Day of Absence 2010: Third Response – Investment

If the Day of Absence is really about tourist’s pleasure, if this iswhat we really care about, let us at least be honest about it. Isincerely believe that we should deal with our own cultural hungerbefore we worry about how to provide better shows for our visitors.Confusing the two will eventually bring us right back to the sameemptiness, no matter how much money we throw at the problem.

Ward Minnis, "Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents", p. 7

Now I'm not really sure where the idea comes from that Day of Absence is about the tourists' pleasure. Perhaps it comes from my own vagueness about the idea, which Ward has very succinctly dissected and served up, but I'm not so sure about it. I'm not so sure because the tourists are rarely in the back of my mind when I think about Bahamian art and culture. I happen to be of the view that we need to create for ourselves, and that visitors will appreciate what we create for ourselves far more than they appreciate what we make for them. For one thing, we know ourselves a little better. Whenever we think we know what the tourist wants, we generally end up holding the wrong end of the stick.

But perhaps it comes from the implication, which is probably clearly present in my original articles and responses, that Bahamian taxes ought to be invested in Bahamian cultural production. In the original exchange a year ago, some of my readers, one or two in particular, protested that implication, crying out that it should the onus should not be upon the government to support culture, that we pay too many taxes already, and we should not expect the government to pay more. My initial response, a year ago, was that I wasn't asking for more money to be collected from Bahamians to be spent on culture; I was asking for a reallocation of the money that is already being collected. But in responding that way, I made it seem as though I agreed with the idea that it isn't part of the government's responsibility to support indigenous cultural development. I may have been ambivalent then; I was certainly not interested in waiting for our government to move. However, a year has passed, and that ambivalence has passed.

Of course our governments should support our culture. Cultural expression is as fundamental to human existence as anything else that our government does support. I might even argue that it is more so; the collective creative production of any group of people is what lays the bedrock, in concrete terms, for the identity of that group. As an anthropologist who teaches sociology, I teach students that humans are social animals, that humans have culture, and that the process of cultural production is as fundamental to a society as the process of reproduction is to the continuation of the race. That we seem to think that culture (of which "the arts", I would argue, is a sub-set) is an optional investment demonstrates to my mind how deracinated we are as a collective, how unserious we are about our unity as a people, and how little we seek true nation-building.

For it is a lie that big (should I say real?) countries (the USA is generally pulled out of the hat at this point) don't invest in their cultures. I cannot think of a single important civilization that does not have what we would categorize as vast investment in cultural production.

Let's just take the USA as an example, since it is often hailed (can't always fathom why) as being the proper model for economic and social development.

I often hear the argument that because the USA doesn't have government investment in culture, we ought not to have it either. There's no need really to strip away the absurdity in this statement -- no need to do the standard parental "if your friends jumped off the bridge would you jump too" schtick. What I'd prefer to do is to poke holes in the assertion itself; for anyone who truly looks at the USA with unprejudiced eyes will realize that the statement is profoundly untrue.

The point about the USA that we often overlook is that it is a country that positively brims over with government. There is the federal government, to begin with, which is located in Washington and headed up by the President and the Senate and Congress, and which is governed by the philosophies laid out in the American Constitution. And it's true to say that at this level, there's relatively little apparent investment in culture. (We can get away with believing that if we never go to Washington D. C., but that's another story -- what Americans have invested in their monuments, their libraries, their museums, their galleries, their theatres, and their symbols of power would power the Bahamas for many budget years.) We can get away with saying it because the USA doesn't have any minister or ministry of culture -- no federal agency that sets cultural policy, pays bureaucrats to do cultural things, or make collective cultural decisions -- other than the National Endowment for the Arts, that is.

But if we stop there we miss the point.

What people who have convinced themselves that the USA does not invest taxpayers' money in culture fail to mention is that the smaller and more localized American government structures become, the more investment in culture there is. It is most apparent at the municipal level, where every city has a library, a theatre, a gallery, and cultural companies of every kind, and where businesses, taxpayers and bureaucrats alike invest millions into cultural activity. Where high schools can boast better theatres than exist anywhere in The Bahamas -- anywhere, not excepting our local plantations (hotel resorts), and where individual artists make their living off of cultural grants of every description. But counties make their own investments, and no state exists that doesn't have its own local state-sponsored cultural cluster. Nowhere else in the world, except here (and perhaps in our sister slave-fragment societies), is culture expected to flourish in a vacuum, nor does it. On the contrary; in many places, the strength of a locale's culture is often used to measure the strength of the place itself.

