Another ‘Brikkun’ in the wall | Mario Vella

MARIO VELLA, frontman for Brikkuni and outspoken commentator on the cultural scene, contends with the most philosophical question ever asked about art. Can you live off it?

Mario Vella, frontman for Brikkuni
Mario Vella, frontman for Brikkuni

t may be an impression of mine, but the Malta ‘arts scene’ – to use a phrase that is sufficiently board to mean practically anything – seems to be caught up in an intrinsic contradiction.

On one level, there is a heck of a lot more happening than I ever remember. In between Notte Biancas, Beer Festivals, Baroque festivals, and ongoing preparations for V18 (more of which soon enough), there are now regular arts festivals organised by practically every local council… a live garage-band culture that has clearly outgrown its earlier ‘cover version’ phase… not to mention a growing awareness that not all ‘street art’ is necessarily vandalism.

Perhaps the most significant shift has been political (with lower-case ‘p’). Culture is clearly no longer regarded as a useless Cabinet portfolio to be juggled between different – and sometimes unlikely – ministries. There is demonstrable cognisance of ‘culture’ as something worth investing in.

Hence the paradox. Even as the arts in general climb up the ladder of national priorities, Malta’s artists by and large still fit the stereotypical adjectives that have always accompanied that word: ‘struggling’, ‘starving’, etc.

We may have discovered the notion of ‘creative industries’… but the creative industrial revolution has yet to take place. 

As one of the more outspoken actors on that particular stage, Mario Vella has long argued that Malta’s artistic scene requires an infrastructure to be built up almost completely from scratch. Currently poised for the release of Brikkuni’s third studio album, he is perhaps more aware than most of the practical hurdles facing the struggling musician in today’s world. 

Which I suppose makes him part of the paradox himself: though one of Malta’s ‘successful’ artists, he is still compelled to rely on external funding to do the thing for which he is best known.

Doesn’t this mean that the local arts scene is actually living an illusion? Has it become too reliant on external financial support, and if so… doesn’t this indirectly indicate that commercial success in art is simply an impossibility, given Malta’s size limitations? 

“Let’s start by saying that I’m not against public funding for art. I understand that it is a contemporary reality everywhere – in the UK, Franc, Italy etc. – that art doesn’t generate the same amount of money as it used to. That’s a fact. So there needs to be assistance. Even if just to avoid having a ‘gentrified’ artistic scene: where the same artists dominate everywhere, and we never see the other side of the coin. What I commented on the past was not on the use of public money, but on the way the funding was distributed…”

Vella acknowledges having availed of the National Arts Fund to help complete the second Brikkuni album. “More recently I applied for funding for a logistical project that simply couldn’t be financed by the money generated by the band. We spent a year doing live gigs, but there was no way we could cover the costs of this project. It involved performing with an orchestra over a period of time…”

Initiatives such as the Arts Fund, he adds, have in fact been indispensable. “Since it was introduced it’s been responsible for a number of valid works. Still, I have some reservations over how this fund is allocated: for instance, the exaggerated prevalence of ‘academic credentials’ irritates me a bit. Not because I ignore the need for creative vision with an academic background… I just don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all…”

This brings us to the first of a number of intrinsic problems within an arts scene that is already heavily reliant on patronage. The resulting playing field is not always level.

“Over here it’s easy to become an ‘authoritative’ person within cultural circles. And you’ll find the same people lapping up every source of funding imaginable… sometimes to the detriment of young talent that’s also looking for a break. I’m not saying established artists shouldn’t get any funding at all. But the balance could be a lot better.”

Apart from the distribution of funds, there is also the question of origins. Recently, for instance, it was announced that monies raised by MEPA through permits for high-rise buildings would be channelled into the arts. Officially, the intention is to pump more money into artistic endeavours… but it sounds more like a retrospective justification of an enormously controversial planning policy.

