Or: So Your Organization Has Started a Small Grant/Low-Bar Funding Framework
My most read piece from this year is almost certainly what I wrote on the response to a round of EU cultural funding going to a few game studios, Alexis Kennedy's independent venture among them. In the piece I suggest lowering the professionalization bar and application process of these grants and distributing them more equitably, i.e., instead of giving hundreds of thousands of euros to one (highly problematic) studio, give a few hundreds or thousands to a much broader set of creators, both in number and in terms of who they are and what they're making. And I'm not going to say Actually, No to this, it's great that it's been cited as inspiration for some orgs like Biome starting a small creators grant with as minimum fuss for the applicants as possible.
But I do kind of have mixed feelings about this kind of polemical and reactive piece being the one that got the most attention over the past year. Like, on the one hand, I am an aesthete at heart who likes to write about the finicky details of car controls and character relationships and visual novel choice structures! When my more aggro pieces are the ones that get traction I feel like my public perception is as, well, someone who doesn't like anything, when what drives me is my love and fascination with the generative swamp of human creativity.
And on top of that, while small grants are great, and can be career making or even life saving for people whose practices or training or background don't match up with who gets larger, more traditional grants and commissions, they are only a solution for that specific instance of the problem, rather than broadly solving what arts funding ops play one part in maintaining, the whole pyramid scheme style hierarchy of a capitalist art world.
I had mixed feelings about this critique of mutual aid amidst its popularity as a slogan during COVID lockdowns. I understand how its acceptability is based heavily on its similarity to charity, but I also feel like just making sure it feeds into some form of organizing is missing an important step that a lot of these calls to "organize!" do. When this critique comes up there often seems to be the expectation that this organizing will take the form of party politics, which in the UK has, when I've encountered it, meant following around whatever protest movement is on to hand out your newspapers and try to get people to sign up for your mailing list.
Without going into the specific groups that tend to do this (a can of worms for sure), let's just ask why they do this. Because these protests are where people get excited. To give an example me and a lot of people I know have experienced personally, for all the issues with XR, when they come in and pedestrianize a chunk of your city and you can just walk through an area that used to be defined by wariness of cars and having to navigate around them, you get a sense of how superficial the apparent "rational" organization of society is, how all these alternatives are up for grabs in a real way. Protest, rioting, and yes, even mutual aid activities like community meals, free classes and other resources provide imaginative spaces where these demands are generated.
That's where I think a lot of these alternative funding structures stop short... you can do good for as many people as your organization can serve, but is there a bigger demand to orient your practice towards and make your future plans around? This is tricky because it's categorically a hard thing for an organization to do. The dream of just asking and receiving, where art supplies are available for everyone in addition to equitably distributed leisure time, food, medical care and shelter, is a dream without organizations in a sense, besides freely associating collaborations.
I'm interested in these dreams! I'm crazy about them, because I think it's the only way the art that interests me makes sense. Even with more small grants, there's still hierarchy and scarcity, there's still the small number of winners and the huge pool of losers that the prestige of a financialized art world depends upon. In a way, it's just adjusting the degree to which the needed "bad art" that successful art is demonstrated as elevating itself out of is formally subsidized. But the fact is that all art is some form of labor, and like all forms of labor (even the forms that are not given a particular value under capitalism), it is socially necessary. It's not a frivolity, it's what makes life itself interesting.
As opposed to changing your funding model, this is all kind of speculative and conceptual, right? But also, like blocking off a part of the city center to cars for a few days, a no strings attached grant to an emerging creator who hasn't had to do anything to prove themselves can be a spark that sets off this imaginative capacity, and starts to spread it to others. I think the value in mutual aid is that it must be connected to these demands and these capabilities to imagine a world that works in a different way. Otherwise, yes, it is too close to just replicating charity. We should all be thinking towards a world where arts funding abolishes itself, simply because everyone already has plenty of time and resources to make what they wish. And then attack the hierarchy and orthodoxy of the art world from every angle to make it happen, not just one.