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Trying to Make a Dollar Out of Fifty Cents

Government and the Arts


It would seem that one of the main reasons behind the Day of Absence is to awaken government to take up the responsibility that it supposedly had in the cultural golden age of the 70s and early 80s. Of course, such a wake-up call brings up, not only the uncomfortable issue of government handouts, but also the even more difficult problem of deciding who should get what. In a lengthy comments thread on her blog, Nicolette has taken pains to make clear that she is “talking about trade, exchange, not handouts.” She suggests that a way to improve the tourist product in the country is not by hiring foreign advertising agencies to create alluring ads about a non-existent vacation experience, but to invest that money instead in local cultural industries. She gives as an example the government doing “something as simple as commissioning a Bahamian to create a show for the tourist market” at fair market prices instead of asking the artist to do it out of “love of country.” She is basically asking for the Bahamianization of tourist entertainment. The equation is straightforward, if the government funds the local arts scene, tourists have more to see and more to do while they are here and will spend more money that will go into Bahamian pockets.

This explains a good deal of the rhetoric of “RESPECT” in the Day of Absence proposals. Bahamians, it is argued, generally do not want to pay another Bahamian for their art, but want that work donated, while at the same time they would quickly pay top dollar for the same work if it came from some foreigner. The argument goes that if artists could get the same respect as business people, then they could get loans to fund their art-based industries. In line with the above theory, if government took the lead and redirected its funding, not in hand-outs, but in the “legitimate” exchange of cash for services rendered, then we could get somewhere.

Feed Me

The suggestion that Bahamian artists should be supported by the government has been the most resisted part of Nicolette’s proposal. It was first challenged by Bahamian poet, singer, song writer and architect Pat Rahming, and later by Rick Lowe of the Nassau Institute. Bethel claims that her critics have misread her, that she never proposed anything as banal as an “artists union.” But did everyone get the memo? In another photo from the COB demonstration, an artist slash cultural worker had his mouth taped shut with the words “Feed Me!” written across the masking tape. Is his request completely out of line with Dr. Bethel’s proposals? Does he not get the message she is preaching? It is quite likely that he did indeed read the manifesto; Nicolette seems to be of two minds in this matter and disentangling her separate arguments is, admittedly, not a simple task.

Take for instance where the Day of Absence manifesto decries our artistic “brain drain” which occurs when

Bahamians who want to exercise their talents in the cultural industries are faced with the choice of pursuing their callings as hobbies at home, or of leaving home to make a living by their gifts elsewhere.

How are we to prevent this brain drain if we do not provide these people with a decent living? If the artists ought to remain, and it is the society’s duty to ensure not only their artistic development but also their continued employment once they have matured, then it is naturally the artist’s right to demand room and board. Hence, we have the message written across the mouth of the demonstrator: a simple imperative sentence without a please or a thank-you.

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#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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