Vella nods. “That’s how I interpreted it, too. But that’s also part of the reality of such finds. Each time I accepted funding for a project, I was conscious that I was tapping into a fund financed by various taxes… in other words, by the general public. But what I find worrying is that in the most popular and prominent sectors of the Maltese arts scene there is a near total lack of social conscience. Either that, or the social conscience it expresses is a very simplistic one that panders to non-controversial themes. I’m not saying that to be a valid artist you have to be politically active… there are millions of examples of non-political artists who had a huge impact on the cultural world. But then again, an artistic scene almost completely lacking in social conscience, with no real drive to struggle against the same establishment that feeds it… I’d say that’s a dead art scene.”

But is that really true of Malta today? Sticking to only music for the time being: I listen to local bands and get a very different impression. Groups like Norm Rejection, Rage Against Society (even the name is indicative) and Batteries Not Included all touch on deeply political themes. RAS, for instance, even championed a ban on circus animals… 

“But you’ll notice that they’re all part of very small subcultures. By and large, in pop culture… which I consider to be very important… I detect a fear to tread on the corns of anyone ‘important’. There’s a hesitation to spit into the plate you’re going to eat from.”

Vella seems to be suggesting that subsistence on ‘official’ handouts, by necessity, breeds a certain reluctance to rock the boat. This raises the question of whether it is even possible to succeed without outside help. From Vella’s own experience with Brikkuni (and previously with Lumiere)… is success possible in such a small market? Or is Malta’s arts scene doomed to conformism, for the simple reason that it needs government funding to survive? 

He shrugs. “It depends what you mean by ‘success’. It’s a flexible term. A lot of people would take it to mean recognition outside Malta’s shores, for instance. Others would say financial survival.”

It was actually survival I had in mind: we know it is possible for local artists to get recognised abroad bands in the death metal scene have been successful in Europe and even America (eg, Forsaken, Beheaded). But what good is that, if success doesn’t translate into the kind of financial security required to (for instance) produce another album? 

“Again, it depends. There are some record labels – like Howard Keith’s Jagged House – that, regardless what I think of the musical content, have managed to hit on a business model that somehow works for them. But even if the model functions: the fact remains that not even Jagged House, in spite of its popularity, can provide full-time jobs for the musicians on its roster. All of them hold day jobs. Besides, I can’t imagine this business model permits artists to be risqué. Or politically engaged…”

Jagged House produces artists such as Ira Losco, Red Electrick, Airport Impressions and the Rifffs. If I’m getting Vella’s drift, they all seem to fall into the broader category of ‘safe’, ‘non-controversial’ pop. We both agree that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that at all: but is he suggesting that it’s the inevitable price one pays for survival in such a small market?

“Let me put it this way: it is possible to live off art in Malta. It is extremely difficult, here and everywhere else, but it can be done. It is harder here, because the logistics are more restricted. But to live off art, you have no choice but to do things you don’t really want to do. You have to play at weddings, for instance… take commissions… up to a point it’s inevitable. The problem is that people who make use of those avenues to generate capital, don’t get to fulfil their dream projects anyway, at the end of the day. They’re still huddled in their safe pond. I see an imbalance in that regard…”

But this brings him back to his discomfort with defining success. “What worries me far more than the question of self-sufficiency is that there is no real respect at grassroots level for the utility of art beyond its ability to generate capital. Take the example of an artist who ‘failed’… according to the parameters by which many measure ‘success’. The chances are that when you employ someone like that, they will generally be more creative and very employable. That sort of person is certainly not going to do any harm to the local workforce.”

Creativity, he argues, has a value in itself… but this is not given the recognition it deserves in Malta. 

“The reality is that we do need organised structure to finance the arts these days.  But there are other things we need before that. Sometimes I get the impression that in this country we always run before we learn to walk. There is no real structure at present for a young artist to avail of, even using only his own resources, to get his work out there.”

Before getting to the bit about funding individual projects, the emphasis should be on prioritising the arts at grassroots level. “We need to engender an appreciation, from an early age, of the value of art. Not just its entertainment value – though that, too, is important – but to nurture an audience that, in future, would appreciate these things so much they’d be willing to pay for them. If we’re going to talk about ‘strengthening culture’, that’s the place to start, in my opinion.”

