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Trying to Make a Dollar Out of Fifty Cents

A Word on Cultural Workers

It is a day on which we encourage DJs to stop playing music … when we ask talk show hosts and newscasters and writers and editors and songwriters and artists and straw workers and advertising agencies and whoever else works in the creative field, is unappreciated for their activity, is producing work that people think of as “soft” or unnecessary, to stop doing what they do so that the people who do not respect us understand for just one moment or just one day that we are important, that without us society stops. — Nicolette Bethel

In an interview with Bahamian writer Lynn Sweeting, Bethel gives a blow by blow account of her five-year stint as Director of Culture. The account is painful to read. As she describes the abuse of the civil servants in her division, it is clear that she was deeply affected by what she saw. The “so-called” Department of Culture described in the interview is beyond dysfunctional and is desperately in need of reform. The Day of Absence was partially created as a way to recognize these nameless and faceless warriors lost in the government bureaucracy. This is part of the reason why Nicolette describes the Day of Absence as a day for all of the “cultural workers” in the Bahamas and around the world.

However, what does the term “cultural worker” actually mean? The connection between art and artists is straightforward, but how do we conceptualize the link between culture and cultural workers? Is a cultural worker also an artist? According to her definition, a cultural worker could be a DJ, a talk show host, a journalist, a musician, a straw vendor, any one who works in an ad agency, civil servants from the Department of Culture, and anyone who is doing a job that others see as “soft” or unnecessary, which might also include hair stylists and barbers, teachers at D. W. Davis, the staff of Doongalik, most secretaries, and probably also the waiters and waitresses at Double D’s. Again, the net is cast so wide that the term has no meaning. We were originally asked to imagine a Bahamas without art, but a country without cultural workers, as vaguely as the term is being deployed, would be a place missing a full quarter of its work force. And if we stretch the definition just a bit further to those who feel under-appreciated, which is the direction the text leans, we could really include everyone — I am sure that even the Prime Minister feels unappreciated at times.

Just for argument’s sake, lets say we narrow “cultural workers” down to only those people engaged in a creative venture, like a civil servant who judges Junkanoo or a hair braider plaiting a tourist’s hair. Now would we expect these people to have the same grievances as artists? Does a cashier at the gift shop at the National Art Gallery have the same concerns as the painters whose work surrounds him? Or does a DJ at Love 97 have the same problems with their job as the Bahamian musicians whose records she (occasionally) plays? Does someone who has written a single poem have the same issues as a poet with several published manuscripts? Probably not. Does lumping together anyone who ever had anything to do with something even remotely artistic help us figure out what is wrong with Bahamian art? The answer is the same.

Instead of working so hard to think of a Bahamas without art or a Bahamas without “cultural workers” can we cut to the chase and imagine a Bahamas without a chronically underfunded, understaffed and crippled Department of Culture? It may not be so hard to do. According to an article by Larry Smith,

The [Department] of Culture has a $2 million allocation — less than Bahamas Information Services — and most of that goes to fund the annual Junkanoo parades. The remainder is used to finance festivals throughout The Bahamas, maintain a “national theatre”, and run the National Arts Festival.

What would the state of the arts in the country be if this department / division did not exist? Obviously, one of its main functions is to keep Junkanoo going, and if there is one cultural thing that can get money in this country, it is Junkanoo — so that will undoubtedly continue under some other authority.1 Although it is listed as a responsibility of the Department of Culture on their website, it appears that the National Art Gallery spins in its own orbit as a separate institution; so that would likely continue as well. In total, we would probably lose the National Arts Festival and a few grants. In essence the Bahamas as we know it would be unchanged. While it would be a shame to have a country without this Department, to think that it plays any significant role in the development of Bahamian culture is to grossly overstate the importance that it, and the government, play in relation to the arts.

  1. Perhaps the department should simply be renamed the “Department of Junkanoo and Festivals.” This might remove most of the ambiguity that surrounds it. []

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5 comments ↓

#1 Day of Absence 2010: Introduction on 12.31.09 at 9:46 pm

[...] it’s generating some pretty solid critique. Over on Mental Slavery and on Bahama Pundit, Ward Minnis has taken apart the idea pretty thoroughly. In a nutshell the core of the critique is that (a) the concept is ill-founded and muddled, and the [...]

#2 Day of Absence 2010: First Response – Clarity on 01.02.10 at 11:25 am

[...] critique(s) offered by Ward Minnis about the Day of Absence concept on his blog, Mental Slavery, and on Bahama Pundit, are both comprehensive and impressive. And he’s right, in several [...]

#3 Day of Absence – Second Response: Quality on 01.02.10 at 6:26 pm

[...] by Nicolette Bethel on January 2, 2010 … are all Bahamian artists worthy of respect? The simple answer is no. Why should anyone respect bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals? … Allow me to suggest that there are perhaps two reasons why Bahamians, on the whole, have not received much in the way of international (or local) acclaim for their art. The first is that average Bahamians, and the rest of the world, don’t understand us. The other, and more interesting, reason is that we are not that good. Ward Minnis, “Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents”, p. 2 [...]

#4 Day of Absence ‘10: 11 February 2010 on 02.06.10 at 5:32 pm

[...] The critique interrogates that very idea of respect. Articulated by Ward Minnis just in time for the new year, it questions the call to respect artists, particularly in The Bahamas, when artists themselves appear not to respect their craft as they should. It also questions the idea of absence, suggesting that good art, conscious art, art that challenges rather than anaesthetizes is already absent enough in our nation, and calling for a Day of Presence. And it queries the political resonance of the title of the day, resisting the parallel with the place of African-Americans in the pre-civil rights era. Here’s just a taste of it (but to fully comprehend it, you must go and read the whole thing on his blog Mental Slavery): [...]

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