Day of Absence 2010: Second Response - Quality

... are all Bahamian artists worthy of respect?

The simple answer is no. Why should anyone respect bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals? ... Allow me to suggest that there are perhaps two reasons why Bahamians, on the whole, have not received much in the way of international (or local) acclaim for their art. The first is that average Bahamians, and the rest of the world, don’t understand us. The other, and more interesting, reason is that we are not that good.

Ward Minnis, "Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents", p. 2

Lest it be thought that by calling for a Day of Absence in honour of artists and cultural workers I'm seeking in any way to recognize those who produce poor work, let me say right now I'm not.* We Bahamians have cultivated the habit of supporting certain cultural endeavours simply because they are produced by Bahamians, regardless of quality. We have suppressed our critical faculties in these arenas, clinging to the idea that (somehow) because we are all Bahamians, we should not point out failures or weaknesses. The result is that a whole lot of sub-standard stuff gets lauded and magnified in our country because we have one standard for Bahamians and another standard for everybody else. The further result of that is that we come to expect sub-standard work from Bahamians, so much so that (whether we admit it or not) the very adjective Bahamian stands for mediocrity. The default assumption about, the knee-jerk reaction to, all Bahamian cultural endeavour is Ward's reaction -- we are not that good.

I want to turn this around. Yes, it's true that we Bahamians produce a lot of crap and pass it off as "art". But it's equally true that we Bahamians produce quite a bit of stuff that is world-class as well. Rather than starting from the common default, that we aren't that good, I want to make it a question. Or rather, two.

The first question is: how good are we?

In asking it, I'm not accepting the default -- that "we" are not that good. Many of us are not. But this is no different from any other country on this earth. Most creative endeavour the world over is crap. Much of what we consume from other countries, if we were to strip away the packaging and the marketing and the little stickers that we use in our brains to signify not-Bahamian, is crap too. Most of the movies we watch are crap; most of the music to which we listen is crap; most of the TV shows we watch are crap; and most of the clothing we buy is crap. Crap is not unusual. Nor is it limited to The Bahamas.

What would appear to be more home-grown, though, is the conflation of this universal truth with being Bahamian, and the conclusion that because most of what is produced creatively in The Bahamas is crap, "we" are not that good.* Like Ward, most of us choose the worst of our cultural product to make our argument, and to justify our non-support of Bahamian artists.

We also use the mediocrity of the majority to cultivate laziness on our own part. Very few of us invest the effort in trying to define what makes Bahamian art good, and prefer rather to allow the Wide World to decide that for us. It's an interesting strategy, because it assumes that quality will always rise to the top, no matter what. Because Bahamian art has little international recognition, we argue, it's clearly not that good. Because foreigners don't know where we are and what we have to offer, we are quite naturally second-rate.

That's one way to look at it. But if we choose that method, then we really ought to be consistent. Not to be too outlandish, but we ought also to assume that because the world doesn't know about Junkanoo, Junkanoo must be a second-rate carnival, as global fame is the most important criterion that there is to judge quality. We ought to assume that before Tonique was a star, she wasn't that good -- for it's fame, not her ability, that denotes quality. Or, to push it even further, we ought to assume that if nobody in the world acknowledged the physical beauty of our nation, that beauty would be non-existent. It's global fame, after all, that matters, not our own ability as individuals to judge what is excellent for ourselves.

So I'm turning the challenge around, because I don't think that it's in anyone's best interest to accept the word of pundits like Ward and me or to judge Bahamian achievement on the accident of fame. Before we get too wrapped up in the condemnation of the worst of Bahamian culture and creative ability, perhaps we should discuss, or consider, the best.

How good, for example, are Cleophas Adderley, JoAnn Deveaux-Callender, her husband Lee, Audrey Dean-Wright? How good is Alia Coley, or Naomi Taylor or Ralph Munnings? How good is Ronnie Butler? Max Taylor? Robert Bain? Philip Burrows? Paul and Tanya Hanna? Ian Strachan? Fred Ferguson? Isaiah Taylor? The Burnside Brothers? Gus Cooper? Vola Francis? Ward Minnis? Nicolette Bethel?