What would that involve in practical terms?

“We need structures to provide training, or to encourage self-training and improvement… so that eventually, if the aim is to have full-time artists, they would have the possibility to leave Malta with at least some basic preparation to confront the realities of a much bigger market. As some people have done successfully in the past, without any outside help at all…”

Yet at the same time there does seem to be a revival of interest: I draw his attention to the many, many arts festivals held this summer… all of which could be described as initiatives aimed at fostering appreciation for art. 

Vella however expresses irritation at “this idea that we have to create an ‘industry’ out of the arts”.

“The oxymoron in Malta is that everyone now talks about the ‘cultural economy’, and absolutely everyone has taken stock of the need for a more creative generation in every sphere. We’re investing thousands, if not millions, in institutions such as V18 – to celebrate something which I still haven’t understood, and which is still completely vague, in four years’ time… and yet the investment in grassroots is not happening. This is where investment is really needed: to nurture people, to introduce people to stuff. So how can I, as someone who is critical and substantially interested, take something like V18 seriously? When it embarks on ambitious projects, without the basic infrastructure in place? It’s like killing the baby before it’s even born…”

Subject of V18, the appointment of Jason Micallef – former Labour Party secretary-general – to head the project could hardly be justified on the grounds of his credentials in the arts. And this seems to fit neatly into a pattern whereby such appointments are often made for political considerations that have nothing to do with the role concerned. 

Is this kind of political nepotism (for want of a better word) also undermining the credibility of these institutions?

“Let me be philosophical about it: this sort of culture exists everywhere in the world. And in the Mediterranean it is more visible than elsewhere. I try to follow the Italian cultural scene, and you hear the same complaints. The thing with Malta is, you can’t expect people not to know each other. So what irks is not so much that it happens, but the blatancy of how it happens…”

Nor is it limited to party politics alone. “In the cultural scene there are dinosaurs which can never be touched. Reuben Zahra is an example, though I could come up with others. Fine, he’s an established artist with a considerable portfolio, and so on. But how he hops from one festival to another as curator…. is it possible that he always has something in hand? Again, I’m not doubting his credentials. I’m not saying he’s not a valid artist, or anything. Never mind what I think personally, that’s irrelevant. But what about other equally gifted people, who might have obtained qualifications from London, etc.? Are these people never going to get a chance to avail of these opportunities? It’s as though it’s always the same people juggled around different positions…”

He breaks into a grin. “Normal Lowell would have said, ‘shifting deckchairs on the Titanic’… to quote someone I disagree with on everything else. But there is that sensation. I know, because I have friends who work in the cultural ministry… and they stick to it because it’s what they love, even though they tell me how frustrating it gets at times. They already know, for instance, that unless they suck up, they will barely be able to scrape and eat off the floor. They’re not happy about it, but they can’t challenge it either...

Another drawback to the ‘cultural-political appointee’ syndrome is that these people get to put their own stamp on Malta’s artistic direction.

“Jason Micallef, to me, falls into that category. He’s got this idea that V18 has to be some kind of one-off, spectacular event – a massive bonfire that will remain fired up in everyone’s memory for years. If you ask me, however, all that’s going to remain is smoke. Because we’re investing in all the wrong places. To me, it’s more people like…” he trails off in search of a name… “like [street artist] James Micallef Grimaud, for instance. These people are the future visionaries of local art. I can’t comment on the quality of his work, because visual arts and graffiti are not my area… but if you look at his CV, you’ll see lots of work that is relevant, valid… collaboration with foreign artists, and – much more importantly, I’d say – involvement with other sectors of society that are usually forgotten. One recent project of his involved going to retirement homes and engaging residents in art. Ok, now you might tell me I’m being romantic… and that other things are needed for administrative posts. But let’s not forget that these are the people who fought to have a skate-park at Tal-Qroqq, instead just another f***ing roundabout. These are the heroes of the Maltese arts scene. And yes, they do receive funding. But these people should be at the helm of institutions, not living off the crumbs. These are the people who could make a difference…”