Pendant que les fonds publics
s’ecoulent en fêtes de fraternité, il sonne
une cloche de feu rose dans les nuages.
Last year I applied for a grant from the Arts Council of England. I was spurred by the need, shared by most writers, of financial support to be able to devote to our writing the time and concentration it deserves. My grant project was the novel I am currently writing.
In December, I received the letter telling me that I hadn’t succeeded. I hasten to clarify that it is not my intention here to question why the grant wasn’t given to me. We all know that literary grants and competitions are a lottery. There are a number of reasons why our projects may not be favoured. For instance, that they are not to the judges’ taste; that the judges have no knowledge of our career; that our vision of what literature is differs; of course, that the support is awarded to better projects, and so on.
I would be most foolish if I wrote an article to complain that a grant or award has been denied to me. I’ve never stooped so low, and I have no intention to start now.
Let’s remove then the personal element in this matter. That my project didn’t get the support doesn’t matter (I mean, it matters to me, but it’s of no relevance to you reading this). I want to focus instead on the reasons adduced in the decision letter, because I think they reflect the Arts Council’s concept or artistic creation, which, in turn, echoes the parameters of the society we live in, and that does deserve indeed a public discussion.
This is a rather complex matter. Institutions such as the Arts Council, who call themselves champions and promoters of culture, while they do fulfil their mission honourably in many cases—a merit that I will in no way deny—are simultaneously transforming the visible surface of that culture, contributing to the contempt, concealment and negation that prevail in our society of everything that lives beneath the surface: depth, precisely, and the complexity that sustains any genuine work of art.
I cannot say that I was surprised by the Arts Council’s decision regarding my project. I was expecting something like that from the moment I started filling in the application form, moving forward in patient exasperation. To explain what I mean, I will share with you some of the questions that anyone who applies now for this grant will face. One of the criteria (and the most worrying one) for granting support is what they call “public engagement”, which breaks down thus:
who your project is aimed at, how they [the audience] will experience and engage with it, and how you’re going to make sure your project reaches people. . . . When we look at your answers to these questions we will think about: how strong the case for public engagement with the activity is; if the target audiences for the activity are clearly identified; if the activity increases opportunities for people who don’t currently get involved in the arts and culture or are involved a little in arts and cultural activity; if the activity increases opportunities for people already engaged in arts activity; if plans to market the activity to audiences/participants are well defined, and are likely to achieve your aims; if there is no immediate opportunity to involve people (for example, research and development), whether there is potential for the public to get involved in the future; and where relevant, whether access and diversity have been considered effectively
This section is illustrative of the conceptual problems that doom the Arts Council’s good intentions to failure. The rest of the application form makes things even clearer. Artists and authors are asked which specific groups of audience they’re addressing, which includes whether the “activity” is aimed at an identified ethnic group; to disabled people or individuals or groups with a particular sexual orientation identity; whether it’s aimed at male, female or trans people.
The offensive continues: “How will people engage with your project and what experience do you want them to have?” They also wanted to know what, specifically, people would get from my project.
“Here we go again”, I told myself, as I read the outrageous questions, and perhaps I should have desisted then and there. But, on the one hand, the need of support was (and is) big. On the other, I was tempted to test the inflexibility, not to talk of the absurd, of such criteria—deeply mistaken when what is at stake is the evaluation of artistic creation. Patiently, I explained:
This is a straightforward literary project: writing a book. The audience will engage as readers. The experience of reading is intimate and not easily measurable. Literature nurtures our life over a long period of time, in ways that, luckily, cannot be quantified or assessed against a target.
What I hope is that my readers will find meaning in this novel, that it will touch them—emotionally, intellectually—and that it will stir their imagination, as well as encouraging some reflections about the nature of reality and our relationship with the world.
And sure enough, by the time I had written these words I knew already that it was the perfect answer to miss any opportunity to obtain the grant, but it seemed to me that honesty was of essence; that I ought to at least attempt to start a dialogue that wasn’t taking place; that it was important to make it clear that not because we apply for grants should it be assumed that artists and writers passively accept the criteria of the organisations that award them.
In the section referring to the marketing and promotion plans for the project, I responded that I had got in touch with three publishers, sending them a synopsis of the novel and an advance of the first chapters, and that if none of them was interested I’d keep on looking for others. I suggested that obtaining the grant might be helpful to make publishers or agents interested in the project. I mentioned book launches and readings once the book was published, working closely with the publisher in the promotion plan, and in-person and online venues that I knew I could count on.
But then I was asked to calculate how many people would benefit from my project. Just imagine! Finally, I had to say how would I assess its success.
Again, I tried to state clearly what should be obvious:
In terms of public engagement, it will start when the book is published. Since I
am applying for a grant that would give me the support I need to finish the first
draft of the novel in one year, public engagement would come after the project
is finished, through a series of readings/talks about the novel and book launch
The relationship between a book and its readers takes time, and I truly don’t
believe it can be quantified or adjusted to targets, but of course readings and
book launch events are good indicators of what the book is offering to its
What else could I say? There was certainly no way to embellish or artificially magnify my evident and straightforward intention of devoting my time and efforts to practice my trade, which is writing, and I felt very uncomfortable as I sensed that that was exactly what they were asking me to do.