In The Bahamas, though, we do not protest investment in tourism, which usually means investment in inviting other people from other countries to come and set up things -- hotels, shows, cruises, film series, what have you -- here. We do not think twice about the need for new roads or new stadiums or new schools, though new hospitals and prisons seem to be as remote from our possible reality as the first state theatre, concert hall, or school for the performing arts. We are a people who invest in our front room, where the strangers sit, while we languish in poverty in the rest of the house, and we are a people who choose to defend this habit.

I do not believe that it is optional that our governments invest in the creative output of their people. I do not believe that we are whole as a nation when we still, after all these years, have no national library, no national theatre, no national school for the arts, no national concert hall, no national performance arena. I do not believe we are truly independent without such things, for we have not provide ourselves with the space or the ability to create, to celebrate, our own indigenous, vibrant and ever-changing realities. I do not believe that roads are more important. I no longer believe that schools are -- for what can schools teach our children without Bahamian cultural production? I no longer believe that hotels or harbours or airports are worth the continued starvation of the Bahamian spirit; I'm not sure if I ever did. The Day of Absence, and the call for some thought to be given to an investment in Bahamian art and culture, is not about tourism at all. It is about finding, and reminding us of, ourselves.

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
-----------------------

Day of Absence 2010: First Response - Clarity

The critique(s) offered by Ward Minnis about the Day of Absence concept on his blog, Mental Slavery, and on Bahama Pundit, are both comprehensive and impressive. And he's right, in several places. Particularly when he writes

Her Day of Absence clouds over and conflates many different and unrelated ideas while advancing an awkward historical agenda and a cumbersome theory of cultural development. It is political and apolitical, about something and about nothing, clear and blurry, all at the same time.

he's got a point.So I figure that if I'm going to begin to answer him, I'd better make my assumptions clear. I'm not so convinced that the ideas that Day of Absence floats are either "different and unrelated" or entirely deserving of the adjectives "awkward" and "cumbersome", but that could just be me. What I will admit is that the way in which the concept was presented mashes together all sorts of concepts in what could be read as an unholy mess; and so the first part of the response will attempt to address this issue and to clear a couple of ideas up.So let's start with premises. Here are my assumptions.

  1. Culture is separate from neither history nor politics. It is not a discrete, bounded entity that we can neatly stow in anything at all. An anthropological definition (there are many) might suggest that culture is what occurs when specific groups of people respond to the environment in which they find themselves, and that that environment is geographical and historical. Culture helps shape and respond to identity. It occurs both subconsciously and consciously, and it is elastic and malleable. Central to culture is change, and that change happens whether we try to make it happen or not. When a group of people ignores its culture (in the anthropological sense) culture change will occur without direction and without purpose. I believe that The Bahamas, by ignoring artists (whose main function in society, if we want to be really crass, is to make manifest the subconscious elements of collective cultures), has consigned itself to having its culture change on it without realizing, comprehending, or affecting that change.
  2. Bahamian culture is not a discrete or bounded entity. It never was; the idea of bounded cultures is a myth of convenience that served numerous political agendas in the past. But in the twenty-first century, its boundaries have dissolved almost altogether. Every culture's have. All cultures are melting into one global culture, one real-time, international, digital cloud. It is not possible to separate our daily consumption of culture (in most cases, other people's) from our infrequent production of it. Ward is completely correct when he says
  3. The reality is that most, if not all, of the images and products that filter our way from the great foreign cultural creators, such as the United States, have been produced by professionals who have already been compensated.

    That has always been my point. However, that reality does not stop us from continuing to compensate those professionals by paying for their creations. Ward misses the point when he assumes that I am drawing some artificial line between Bahamian (which he takes the trouble to underline) artists and other professional artists. I can't. I could only do so if we all stopped consuming international cultural products. Consumption and production are two sides of the same coin, and no amount protectionism, favouritism, or nationalism will affect them. It's Ward's decision to talk about Bahamian artists, not mine. But more on that later.

