Notes about Art on Screens

These things may or may not be related, but they’re all buzzing round my head so I thought I’d write them down.

1) I’ve been working as an external advisor on The Space this week, the BBC/Arts Council digital content pop-up that’s about “Great Art For Everyone“. It’s strange to be doing it in the wider context of SOPA and the related protests, wondering what “for everyone” will look like in the coming years.

2) The War Horse film has been released, prompting Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, to say: “I’ll stick my neck out and predict the play will be more profitable to us than the movie will be to DreamWorks.” The Guardian article about this ends with the comment:

 “The National made £70.6m overall last year, of which 48% came from box-office revenue, while War Horse took £13.9m in the West End.”

But £19.6m of the National’s turnover came via a grant from the Arts Council. So while great theatre is undoubtedly generating £50m a year, it’s not running on a profit – it’s subsidised by the tax payer. I’m not particularly worried about that subsidy, more the blunt nature of the reporting: without the subsidy, it’s unlikely that War Horse would have been nurtured into the great success it’s become. Likewise the RSC’s Matilda. So it’s essentially an incubator model, shored up by long-term subsidy.

And meanwhile, the NT is doing it’s best to become a profit-making digital content company, via NT Live – which they’ve approached like an indie: despite being one of the biggest theatres in the UK, it’s still an artist-led organisation, doing its own distribution.

On those terms, the NT doesn’t sound that different to Louis CK. Until you factor in the £19m. But the difference is it’s unlikely that an organization called the “Royal National Theatre” will be asked to become entirely self-sustaining. And so, with this relatively glib piece of reporting, the fact of making £13.9m in the West End starts to look quite easy – setting off-hand analysis in motion that will further distort the value of content.

3) I went to see Shame, a film by the artist Steve McQueen, co-written by playwright Abi Morgan. Because (I assume) it’s about sex, it sold out all over town on Saturday night – which is unusual for any film, not least one made by an artist.

The most striking thing about Shame, to me, is that it’s not very good. I won’t give away the storyline, such as it is, but the plot turns on coincidence and naivety in the same way that my Secondary School composition homework might have done. It experiments with cliché without creating the contemplative or astonishing space that might be achieved by a piece of installation art, and it features a lot of Profound Facial Acting (“Look! I am surprised! I am upset! I am sexy!”) of the kind that might be seen in local repertory theatre or a student film. So, I’m not really a fan.

However, it’s not had a bad review. I think this is because (a) it’s made by an artist, so no one wants to say it’s not very good when there’s a chance that it might be Profound and Meaningful; and (b) it’s about sex, and no one wants to admit to having seen a soft porn film at the cinema, so you have to say it’s good – in the same way that “art house” was once a codeword for “saucy”.

I’m not sure if this relates to War Horse, but it seems to – sort of. It’s leaving another vapour trail of “art and cinema” that will become meaningful in the longer term.

4) And finally, Betfair Poker pay four writers to create their Twitter feed. FOUR WRITERS. And they only have 15,129 followers (I know size isn’t everything, but still). In a strange way, this is a bit more like art – because it’s completely insane. It’s apparently a “brand awareness play” and I can’t work out if I’m enormously depressed or cheered by this: whether it’s cynicism or whimsy of the highest order. Is it an attempt to ambiently recreate things like The Gold Blend ads, or is it an honest admission that – as no one really knows what they’re doing – they may as well do that?


One thought on “Notes about Art on Screens

  1. Hi
    Thanks for the link to my Betfair Poker post. I’m the middleman (or messenger) here, rather than the horse’s mouth, but I’m moved to make a few points by way of retort.

    1) Yes Betfair pays four (FOUR) writers to post tweets on its behalf. But I don’t think they’re dining out on what they earn, let alone planning an early retirement. In fact I know they’re not.

    2) Having interviewed the Betfair client twice about what he’s up to with the poker Twitter account, it is my humble opinion that he absolutely DOES know what he’s doing. Or, perhaps more accurately, he has carefully thought through WHY he’s doing it.

    3) Most brands on Twitter clearly don’t have a clue what they’re doing or why. They think they can get away with broadcasting re-hashed press releases. At least Betfair is trying to earn its way into our feeds by delivering some entertainment value.

    Your commentary on the economics of the National Theatre is very interesting by the way.


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