When I received the decision letter, it informed me in a blanket paragraph that my application hadn’t succeeded, since it was comparatively weak in relation to others, and then it expounded the judges’ observations:
The applicants’ strong track record was noted. However the application would have been strengthened by more detail about the target audience and plans for reaching them, with or without a publisher on board.
I was also invited to apply again, as long as I rectified what, in the judges’ eyes, were the project’s flaws.
As I’ve already said, I wasn’t surprised, but at the same time I had this sensation of not understanding what it was that they didn’t understand, or what they expected from an author. I needed the support in order to write a book; not to promote it once it was finished (counting one’s chickens before hatched, as long as the book hasn’t been written); not for launching a marketing campaign; not for a plan to visit schools, “have online presence”, post videos in YouTube or what not. I needed, as so many authors in the world do, a kind of material support that would be translated into mental peace to, simply, be able to write.
Bestowing such support should be the main objective of any grant that is announced as having that end, and the Arts Council’s grants are promoted that way. Its judges and officers cannot be so disengaged from reality that they don’t know the obstacles that artists and authors already face at the best of times in a cultural milieu that is measured by numbers, marketing achievements and meritocracy in the obscenely competitive atmosphere of our vanity fair. They should know that what most creators most desperately need is mental space so that they can abstract themselves from all that noise during the process of creation; that there is no true work of art that can be created while you’re thinking of its promotion. Even having to explain this to them is grotesque.
Obviously, all artists want an audience for their work, and all of us authors want readers. We do what we can to publish our books, no doubt we want to publish them, and we strive to do so even when, given the rules of the publishing market, the odds are stacked against us. But all that comes afterwards. Creation itself does not admit such distractions. That is precisely why grants are necessary.
The Arts Council of England is a public, government-funded body whose ostensible objective is the promotion of the performing, visual and literary arts. That is to say, it administers public money, and has therefore the responsibility to do what it claims to do. And it cannot do what it claims to do if it doesn’t find out which are the foundations of artistic creation.
I understand they mean well, and that many of its officials, who award so much money to so many people every year, will probably be shocked if someone dares to tell them that they don’t know what they’re doing. But we all know that good intentions are not enough if they lack a solid foundation. I understand the difficulty of their task, the complexity in having to be accountable for concrete moneys and infrastructure while they’re engaged with the ungraspable nature of the arts. They may believe that, precisely because they manage public funds, they have to show results that are verifiable in terms of countable targets and aims, but this is a catastrophic misunderstanding of their public duty.
Promoting culture as widely as possible isn’t precisely the same as—to use a current reference—a vaccination programme. Quantitative issues do matter, but not at the expense of the qualitative. The duty of an institution with these aims is to help the public understand that art and literature transcend limits, rather than making them believe that they impose them; that art and literature are the shared fruits of a freedom born out of moments that are almost miraculous in their mystery and improbability—intellectual freedom; spiritual, if we believe in the spirit, existential in any case. A capacity to appreciate subtlety, a profound understanding of the process of creation, and a virtuous balance between practical and creative considerations are what is needed if you really want to support the arts.
Identifying the “target” reader? I don’t give a shit if my readers are men, women, gay, heterosexual, trans, black, white, blue or green. That they are human is enough to me. I cannot sit at my desk wondering how the book I am writing will be “useful” for this or that minority. My work is not utilitarian, because literature, by definition, isn’t either, and I find it alarming that a public body tells any artist or author that a creative project is deemed weak because it doesn’t prioritise its promotion or doesn’t fit an equivocal programme of what would seem to be social work. And it is alarming because all these righteous criteria do is to suffocate the very essence of art.
What must be universal is education and access to absolutely everybody—if they so wish—to artistic expression, but while it is laudable that artists and authors are willing to collaborate with institutions and media to achieve this end (and I believe most are), and many in fact work in the education sector, in what concerns the work itself, their job is no other than creation, and to do it in freedom is imperative.
The problem is deep; it has always been there, and it’s philosophical, rather than one of budget. Perhaps it has no solution, but as a society we ought to keep on wondering what the real value of the arts for human existence is.
A couple of years ago I was complaining, talking with some very dear friends who are also authors, saying that authors had never been so humiliated as we are now, in these delirious times ruled by the celebrity culture and unbridled mercantilism. One of them, Verónica Murguía, whose knowledge of history is profound, wisely reminded me that this isn’t true. We have always been humiliated, in innumerable ways. She asked me what I thought, for instance, of the ancient Persian habit of making the court’s poets stuff their mouth with gold coins, mentioned, among other sources, in Amin Maalouf’s beautiful novel Samarkand. Verónica was right; the different embodiments of power have always been on a war footing—an ambivalent, yet not for it less gory war—with art.
