts? Do you want to be doing your stand up routine at next year’s Wonga.com debt collector of the year awards ceremony? Sure, it might pay a few bills but it will another step deeper in to the shit when you could be finding a way that all of us might get out of it.
Don’t look for mentors, I would suggest, who are decades older than you. People like me – ignore us. Don’t look for business models from last year. Make it up as you go along. Do everything as if for the first time. As one of the most beautiful men who Scotland ever produced once sang: ‘Rip it up and start again’.
Because the audience here isn’t going to pay money to see you seeking a consensus, avoiding conflict, making do with the way things are right now, being nice and obedient, ticking the boxes that someone else has defined for you. The audience are paying money to see you be new, a freak, challenging, disruptive, naughty, angry, irresponsibly playful – whatever form telling the truth takes in your act. But always telling the truth.
So in a dream you’re sitting there knowing a man will kill his wife but you don’t want to stop him because then he won’t cut you a deal on your van for the Fringe Festival. What are the possible solutions? Yes, collude in the wife’s murder is an option and get your van. Stop the murder and lose the van and so carry your set by foot all the way to Edinburgh is another. That’s surely the most morally correct thing to do and like most morally correct things it’s incredibly hard to do. But if year after year you stop the murders and carry your sets for hundreds of miles you will have a free conscience and maybe that will allow you to make the best art. Or maybe all those hundreds of miles of set carrying will knacker you so much that you’ll produce terrible art. Are there any other solutions? I suppose become rich enough yourself that you own the van company or socialize van ownership so that we all own the van and share its use equally. Or carry a gun at all times and shoot the man before he can murder his wife and then steal the van and ask the wife to join you for an adventurous few weeks in Edinburgh. Many possibilities, many choices. But you’re artists – and the wonderful thing about being an artist is that any of those choices and many many more are choices that you can make. You’re our dreamers, our explorers of new possibilities and we’ve never needed you more than we do today.
Have a great festival.