comedy is art 1: the problems of ideology

I think it’s time to put a proper argument together.

I’ve seen a few blogs in the last week or so that have taken positions against the ‘comedy is art’ campaign. The most notable have been from Andrew Watts and Harry Deansway; but there are a few other general anti-campaign comments flying around which probably need dealing with.

So I’m going to spend next few blogs discussing these points, first by addressing them and then expanding that into an argument for the campaign. (Strap in folks, it’s going to get debate-y…)

As far as I can tell, three arguments have been made from within the comedy world in opposition to the campaign:

1) that Arts Council funding would make comedians stop being funny because they would be looking for money not from audiences, but from the state – as claimed by Andrew and Harry;

2) that taking money from the state would mean compromising our freedom as comedic artists to say and joke about whatever we like (I’ll take this one on tomorrow);

3) that stand-up and sketch comedy aren’t really art at all, just entertainment; and we should proud to call ourselves entertainers without wanting to be artists as well (I’m saving that for Thursday).

So, let’s start today with Andrew and Harry. I’m glad Andrew weighed in on this, partly because both his blog and his act (which you can see at the next Scurvy Wednesdays on 18th November…) are genuinely brilliant; and partly because even though I know he puts himself on the ‘conservative’ side of that spurious nonsensical divide we call ‘political ideology’, when I read his blog I often think he’s on the good side of a far more important divide: namely the divide between good thinking/lazy-minded idiocy. (I don’t know Harry well enough to know what side of that divide he’s on, but I did once share a taxi with him and he seemed nice at the time; plus, Nick Helm seems to like him which is a good enough endorsement for me.)

Both Andrew and Harry acknowledge that comedy is, or can be, an ‘art’, but oppose the campaign on based on the economic/political consequences of comedy being given state funding. (Though it should be said that Andrew does make a beautifully incisive psychoanalytic point that wanting ‘official’ state validation of your art smacks of insecurity, which he may be right about. But then, nobody ever said comedians were emotionally secure people; and ultimately this is an ad hominem point which I’m sure he’d accept adds little to the practical side of the debate.)

Anyway, the claim they both make is essentially that state funding of stand-up and sketch comedy would be bad for the ‘comedy industry’ as a whole. Harry points out that the good comedy nights don’t need it but that state funding would lead to rubbish comedy, which I can only assume comes from a rather dogmatic belief that everything which receives public funds is inevitably worse than things which are privately funded. He doesn’t use the phrases ‘free-market’, ‘competition’, or ‘survival of the fittest’ but that’s what he’s basically referring to: in short, he argues that Arts Council funding would lead to a lazy, bloated comedy industry where enterprise isn’t rewarded. Andrew argues this too, but goes further and deeper, arguing also that the need for experts to decide who gets the funds means that the judgments of critics will end up being taken as a better measure of ‘value’ than whether something actually gets laughs; and that this will, in turn, lead to a widening of the gap between ‘art’ comedy (which would need to be funded based on criteria other than how funny it is) and ‘popular’ comedy (which might not be clever but does at least get laughs, and that, he quite rightly says, is the main thing).

In short, they’re both making a ‘free-markets good, state funding bad’ kind of argument which is based more, I think, on ideology than it is on practice.

To demonstrate, I’ve written two sentences below.

1: Governments ought to fund artistic projects that enrich people’s lives by making them feel and think better;

2: Governments ought to provide so much funding for a given field that a bloated and lazy industry emerges around it, thus destroying the value of projects that people would actually be prepared to pay for.

Only one of which (the first one, obviously) is being made by our campaign. The problem is that Andrew and Harry both seem to be saying, with varying degrees of sophistication, that making the first claim inevitably implies the second, and that the first therefore shouldn’t be made. This kind of assumed jump from one claim to another often happens when an ideology (in this case, the ideology of free-market capitalism) isn’t applied critically or pragmatically enough.

Now firstly, this ideological point is slightly irrelevant: even friendly ‘anarchists’ (and I use the term loosely) like me are on board with the campaign because we accept that in practical terms, we are currently living in a mixed economy where the state funds some things (In an anarchist utopia that wouldn’t happen of course, but we’re a long way from that yet; so I’m happy for the time being that we as a society we do fund certain things collectively, and when public funds are cut back it should be from the authoritarian, rather than the educational and artistic, side of the state first). Anyway, sometimes this state funding thing works out well and sometimes it doesn’t – but it has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the specifics of who’s running the thing and how well they do it. (Radio 4, for example, is a national treasure; the railways shouldn’t have been privatised as clumsily and hamfistedly as they were; but I’d rather sit in a cafe that was an independent business and thrives by being great rather than because it gets money from the government). Anyway, the point is that in such a mixed economy, state funding is not necessarily good or bad and applying free-market ideologies to it misses the point because we’re not concerned with economic ideology of state funding for the time being; we’re more concerned that if art is to be publicly funded at all, then we should be consistent about how we do it – if it’s going to fund art then it shouldn’t unreasonably discriminate against any particular artforms.