Perhaps what I now find so abhorrent is the sophistication of the lie; the fact that we say we have come a long way; that luckily artists and authors don’t depend on the court anymore; that now all over the world there are institutions such as the Arts Council that make of the support of the arts an objective and worthy social duty. No doubt many of them do, but as long as the officials in such institutions turn their back on the existential core of art’s nature, and endeavour to use the parameters, the language and the logic of the market and the purely quantitative estimation of human experience, they’ll end up becoming the courts of yesteryear.
I have idly wondered what would have been, for instance, Emily Brontë’s fate had she applied for an Arts Council grant to write Wuthering Heights: “I’m going to write a novel packed with physical and psychological violence, a ‘compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors’”(as described in a review for Graham’s Lady Magazine). “It will be brutal, incredibly dark, and many publishers will reject it. When I finally manage to publish it, don’t count on me for the promotion: I am very shy; rebellious, too, and frankly I prefer the moors and animals to humans. Turning my back on the world, in my beloved Yorkshire—that’s where I like to be, thank you very much.”
The temptation to imagine other grant applications by authors of great novels who would be rejected for disregarding the game rules is big; you may imagine others (though there may even be those who tell me that Brontë didn’t deserve the grant, writing as she was a novel that fit into the white Western canon). It may not be, though, such an idle pastime as it seems: it reveals to us that virtually none of the authors of the greatest novels in the history of literature would have met the Arts Council’s requirements, and that most would have found them offensive; it also underlines a reality which should be obvious for anyone who has literary interests: great literature isn’t written like this, thinking of “target readers”, of the amount of readers that the book will have, therefore integrating it “in the community” and serving all sorts of arbitrary categories of human groups, nor thinking of what will have to be done so that it has a great promotion. I don’t believe there is a single work of art, a single literary work of any merit, that has ever been created this way, and there never will be.
Those who draft the application forms for grants such as these don’t seem to have the faintest awareness of the silence and intimacy that literary creation, and reading, demand, nor of what is the nature of the true value—ungraspable but utterly powerful—of art for individuals and society.
As I’ve already said, the Arts Council of England has of course supported many worthy artists and projects; I don’t want to detract from their work, and I would furthermore be ungrateful, for many years ago, in 2003, they granted me a modest support to begin a project. The problem is that the incentives bestowed by this institution are, in my view, indiscriminate, ever more orientated towards the quantitative and populist parameters which constitute the antithesis of artistic creation.
I think that many of us authors ask ourselves, every time we apply for a grant, whether that’s the right way to sustain our work, for every single application is, one way or another, a negotiation with power. At the same time, we have precious little other options to find the space and silence which, as we’ve already seen, are so necessary for our work, and not many other options for our survival either.
These incentives matter, and ideally both authors and institutions would learn to navigate this negotiation’s often murky waters with equanimity, balance, and a profound awareness of what is at stake. That institutions such as the Arts Council of England abdicate that balance and that awareness in order to adhere more and more to the inane and coarse vision of art that pervades our society is a serious issue. It means the increase of support and, therefore, of visibility, to tailor-made projects, at the expense of those works created with creative freedom as their sustenance. Little by little, like rain eroding rocks, such automatization, levelling and taming of art become the ruling vision, leaving society orphaned of a benefit that should be inalienable.
Perhaps there is no solution; perhaps this path has always been, will always be like this, made of infinite obstacles and chasms, from the threat of having to stuff your mouth with coins almost to choking point, to the farce of pretending that you can plan the number of readers that your book will have.
In any case, though the decision letter I received for my project invites me to apply for the grant again, once I’ve amended my faults, I’m not going to do it. I won’t do it because I have no interest in making up the answers the judges want to hear; because I’m not willing to contribute to such a misunderstanding; because I believe that we, artists and authors, have not only the right, but the obligation to make anyone who call themselves champions and promoters of culture understand that complying with arbitrary rules just to obtain some coins, golden or otherwise, is not part of our job. If looking for publishers, collaborating with them in their promotion plans, organising book launches and public readings of your work is not enough, what kind of carnival are we being coerced to join? It is my belief that, of carnivals, we have enough, and I have no interest to add my voice to the racket. More than a doubtful second chance, what matters to me is to find a public space to discuss this issue, and to shout from the roof tops that the task of those organisations that support and promote art and literature is not—to paraphrase William Blake regarding Sir Joshua Reynolds—to depress art.
Adriana Díaz-Enciso es poeta, narradora y traductora. Ha publicado las novelas La sed, Puente del cielo, Odio y Ciudad doliente de Dios, inspirada en los Poemas proféticos de William Blake; los libros de relatos Cuentos de fantasmas y otras mentiras y Con tu corazón y otros cuentos, y seis libros de poesía. Su más reciente publicación, Flint (una elegía y diario de sueños, escrita en inglés) puede encontrarse aquí.
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