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Sheep, Art, and Money
Contributor: Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

A writer has been given a grant of £2,000 by Northern Arts (United Kingdom) to use sheep to create random 'poems'. Each of the animals has a word from a poem written on their backs and as they wander about, the words take a new 'poetic form' each time they come to rest.

According to the 'poet' (the person, not the sheep): 'I decided to explore randomness and some of the principles of quantum mechanics, through poetry, using the medium of sheep'. A spokesman for Northern Arts called the scheme 'an exciting fusion of poetry and quantum physics'. As far as I am aware the sheep have not as yet been asked to comment.

Baa baa fact sheet
There are two distinct issues relating to this story. The first is how a person using the medium of language in an unexpected setting, is attempting to express, stimulate, and enlighten others about the nature of randomness and uncertainty. Whether this is original, effective, powerful, enriching, or is of any interest, are questions surrounding the nature and critique of this 'art'. The second issue relates to the politics of art and how public money is spent in supporting art projects. Both issues are inextricably connected as the 'sheep poems' have been supported by a grant provided by public funds.

Your money, my money
In common with many countries, part of the tax revenue the UK Government raises goes towards supporting the arts. Like all taxes that are taken from the shared public purse in a democratic country, this money should be spent carefully, and I argue in the case of arts funding, should benefit the many.

What is art?
Definitions of the term art are often problematic. 'High Art' for instance presumes greater importance and status in the culture of art institutions and art critics. The definition of art that follows seems to me inclusive and of most worth.

Art: the product/s of human creative activity which often hold special significance.

The art of the few
Only a small proportion of the general public actively participate in, or go to make up the audience that views 'high art'. The term 'high art' here covers: the visual arts; music; drama; dance; and literature. I have omitted certain creative fields like film and multimedia as there often remains a reticence on the part of art institutions and art critics to recognise these as 'art forms' despite the obvious justification for their inclusion.

The arts establishment
In the last hundred years an industry has developed in promoting the mythical status of artist as someone whose perceptions, comments, observations, and expressions of the world are of interest and value to society. The recognition that artists enrich our lives is in part the reason governments have set up institutions to administer the public funding of the arts. Governments in less tolerant or totalitarian societies have also established arts funding to further their own political agenda, and the many and important issues this raises will form the basis of a separate article.

One of the results of the establishment of arts institutions in the West, is that arts administrators exert a powerful influence on the way creativity is supported and develops. Art that is funded by governmental arts institutions is largely chosen as a result of the likes, dislikes, and cultural assumptions of a particular group of individuals who are generally from a certain class and background. These art administrators are variously called: Executives; Board Members; Officers; Administrators; Arts Professionals: and Artists. All institutions attempt to employ staff that support and perpetuate the attitudes and principles of the institutional hierarchy.

Art project funding: an honest explanation
My experience of the arts establishment in England is one of frustration and concern. In my conversations with senior staff, it has become very clear that the focus of arts funding, and the mindset of those in the employment of the arts establishment in England, is primarily to support a certain kind of contemporary art and artist, and to view 'popular art', and art which seeks to encourage the general public to participate in large numbers, as of less worth and as an unlikely candidate for their support.

The artist that is supported by arts bodies are generally highly motivated individuals who are skilled in preparing a project proposal that will confirm the criteria set by the arts body. That is not to say the criteria, principles or rhetoric of the arts body will be adhered to. It is the artist who must convince the arts administrator of the worth of their project, usually before any formal proposal of the project is admitted.

So long as the artist's project confirms the agenda of the administrator, and the artist is socially acceptable to the administrator, the project will likely be funded. If the administrator takes a dislike to the artist, the project will most likely fail at the starting blocks. It may be a surprise for many to learn that arts funding is not forthcoming as a result of an effective written funding application. Arts funding applications are far more confirmations of previously agreed conversations.

Simply put, while there is reasonable and convincing rhetoric about the openness of arts funding in England, in practice it is closed and prejudiced. The arts establishment in England discourages the general public from becoming equal partners in developing a genuinely inclusive cultural environment through the type of art projects it does or does not support.

A critique of the sheep
Lastly I will turn to the art of sheep. The 'poems on sheep' is a problematic project to support with public funds for several reasons. The project was bound to be derided by the media and the general public, and the high profile of the project inevitably affirmed the public's negative associations about contemporary art and artists.

Poems on sheep is one, simple, idea. Very little intellectual effort or practical skills would have been necessary to bring the work to life. A few well chosen words and phrases. A field of sheep. A willing farmer. A spray gun. I have little doubt the public intuitively recognised this.

£2,000 is equivalent to a couple of months wages in many people's pocket. The message that went out to the public through the support of this project and others like it, is that art and artists get a large financial return for very little effort. Art becomes of little relevance or interest to the general public, and the resulting disconnection of art is of profound importance. Art and creativity should be at the centre of people's daily experiences as art observes, comments upon, and expresses people's experiences and criticisms of society.

Poems on sheep may bring a smile to a few middle class intellectuals, but is unlikely to be appreciated with the same spirit as one reads a Japanese haiku poem. The cultural setting and placement is absurd and misconceived. People passing the field will not ponder, place, or meditate upon the language that is presented to them because of the confused cultural context. It is not appropriate for public money to be spent satisfying the intellectual elite.

Art in future
The Internet has provided a new opportunity to challenge the prejudice and narrow mindedness of existing art institutions. My dream is that AbleStable® continues its' aim of enabling equal access to a forum that presents creative works, and encourages the creative kernel we all posses.

Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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