But even if we take the ideology as being relevant, it’s wrong: the fact is that it’s not inevitable that public funding for things of value ruins the industry around it. Andrew points out quite reasonably that Arts Council funding ruined poetry, but ignores that it makes a lot of artforms much more accessible to many people: on my salary, for example, I could never afford go to the opera unless it got some funding, or drop in at the National Gallery like I did last week. Public Libraries, too, could be called a successful result of a social consensus on the first claim, but you rarely hear people going, ‘oh, the Public Library industry is so lazy and bloated – if people really wanted books they’d be prepared to pay for them’ or say that their quality or value is diminished because of state funding. (Which is not to say that libraries are without their problems, as anyone who has read the good library blog will know. But you get the point.)

Equally, it would be hard to claim that the availability of free, communally-funded books for the last 100 years has damaged the bookselling trade; if anything it’s helped it – if books are more accessible then people read more books, and then they buy more books.

Nobody is saying all comedy should get government money any more than anybody is saying that just because libraries are good, we should turn all the bookshops into public libraries. We’re also not saying we’d want stand-up to get so much funding that, like libraries, people can just get it for free. That would be ridiculous.

But we are saying that good comedy is currently not as accessible and available to all as it could be. It’s hard to set up quality, affordable, sustainable comedy nights outside London (or even in London) without a huge initial outlay – both in money and in time – on marketing, booking quality acts, transporting them to the show, etc. Scurvy Wednesdays has been a moderate success because Tony, Loz and myself pumped in loads of our own money at the start to buy a PA, posters, book quality headline acts, going to gigs every other night looking for the absolute best new acts to basically exploit, asking a lot of them to work for nothing at our show so that we could break even. Not all promoters can do that, certainly not outside London, and the losers in the end are the public.

Andrew has one very good point: that there is a problem of who will make the choice of what to fund. But it’s not true that ‘critics’ would do it: firstly because that’s not how the Arts Council work any more (they’re in the middle of a drive at the moment to recruit a much broader range of ‘assessors’), and secondly because comedy simply couldn’t work like that. We would need, admittedly, a proper discussion about what is artistic about comedy, and on Thursday I’ll hopefully be going some way towards doing that. But nobody, either comedy acts or audiences, would accept that it should be allowed to become less funny.

However: there is, I think, a consensus that some comedy gets laughs but is not artistic at all. Comedy needs to get laughs but it’s not as simple a formula as big laughs=good comedy. Horrible, thoughtless, moronic comedy often gets big laughs too. (Little Britain, which was often the TV equivalent of a schoolboy pointing at a person with Downs Syndrome and calling them ‘spazz’ while all their friends roll around in fits) is a case in point. So I think our campaign would have to accept that both we and the Arts Council should think carefully to find criteria that ensured tired old pub gags with no sense of irony or creativity would qualify. (We wouldn’t want to find ourselves facing the same problem of public libraries which are full of Sophie Kinsella and Dan Brown novels because people want to read them. I don’t like to see my taxes going to Sophie Kinsella any more than you do).

But the fact that stand-up does have to be judged, at least in part, on whether it’s actually making people laugh, means that that would have to be part of the criteria (as well as the other things that the masters of the artform can accomplish, like making us cry or think or want to scream).

It may even be – and I’ll say it quietly – that incorporating comedy into its remit might be part of the kind of re-evaluation that the Arts Council is going to have to do in order to avoid the general widening of the gulf between ‘arty’ art and ‘popular’ art that Andrew analyses so well.

It’s easy to be pessimistic, but I think this is possible; moreover, I think it’s desirable. We’re not asking for comedy to become bloated or crippled or unfunny and the objections that claim this are based on a fairly cynical anti-statist ideology rather than hope and the promise of hard work. I think it’s possible, though – if we’re careful – for the state to provide positive support for projects of real value without such unintended consequences, and to provide, instead, the same help in being more accessible that is afforded to other artforms.

I’ll take on the next point, about whether Arts Council funding would mean giving up our freedom, tomorrow. Well done for getting this far…

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