You want culture? Don't show 'em the money

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2012, 12:00am


A new culture bureau must have a vision of cultural development, foster the growth of the arts, safeguard creative freedom and never function as a propaganda organ. This is the consensus of a panel of experts who took part in an exchange over the proposed cultural bureau for the Post's chief executive debate series.

SCMP, May 7

And the sun should always shine, and the birds should always sing, and peace and harmony should reign forever over the affairs of mankind.

Agreed, and now here is the question. Do you really think that the bureaucrats who rule in the Home Affairs Department ever wanted anything else for the vast cultural affairs empire over which they preside?

What we have in the proposed culture bureau is the naive idea of a man who won (or rather, whose opponent lost) top political office without ever having to dirty his hands at the coal face of public policy work. His political career has hitherto consisted of calling order for the Executive Council, a secretive rubber stamp committee preserved from colonial times. Before that, he was an estate agent. Experience isn't his long suit.

The difficulty is not what we would like to see (let the sun shine, let the birds sing... ) but how we are to achieve this happy state of affairs. Generations of civil servants have worked themselves into steaming frustration in the task. Whatever they do, however good their intentions, it all just turns, every time, into fractious dispute and squabble.

It is inevitable, in my view. Take, for instance, the opinion of one of our panel's five men (the culcha business generally frowns on women), who said that government's job should be to provide the money and then let arts and culture practitioners get on with it. Good, but which arts and cultural practitioners are to get the money?

The first thing you find when such questions come up is that the so-called 'cultural community' tends to be heavy on administrators, such as all of our five, none of whom I recognise as an acclaimed artist, musician or, my favourite term, 'creator' (move aside, God. You have competition).

What then happens is the same as in every other field of human endeavour. Make an announcement, 'I've got money. Anyone want some?', and the immediate response from everyone around is, 'Me, me, me, give it to me', and suddenly you have demand for 100 times as much money as you have available.

Do it in the culture trade, and you find that the people standing closest to you are directors of arts institutions. They know best where to stand and how to shout when money is on offer. The real artists and musicians are on the fringes of the crowd, if they are there at all.

So, then, you bestow your largesse on a few of these people, not being able to satisfy everyone, and immediately the losers start sniping at the winners, whingeing about the selection process and complaining about you. Eventually you have enough of it and quit or are fired, and the whole process starts from the beginning again.

I defy anyone to define culture for me. Maybe we can agree on first millennium Chinese pottery, 18th century German music and 19th century French paintings, but even there you will find plenty of disagreement on what's good, bad or just plain fake.

And there you have the root of the difficulty. When you set up a culture bureau without first defining what you mean by culture, you will trip up the very first time you set your foot forward.

But you cannot define culture for the purpose of a public policy involving money. It is a thing that cannot be done, and we are just proving it to ourselves again with the West Kowloon arts hub. The only thing on which the 'cultural community' is agreed is the slogan, 'Gimme me more money'.

There is only one way. We give up force-feeding people with committee-defined notions of culture and let them decide themselves, paying ticket costs themselves for what they want to see, hear and respect.

It's sad that the most prominent culture venue we have at the moment is that big barn at the airport exhibition centre and that it takes the likes of Lady Make Me Gag to fill it.

But we have only ourselves to blame for this when we undermine and divert serious artistic expression with the ignorance and hubris of culture subsidies.