Having spent the last few years studying cities and extolling the virtues a more inclusive, democratic and less hegemonic urban environment, it was with a certain amount of exasperation that I recently heard some sad, and quite frankly, bewildering news concerning my home town of Guildford. For years now, there has been (essentially, a one-man) campaign to get an independent cinema built in Guildford. Mark Gudgin has lobbied the local government for well over a year (as far as I know anyway, it may well be longer) in order to get planning permission for various sites in the town centre to be converted into The Guildford Picture Palace. To cut a long story short, last week, the local council decided that 170 High Street, the site that Mark and his supporters were hoping to convert, is to be rented by a “fashion retail outlet that does not currently have a presence in Guildford”.
Having just attended a seminar at Demos regarding the ‘Politics of Cultural Participation‘, then listening to the speech which was given by Margaret Hodge, it was hardly surprising the speed at which the discussion focused on the ‘arts for arts sake’ debate, given the talk of public spending cuts. Without reiterating the argument that was articulated by Richard Sennett at the event; the cuts in arts funding should not be at the expense of the artist, who often exists uncomfortably at the crash site between a need to foster an environment where ‘creative waste’ is acceptable, and the need for government to satisfy treasury figures and a perception that efficiency is championed over speculative funding for experimentation. One only has to take lessons from the collapse of national banks and the vitriol directed at them to see how amenable the body politik is to failure.
So it is perhaps with a sense of ironic timing that on the same day as this debate, the BBC announces that it will be ‘streamlining’ its products, axing 6music, the Asian Network and reducing the capacity of their website. I will admit that I do not listen to 6music nor the Asian Network, and it would be difficult to argue that if I did, it would swell the listening figures to a level which would deem the stations ‘un-cuttable’. However, the argument that I would like to make is that the BBC, given it’s special status as an institution that does not have to genuflect to the god-Capital (although sometimes it does seem that way), why does it feel the need to narrow its production remit? Surely it, of all cultural providers, should be in a position to allow for failure? Quality over quantity is essentially the argument that Mr. Thompson is forwarding. This is an admirable stance if ever achievable, yet there are many facets to this neologism. Diversity (and here I do not mean simply cultural/ethic, but a more liminal sense of societal and sensory diversity) is forgone to the detriment of societal well-being. Sure, 6 music may not be to my taste, but that is all the more reason why it should be allowed to remain; the same goes for BBC3 (it pains me so to admit).
Producing “fewer things better” is simply an argument that does not wash. Ploughing more money into Strictly Come Dancing or securing the rights to Mad Men or The Wire is clearly a good way to spend money, but it should be done not in proportion to the target audience. Feeding more money into the ‘middle’ of cultural artefacts (i.e. populous programming) only catalyses and accelerates the narrowing of cultural consumption. If 6 music is turned off, there will be very little market pick up given it’s smaller audience figures, yet celebrating these ‘marginal’ (and I mean this in relation to the sheer weight of numbers rather than as some sort of cultural elitism) should be encouraged, not restricted by what is (hopefully) a short-term depletion of funds.
This decision to centralise funding streams (i.e. depth not breadth) is something which I have witnessed before in Australia’s film funding policies with limited success. The cultural provisions of the BBC should not follow a similar path, as this “centralisation of provision” process is one which is difficult to reverse and one in which a culture of allowing for creative waste is not tolerated. We should be encouraging the increased visibility of media at the margins of what can be called the body culturik. (To quickly qualify this term by visualising it; it is the ‘bell-shaped’ distribution of cultural uptake in society (although less ‘linear’), with elitist culture at one extreme and well, BBC3 at the other.) We should hence not be augmenting the resources that are available to cultural provision that will have little problem gaining similar resources from market forces with public funds. The BBC should be allowed to experiment as this is good for diversity, and this necessitates allowing for failure. This is what has predicated Google’s success. I think Sam Beckett (not the one from Quantum Leap) put it best when he said “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”