Coales' Notes: Waste measurements: This week Gordon Coales is wondering, how much art can we take?

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The Independent Culture

How well the new system is working. I'm now seriously concentrating on my 'Alternative Strategy for the Arts', as a corrective to the Arts Council's narrow and limited document. An audience-based programme - a package of concrete and practical proposals, to be submitted ultimately to the Government, as the basis for an arts policy for the Nineties.

I have an invitation to some sort of civic reception on Thursday. It is a welcome opportunity to meet the people.


Had the first co-ordination meeting with Fiona under the new system. It went quite smoothly. I told her my idea of having an 'audient in residence' in the Centre.

She said: 'D'you think it's significant that there isn't really a singular of 'audience'?'

I took this as an implied criticism. I said it probably signified a difficulty in seeing audiences as individuals with minds of their own, which they were.

She said: 'Well, we can only find out.'


Rowena has revealed that she is writing another book. It is called The Shoe Tree. I asked her what sort of reader she had in mind for it. She said that was an impossible question - like all writing, it could only be a message in a bottle. This is the way with the creative personality. Once they get going, they simply switch off.


Attended reception. Mainly dull. Catering greatly inferior to ours. However, I spoke to a lady who was a keen reader of fiction. She told me she kept up with the bestseller lists and tried to take in all the recommended books.

It struck me she was possibly just the sort of enthusiastic outsider we were looking for.

But, she went on, there was a problem. There were so many books published each year that she found she couldn't remember very much of any of them. It all became a blur. Surely, she said, what we needed was not all these many different books - but just one really good book. Perfectly serious, I'm afraid.


Today I've been thinking more about what the woman said about books last night, because it raises a question that has occasionally occurred to me: is there not perhaps too much art in the world? I believe the public feels under tremendous pressure from the sheer quantity of work that is produced, knowing that they will never be able to take it all in. And this must be off-putting.

So here would be another idea: a 'set-aside' scheme, on the model of EC agricultural policy. We are now experiencing what can only be called an 'art lake' of mammoth proportions. Ergo: writers, artists and composers should be subsidised not to produce work.

How precisely would this work in practice?

The immediate obstacle I foresee is the big difference in motivation between creative people and farmers. Unlike farmers, artists often feel an inner compulsion to produce. Even a musician in a restaurant - who can sometimes be bribed to remain silent for short periods - never looks happy about it. And with a novelist, say, the situation would be vastly aggravated. One simply could not say to, for instance, Julian Barnes, 'please do not write a novel this year, but here is some money anyway', without it sounding offensive. Clearly a financial incentive is not enough.

The scheme requires a prestige factor. Probably some high-level sponsorship from leading brewers and building societies. Or better, a parallel system of coveted prizes, awarded on the basis of descriptions of work, to be provided by artists, which they would undertake not to create. The full paraphernalia of public honours could follow - award ceremonies, television interviews, profiles in newspapers, plenty of coverage and discussion, everything exactly as it is now - except no work of art.

So one possible attraction of this scheme is that only a tiny minority of the public will actually notice any difference.

Which of course removes most of its point. Oh.