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Performance artist Thomas John Bacon: Public money should fund art for everyone, even if some hate it

Niko Raes performing This Boy Needs Love as [art of this year's Tempting Failure festival. Photo: Julia Bauer

Ever wondered what it’s like to be at the centre of a tabloid storm? I found myself caught up in one this summer after Conservative councillors criticised the use of public spending to fund the live art festival I run.

Tempting Failure [1] started in 2012, and has been a feature in both Bristol and London calendars over the years. For 2018, we decided to take the majority of the project to south London’s largest borough, Croydon. 

During the event we hosted 80 artists from  20 different countries to perform over two weeks. It was a small part of a wider eight-month programme of outreach, education, access and professional development initiatives through performance art in the city.

The event is well known internationally for hosting difficult, sometimes transgressive, often challenging artworks. This made it an easy target for right-wing bloggers, whose misreported posts became fuel for a wave of hysterical local and national press headlines.

Tempting Failure was always going to be a place to ignite conversations, but I never thought those talking-points would become about the morality of spending money on certain forms of expression or certain demographics, only to exclude others as unacceptable, unnecessary or unwanted.

So, when Conservative Croydon Council opposition leader Tim Pollard commented on the funding of the festival, he sparked a press reaction from the Sun [2], Evening Standard [3], Private Eye, Metro and others. Questioned on BBC Radio London, Pollard admitted he hadn’t seen the work in person and hadn’t previously known the festival was on in his borough.

The press, spurred on by his outrage, suggested that artists Joseph Ravens and Arianna Ferrari were failing a “decency test” – a notion that sounds akin to the Salem witch trials of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The papers leapt on Ravens’ work, relishing the chance to produce clickbait headlines that featured sex toys, while also reporting, erroneously, that Ferrari defecated in front of a live audience. This did not happen, but had it, then the context of the work would have held it.

Implicit in the commentaries was the idea that such radical acts could never be called art. However, there was never a discussion of what the work represented or an educated critique. Our accusers failed to acknowledge the irony that their reactions produced a commentary on their own ignorance rather than the artists.

This reactionary coverage made me realise Tempting Failure is needed more now than ever before. Varied artistic expression is vital. This experience should spur artists on to fight back: make art that people think is ‘weird’, express opinions beyond social media, launch risk-taking performance events and support others.

Art doesn’t have to please everyone, but it should be open to all. If public money serves any purpose, it should give voices to all cultural groups and community sectors, especially those beyond the mainstream who are rarely heard.