The need to find and use language about the arts that belongs to the arts is as great as ever… The language of the arts must not be the language of management, business or the civil service. We need our own words to define our needs and activities, not an externally imposed lexicon of objectives, outcomes and deliverables in which a sense of purpose becomes a ‘direction of travel’, a difficulty always becomes a ‘challenge’, a dilemma mutates into an ‘issue’, serving your audience becomes ‘maximising stakeholder value’, and clarity and meaning dissolve into fogs of evasion or obfuscation.
—John Tusa, Pain in the Arts
Just as I’ve finished to read Engaged with the Arts: Writing from the Frontline, a 2007 series of essays by John Tusa reflecting on his experience as an arts leader after a decade at the helm of the Barbican Centre – a lucky find in my local Oxfam bookshop – he’s already published another book, titled Pain in the Arts, to add his two cents to the debate about the future of arts funding.
The Arts Desk has published a few extracts, from which I’ve borrowed the following anti-lexicon – a damning take on recent developments in arts management lingo.
- Assessment: “Employed as a justification for excessive intrusion and attempts at supervision.”
- Benchmark: “A reductive notion that eliminates creative differences and variations.”
- Customer: “Gone are ‘audience’, ‘listener’, ‘viewer’, ‘passenger’, ‘patient’, ‘traveller’, or any of a dozen different activities and relationships that define a myriad of distinct and particular transactions. ‘Customer’ is literally a one-size-fits-all concept, diminishing particularity and difference.”
- Discourse: “A pretentious, poshed-up kind of word to describe discussion, debate or any kind of extended intellectual exchange.”
- Engage: “Why not ‘get involved’?”
- Holistic: “A grand-sounding word inviting approval of an elevated underlying concept but meaning less than ‘taking many things into account together’. Speakers who use ‘holistic’ are usually trying to bolster a threadbare argument.”
- Impact (as in “impact studies”): “Here intellectual or artistic activity must demonstrate its case for support by proving in numerical terms that it yields a real ‘impact’ for society, usually social or economic.”
- Legacy: “Increasingly deployed as a wrap-around word to demand support for a long-term project that it usually failed to deliver.”
- Narrative: “When I heard an interviewee saying he had been advised by his HR director to improve the way he ‘edited his personal narrative’ – that is, ‘talking about himself at interview’ – it was was clear how far this rot had gone.”
- Synergy: “A purely hopeful, pre-emptive word, inviting support for actions that claim to deliver hyped claims of success. Whether ‘synergies’ are delivered is rarely examined after the event.”
- Transformational: “It very rarely proves to be.”
And this is – already – how John Tusa concluded, 7 years ago, his “New ABC of the Arts” in Engaged with the Arts, an update on his 1999 “A to Z of Running an Arts Centre”:
Maybe it’s just me but the shift in the alphabet towards a much fuller, more rigorous, more comprehensive, more demanding set of administrative and managerial criteria is real enough. Some are nonsense. Some are needlessly onerous. Some can actively distort the core purposes of the arts. But they won’t go away. The skill of arts management is to turn the awkward, obfuscating and bureaucratic alphabet into a language that truly serves the arts and their audiences.