Suppose I say that Cleophas Adderley (to name just one of the above) is one of the most outstanding musicians of the Caribbean region, if not the world, and should be recognized as such by all -- and suppose I supported my contention with concrete examples taken from his work and the work of others. How would you answer me? What criteria would you use in making your argument? At the very least, you should be familiar with the broad canon of his work; you should be aware of the work of his peers on the global scale; you should have some musical exposure to be able to judge his reach, his aim, and his achievement of that aim; and you should be able to articulate that answer using evidence of a sort. If you aren't, there's little chance that I'm going to accept any contradiction in the matter. Most of us, though, aren't in a position to judge Mr. Adderley fairly because most of us have not got the exposure to do so, or have not cultivated the habit of credibility when it comes to judging Bahamian art. What we have got is a preconception, and it is this that we use to make easy pronouncements -- that we're just not that good.

Part of the purpose of the Day of Absence is to raise these very questions and to put the consumer, not so much the artist, on the spot. By seeking respect for Bahamian artists and cultural workers, I'm really seeking respect for the arts as a whole. Very few people would make the kinds of pronouncements about athletes that they do about artists, in part because we understand and respect sport. Art and culture are a different matter. We do not put the effort into judging either because we do not think they can be judged; at the same time, though, we undermine this idea by accepting others' judgement in the matter. By choosing not to develop our own critical eye, we disrespect in the most fundamental fashion art, culture, and the people who produce it.

The second question is: how do we get better?

So I start from the perspective that not all Bahamian art is "not-good-enough". That doesn't mean that we are as good as we could be -- not at all. So how do we ensure that the quality of our achievement (which, collectively, is low) measures up to our promise (which, collectively, is high)?

When a child is born, he or she has the potential to develop in many different directions. It's the responsibility of the adults around that child -- the parents, the teachers, yes, even the state -- to provide that child with the tools required to develop that potential. And so the child is schooled and tested, is given instruction and taught skills. If the adults do their jobs well, that child will be equipped to succeed, or at least to make a go at success.

We do not do the same with Bahamian creativity. Ours is a nation that abounds in talent of various kinds. I happen to believe that this is not incidental to our geographical and historical realities; we have, after all, carved a living out of rocks in the sea that for most of our history were judged unprofitable and barren, useful only as a strategic holding in the British empire, and left largely to themselves. To survive we had to be creative, with the result that creativity is all around us. Perhaps because of this abundance, though, we tend to take talent for granted, and to assume that it will take care of itself.

The truth is, it won't. Study after study demonstrates that no matter where you are in the world, the creativity that abounds in childhood wanes as people age. Abilities must be cultivated through exposure and training, through example, criticism, testing, and practice. Voices change; vision fades; bodies grow weaker and stiffer, words become harder and harder to string together. As time passes, abilities die.

And yet every one of the above requirements to make creativity flourish is in short supply in The Bahamas. Young creative Bahamians find themselves in a vacuum more often than not. People who want to act are not exposed on any large scale to Bahamians who are acting in world-class facilities or with world-class standards. There are no acting schools, and no acting programmes in the public schools either. Young Bahamians who are musically inclined have to feel their own way, modelling themselves on recording artists whose voices or talents may be very different from their own, rather than on Bahamians whose face-to-face contact can give them direction that would be more appropriate to their inclinations. Dancers copy what they see on TV without realizing that dance is a long process of cultivating the body to obey what the mind tells it to, and perform at considerable risk.

We have consigned the achievement of quality very much to chance. Very often, this is because too many of the people who say they seek quality are the most reluctant to assist in its creation. It's not their job, they say, to help artists with anything at all. Nor is it the job of the state. Taking refuge behind the cloak of "not good enough", they play the game of Catch-22 -- get good and I might supportcha, but ine ga help you get good. The same people who wouldn't dream of expecting a budding sailor to prepare for world-class competition without a boat, or to ask a triple-jumper to compete in the Olympics without training, think nothing of telling Bahamian creative artists to do the equivalent in their fields.

