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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
Critical faculties
His Excellency Donald Hutera gets to grips with the McMaster Report. The result? Awesome, of course!
In every culture certain words enter the vocabulary of the masses and are rendered virtually meaningless through over-use. In my experience these easy-option, knee-jerk terms often tend to be encomiums. 'Brilliant,' I admit, is one that I've picked up since moving to the UK as a handy shorthand to convey the feeling or belief that something positively shines. Much worse, at least to the mind and ears of this ex-pat, is 'awesome.' To me the word signifies something that inspires jaws to drop and gobs to be smacked. Based on those criteria, there are precious few circumstances to which 'awesome' should rightly be attached. As a descriptor it's used far too much these days in Minnesota, that patch of the American breadbasket where I was born. The state trumpets itself as 'the land of ten thousand lakes' and its population features a substantial lineage of Nordic emigrants. Thus, if you were a Minnesota native bobbing about in a boat (or, depending on the season, happily holed up in a little shack hovering over a hole in the ice), you might be sorely tempted to turn to your fishing buddy at the appropriate moment and remark, 'That's an awesome fish you got there, Sven.' But, unless said fish was comparable to Moby Dick, my sincere hope is that you'd be able to resist the inclination.

As I've doubtless said before in this column, it's my business as a writer to try and weigh the value of words. 'Excellence' is one that's likely to have been on the lips of many of you of late. We'll all have to be a little more careful about how and when we (ab)use it in the wake of the McMaster Report. For anyone who's been visiting another planet in recent months, 'Supporting Excellence in the Arts' is the considered result of Sir Brian McMaster's investigations into what could be viewed as the state of our creative national health. Commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, it offers a blueprint of suggestions for developing this notion of excellence.

Perusing the report online, I couldn't help but jot down a number of questions or associations triggered by McMaster's words and ideas. The basic one is how damn hard it is to determine just what constitutes excellence in the first place. (Dance Southwest's Kate Castle does an excellent job of tackling that very issue elsewhere in this issue of Animated.) McMaster believes the concept is often tied to the twin poles of innovation and risk-taking. This reminds me of a comment made by a friend of mine who happens to be a choreographer (yes, it happens) living in Scotland (that happens, too) about a fellow critic there. The latter apparently wrote a five-star rave about a Belgian dance performance featuring a man and a woman who drank each other's wee and what's more, if my friend's reading of the review can be trusted, from source. My point? That one person's notion of an excellent/risk-taking/innovative experience might well be shocking/gross/dreadful to somebody else.

It might be worth noting here McMaster's suggestion that boards and funding bodies should 'act as guardians of artists' freedom of expression and provide the appropriate support to deal with what can be a hostile reaction to their work.' I wonder where that leaves the independent artists and emerging companies that have yet to form a board, let alone secure any funding. This, in turn, reminds me of a nice lunch I had a few years back with a member of Arts Council England's dance department. Over dessert I was asked if there was anything I thought the sector particularly needed. My response was something along the lines of, 'The less-established choreographers and companies need to feel that someone is interested in what they're doing, and to know that someone cares enough about what they do to simply show up and see their work.'

I've a few other observations to make re what should henceforth be dubbed The McMaster. A glossary at the end identifies an artist as 'someone who creates art.' Duh. I don't remember the definition of 'audiences,' nor if 'excellence' itself was defined. (A quick challenge: how do you, dear reader, define excellence?) And yet, as the report reports (because that's what reports do), funding decisions are 'based on professional judgments of what is and what is not excellent.' The McMaster offers its own reply to the question it posed to artists, 'How important to the creative process is feedback and evaluation of your work?' The McMaster believes that peer review ought to be beefed up.
Similarly, it recommends that every board contain at least two artists and/or practitioners. Other recommendations include one week's removal of all admission prices (to museums and galleries) for the punters and free (or discounted) tickets to performances for all aspiring practitioners. There's also mention of increased opportunities for sabbaticals and international travel for them what create art. This last sounds especially appealing, conjuring visions of generous amounts of sleep and lashings of suntan lotion for the lucky gits allowed to get away from it all on somebody else's penny. Excellent, indeed!

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 and summer 2005 editions of Animated, and writes Critical Faculties as a regular column.


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Animated: Spring 2008