Put up or shut up

Current calls for ‘interdisciplinarity’ are frequently little more than lip-service. The Arts are worth more than that.

I recently had a funding application rejected. I was upset for a few days, but I’ve moved on. There’s no point in stressing about the past.

BUT. There’s one thing I really, really need to say.

The feedback on my application was pretty obviously a “we have too many decent applications, find a hole in this one or die trying” kind of situation, but that’s not even what really frustrates me. It’s the aspect of it that they chose to consider a ‘hole.’ It was also all of two sentences in response to a thirty-page application that took months of preparation, but that’s by-the-by.

I had included an interdisciplinary collaboration with a graphic artist that would also have ticked a lot of the ‘public engagement and impact’ boxes that funders are so keen on (you have to show the broader social value of your work – it’s not enough for it to just be interesting).

This was the ‘hole’ – and the aspect of it they chose to focus on was the cost.

I come from a family of ‘creatives.’ My mother is an artist, my father is a musician, my aunt was a ceramicist, and all my friends and acquaintances came from similar backgrounds. I spent the first 20 years of my life surrounded by people who make a living from the arts and as a result became acutely aware of how undervalued the arts are in this country.

To be blunt, people just aren’t willing to pay for them.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

To be a professional creative requires talent and passion, yes – but it also requires time spent studying, costly materials that have to be constantly replaced, and daily exertion and practice. When you hire a string quartet, you’re not really paying for the hour you want them to play for while a bunch of uncultured nobs stuff themselves with crab cakes. You’re paying for the years they spent at music college, the hours of instrumental lessons, the instruments themselves, the weeks of practice they spent preparing for your little soiree, the music (sheet music is expensive, and photocopying is illegal because it’s all copyrighted), the travelling expenses, the tuxedos and the concert uniforms. It all adds up, and at the end of the day the musicians need to make a profit in order to, y’know, eat.

The artist I set up the collaboration with quoted me a very reasonable price for working together. £5000 for 10 A0-size pieces. That comes down to merely £500 per artwork. That price includes; art college, studio fees, material costs, and time spent together with me to get ideas together and alone, working through drafts. It also has to cover living costs, and he also very kindly contacted his regular printers and got a quote from them for me as well. I would not have known where to go for printing otherwise.

When you consider all of these things together, it probably works out at less than minimum wage. Yet the application reviewers had the gall to write “while the artistic collaboration was considered innovative, given the cost, it could have been justified more robustly.”

To me, this simply indicates the complete lack of comprehension of what is actually involved when considering working outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries that academia professes to be wanting to abolish.

Anyone who’s been in around and about in academia in the UK in the last 20 years will have seen the effects of the ‘interdisciplinary turn.’ There has been a growing awareness that the problems of postmodernity, the Anthropocene, or the ‘Post-Truth Era’ – whichever term you prefer – cannot be comprehended, let alone solved, if we continue to operate in discrete intellectual cadres that view each other with distaste and suspicion.

Things are just too complicated these days. We need input from a variety of different pools of knowledge. But it’s a lot easier to say “we support interdisciplinarity” than to actually support it.

Many academics (and funders) get around this by performing a form of minimal interdisciplinarity. Often, this involves working with colleagues in different-but-similar fields. A human geographer, a town planner, and an architect could write a project application and call it ‘interdisciplinary.’ But in reality these can be very similar or even overlapping fields. They’re all part of the regular bunch of ‘social sciences’ disciplines, and there can be a lot of shared theory and literature. This is a bit like calling your workplace ‘diverse’ if the workforce is comprised of Mancunians, Geordies and a couple of scots. They might sound very different, but actually they’re drawn from a very small pool of possibilities.

True interdisciplinarity involves being open to other forms of knowledge, and other forms of presenting knowledge for wider consumption and consideration. It might also require time, so that project partners can learn about each other’s approaches and modes of inquiry. Time costs money.

Until those other forms of knowledge are properly valued by those with the power to divvy up the funds, we simply won’t be getting much further.

Rant over.

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