This is what the Day of Absence concept is all about. It isn't about withdrawing the arts from society; it's about imagining a society without the arts. It's about taking our collective inclination to its logical and absurd conclusion. Ward and others' opinions notwithstanding, Bahamian society is not art-less. But we are blind to the arts that do exist; we are oblivious to their quality, assuming a universal lack thereof; and we accept without question the error that great art grows out of nothing, demanding to reap where we have not sown. The Day of Absence does not have to be about activism to succeed. It succeeds if it inspires a new way of seeing. It's about changing the mindset of us all.

For I'm not merely talking about artists here. I'm talking about art itself. In calling for a Day of Absence in honour of cultural workers and artists I'm not suggesting that we honour them for what they produce. Rather, I'm asking for us to honour their choice of the arts, and that we honour the creative process itself. To do so requires that we cultivate the ability to recognize quality in the arts, and to insist upon it from our artists -- to demand the best of our Bahamian artists, to set standards by which we abide, and to take the time to develop those standards for ourselves.

The real default is not lack of achievement; it is a refusal to recognize achievement that exists, and it's the tendency to give respect according to personal allegiance instead of quality. I'll close with one small example. The discussion regarding Day of Absence has spread to Bahamas B2B, where Ward's critique is recognized and a further critique developed.

The critique is by and large a solid one, and it carries the argument even further, calling for young artists to respect their forefathers and to reach for excellence by recognizing artists who have gone before. Throughout it all, the writer reiterates Ward's comment that quality or achievement should determine a public response to Bahamian artists. This is a position with which there should be no argument; respect and/or adulation should be earned. It also takes issue with the Day of Absence concept, questioning the idea that Bahamian artists should be automatically respected, and that they should be judged on their achievements. "Some Bahamian artists," s/he writes,

think that because they are Bahamian, their art should be respected and command high prices. This, despite the fact that their work is often uninspiring, lacks originality and shows poor craftsmanship..

Is the respect they seek based on commercial success, or artistic acclaim?

Making art to make money isn't the same as making art to make art. Art that comes from within isn't always commercially successful. People may not want to display your inner demons on their living room wall. Meanwhile, producing commercially successful art might make an artist rich but not necessarily earn them respect from the art community.


If certain young Bahamian artists are bitter thinking they deserve more respect, they might be wise to show established Bahamian artists more respect, instead of dismissing them as "old school", while demanding their place above them.

Absolutely. The call for respect for Bahamian artists is a blanket one. It cannot expect respect from others if respect is not also accorded to those who have gone before. At the same time, though, and in a strangely subtle way, the writer reinforces my own position -- that Bahamians do not always to give respect to one another in cultural and related fields (in this case, intellectual) when it is due. For while making much of Ward's Master's Degree from Ottawa's Carleton University, s/he consistently refers to me as "Ms Bethel". That I happened to earn a doctorate from the University of Cambridge seems incidental to the discussion. Not that I make a big deal out of the title as a rule; but as the article devotes an entire paragraph to Ward's qualifications, a little consistency might be expected.

Let's return to Ward's comment.

Seeking respect before it is due and other such nonsense is putting the cart too far in front of the horse.

I might agree with him in specific terms -- no one should respect "bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals", not even (or especially) when they are produced by Bahamians. Seeking respect before it is due is not what Day of Absence is all about. However, as the writer of the column of Bahamas B2B has demonstrated very succinctly, neither quality nor achievement appear to determine the according of respect even after it's due. Allegiance -- which Junkanoo group we support, which political party we favour, whose family we were born into, whether we like sports or culture, whose opinion diverges from ours the least -- seems far more important in the end.


*some edits made Jan 4, 2010