Art is not exactly valued by its ‘contribution to GDP’...

By referring to ‘artists’ as though they were some kind of natural antithesis of the ‘business-like’ type, José Hererra was merely buying into a lazy stereotype that the artistic community itself has been valiantly trying to dispel for years now

From the outset, I was a little sceptical about Jose Herrera’s reported gaffe on Net News this week: you know, the one where the Culture Minister was heard telling journalists that the arts are “more of a vocation” than a career choice; and that, in general, “the artist’s IQ is not so business-oriented”.

At a glance, the original news item seems to suffer from all the usual flaws and omissions we have come to expect from political stations over the years.

I can’t help but note, for instance, that the newsreader took a heck of a lot more time to explain ‘what Herrera said’, in his own words… than to simply let Herrera do all the talking himself (thereby allowing us the luxury of actually making up our own minds, for a change).

As a result, we only got to hear a couple of choice, bite-size utterances from what was obviously a longer, more detailed reply: all skilfully edited to convey as little of the context as possible.

Perhaps it is reflection of how little I trust political stations, as a source of reliable news and information… but I can’t help suspecting that some of that missing context would have put a whole different slant on matters: possibly, enough to ‘distort’ (as Herrera himself later put it) the substance of what he is supposed to have actually said.

For that reason alone, I thought I’d hit the ‘Pause’ button, before rushing the join the instant chorus of online artistic outrage… and boy, was I right.

Within a day, Jose Herrera responded by arguing that his words had been (surprise, surprise) ‘quoted out of context’… and, in a welcome break with tradition, he also uploaded a full, unedited version of the same clip.

And… what I can say? Now that we can all reinsert those random snippets into their original context… the picture that emerges turns out to be considerably worse than what was actually reported on Net TV: not just as a reflection of Herrera’s actual opinion… but, much more significantly, also as an indicator of his government’s views and policies regarding this abstruse thing we call ‘culture’ (and, by extension, so much more).

But tell you what: even just to avoid making the same mistake myself, here is a full transcript of his entire (very brief) answer:

“Very often, the artist or creative [person] will not be business-minded. It is a vocation, more than a job, or a business. So while our creative [people] are excellent, when it comes to culture, art, and elevating our quality of life, their IQ – as you’d expect, from vocational people – is not usually ‘business-oriented’. So the purpose of this MOU [between the government and the Malta Arts Council] is to emphasise this aspect more. Let us not forget that there are almost 12,000 people who work directly in the creative sector; and thousands more who work part-time. This has a considerable effect on government revenue: this sector directly accounts for 8% of the national ‘cake’…”

And this does indeed put a very different slant on those carefully-selected, isolated soundbites. (In fact, it almost makes you wonder if the journalists at NET were in a particularly generous mood that day, to let a Labour minister off the hook so lightly…)

Consider, for a moment, what NET’s edited version chose to retain (and leave out) from all that. It limited itself only to the ‘artists are not business-oriented’ motif… while leaving out the much more revealing part about the cultural sector’s overall contribution to the country’s GDP.

In other words, it emphasised only those parts which suggest that our Culture Minister may, at most, be a little out of touch with how artists actually perceive themselves (and their own importance) in the greater scheme of things.

And if their intention was to simply embarrass Jose Herrera, or undermine his standing with Malta’s artistic community… then yes: they certainly succeeded (even if they limited themselves to only what was absolutely necessary to achieve that goal.)

Because all that ‘online artistic outrage’ I mentioned earlier was not exactly misplaced, you know.

By referring to ‘artists’ as though they were some kind of natural antithesis of the ‘business-like’ type, Hererra was merely buying into a lazy stereotype that the artistic community itself has been valiantly trying to dispel for years now… evidently without very much success.

And with good reason, too: for among other things, that same ‘starving artist’ perception is in itself nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course artists are going to remain ‘starving’… if society as a whole tends to attach so little monetary value to all the effort – including not just work-hours, but also all the creativity, originality, and years of painstaking gestation - that go into actually producing all their output.

This is, in fact, one of the core complaints that motivated at least some artists to get organised, and establish entities such as the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association. From their perspective, the argument that ’artists are not business-minded’ is most commonly heard as a pretext to simply avoid paying them more than is absolutely necessary, for all the hard work that they do...

So to hear it coming from the Culture Minister, no less, must have come across as a bit of a disappointment to Malta’s community of starving artists (even if, to be fair to Jose Herrera, he was at least trying to address the same issue, through that MOU the whole press conference was actually about…)

But this only brings me to the parts that NET TV omitted.

Curiously, they left out the moment where the same Culture Minister seemed to actively devalue the entire artistic sector in this country… by reducing it to the only binary calculation that his own government (and all Maltese governments before it) ever seems capable of understanding.

MONEY (and, what’s more, money for itself). This is, in fact, the basis for Herrera’s entire system of quantifying the value of art: if it contributes to the economy, it’s ‘good’; if, on the other hand, it doesn’t…well, then it’s pretty much worthless. (Now where have I heard that sort of reasoning before? Ah yes: Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’. Remember? “Whatever’s good for the syndicate, is good for the country…”)

Viewed from this angle, there is suddenly a lot more to be said about what Herrera himself admitted was a ‘poor choice of words’. That ‘artists are not business-minded’ comment no longer looks like a mere statement of fact (however questionable the ‘fact’ may be, in this instance).

Suddenly, it becomes the premise of an entire argument. And the rest of that argument sounds a lot like: “and it’s a pity, too: because if artists were slightly more ‘business-oriented’… their output would make a greater contribution to the country’s coffers than just 8%; and as such, it would be easier to justify investing more, into what is - let’s face – just a vocational ‘hobby’ at the end of the day, enjoyed only by a few ‘creative people’ here and there …”

And this mindset not only cements that same, inaccurate perception firmly into place: but it can even ultimately condition the end result of any artist’s efforts, too.

It is, effectively a case of trying to channel artistic creativity into the only thing that Herrera’s government ever capable of quantifying – i.e., ‘contribution to GDP’ – and… well, judging by the impact of much the same mentality of other sectors, we can only expect Malta’s artistic endeavours to become more ‘business-oriented’ – and, therefore, less ‘artistic’ – as time goes on.    

In a sense, this has already been happening for years: it was, after all, the same overall approach that inspired the V18 Committee to inaugurate Valletta’s stint as World Capital of Culture with… a five-aside football tournament. And it was Jose Herrera himself who, in 2014, announced that government would be increasing funding for (in his own words) “more populist cultural activities…”

But if I myself were a member of Malta’s artistic community – which, mercifully, I am not – the part that would worry me most is this.

That same ‘whatever contributes to GDP’ argument has been used before; and nowhere are its ghastly consequences more visible than in the environmental destruction this country has experienced in recent decades.

After all, it takes a ‘business-oriented’ individual – and certainly not a ‘starving artist’ – to look at a beautiful stretch of unspoilt, natural landscape… and value it only for how many individual plots it can possibly be parcelled up into; each of which, in turn, will be valued only for how many single-bedrooms can possibly be squeezed in, on the same, tiny footprint of land...

I would have thought it bad enough, that our natural tendency towards greed has already obliterated so much of our natural environment.

But to hear the Culture Minister – of all people - proposing precisely the same old, failed system for our culture sector, too…?

I don’t know. It doesn’t exactly fill me with optimism, for the future of Maltese art…