  4. I don't call from an abstention from all art not because I believe Bahamian artists are absent (absence is not the same thing as invisibility, which is what led me to Douglas Turner Ward's play in the first place), but because I believe that it is important for us all to reflect on the centrality of culture and cultural production to our lives -- and then to ask where we are in the equation. Culture is a global entity. Our consumption of it crosses borders without thought most of the time. But where we are lacking is in presence not merely in the local environment, but (perhaps more importantly) in the global one. Who are we? The answer is far far more than the name of our favourite Junkanoo group; but do we know?
These are the premises from which the idea of Day of Absence was born. They don't have to be agreeable to everybody; but I articulate them so that they can be understood. If they are still "cumbersome" and "awkward", so be it; they are where I stand.

Day of Absence 2010: Introduction

Well, it's that time again.

What time? you may ask. Because it's not like this is a regular occurrence, a public holiday so to speak, or anything grand or exciting. But the new year is a-coming in, and February is nearing, and it's time for me to observe the Day of Absence once again.

Now for those of you who weren't around, who didn't get the memo, or who really weren't aware, the Day of Absence I'm talking about is a day set aside for us to remember and recognize the work of artists and cultural workers everywhere. Of course, I'm a Bahamian, and I live in The Bahamas, so it's a day to remember and recognize Bahamian artists and cultural workers, who go largely unsung, unnoticed and unremembered, and who are generally assumed not to exist in this nation. But it's not exclusively for Bahamians. It's for anyone who has ever taken art, the artistic and creative impulse, for granted.

The date is February 11. It's my date, and I chose it. Last year this time, when I announced the concept, I did so in a political fashion, and, borrowing the idea from Douglas Turner Ward's play of the same name, asked people to imagine a world without art, without artists.

And damn, the idea worked. It caught on far more broadly than expected. It seemed to spark something in people's imaginations, and especially in Bahamians' imaginations. It was accompanied by some buy-in from radio stations (one or two had a minute of silence at a specific point of the day in honour of the idea, and many had artists on to talk about their (our) place in the world). It seemed to begin conversations, some of which are continuing to this day, and transforming themselves into action. And it inspired a protest, a physical demonstration, that took place on COB's campus.

And it is still working, apparently, because it's generating some pretty solid critique. Over on Mental Slavery and on Bahama Pundit, Ward Minnis has taken apart the idea pretty thoroughly. In a nutshell the core of the critique is that (a) the concept is ill-founded and muddled, and the theory on which it rests is unsound; (b) Bahamian artists don't need more absence, they need presence; (c) it isn't the government's job to give artists their place in society--artists have to earn that place for themselves; (d) developing culture for the tourists is a bad goal to have; and (e) the choice of the date is unjustified and just plain wrong, gives undeserved honour and recognition to my father, and is an exercise in nepotism more than anything else.

Well. Dem's fightin' words, specially the last set. But I'm not going to engage them just now. Instead, I'm going to use the period between now and January 12th to respond to these areas in some measure (though not necessarily at length, because, well, the critique itself is evidence that Day of Absence 2009 did something of its job).

And in the meantime, consider yourselves invited. Ward and I are going to be sitting down in a public forum on January 12th at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas to discuss these ideas.

Though I'm not really sure what all I'm going to have to say, other than thanks to Ward for starting this year's discussion and spreading the idea of the Day of Absence further than it went last year.

Cheers. If you buy Ward's argument, no need to read any further. But if, like me, you don't, or if you're keeping an open mind, check back here over the next fortnight or so to read my responses to his three main points.

And consider the work and contribution of artists to the world. If you're Bahamian, go on and bring it home. Make a point of researching what Bahamian artists have done (there is a record, believe it or not, a thin trail that can be followed, if you're willing to put in the effort). Don't add deposits to our national bank of ignorance by making sweeping generalizations about who we are(n't) and what we're (not) doing. On February 11 (if you aren't offended by the fact that it's E. Clement Bethel's birthday) or on some other day (if you are) make it a point to learn something you didn't know about art, artists and culture in general, or about The Bahamas in particular.

As for me and my house, we'll be observing the Day on the 11th. 42 days and counting.