Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sitting on committees

I've sat on a few committees in my time, and I've always been fascinated by the way they work. The first 'proper' committee I was appointed to, something or other to do with Women's Suffrage in the early 1990s, included a sole male member (so to speak) who had been put there -- or so he announced proudly -- as a punishment for repeatedly making sexist remarks in the council chamber.

On the committee, he referred to himself as 'a thorn amongst the roses', beaming genially round the table at the various representatives of women's groups. I recall that he spoke about the suffragettes' bloomers a lot, and consumed most of the sausage rolls. Meanwhile a couple of ladies in sensible shoes steamrollered through the agenda items they had [evidently] mutually agreed upon prior to the meetings. I sat there drinking endless cups of stewed Cona coffee and squeaking ineffectively from time to time. I was thanked for my contribution. Horrible outcomes were vigorously pursued. From this experience I learned pretty much all I have subsequently needed to know about the usual functioning of committees.

I was interested, then, to recently come across the great art historian Herbert Read's thoughts on selection committees in the arts. Here he is in 1948* speaking about the State's patronage of artists, in the 'selection of artists to work for the State and of works of art to be bought by the State':

"I have served on many such committees and in my experience only one of three things can happen:

1. something is chosen which offends nobody, beause its virtues are negative;

2. a little bit of everything is chosen to please everybody;

3. the committee agrees to be realistic and to allow one member to make the choice for all of them: the committee, that is to say, resign its functions in despair.

The first two possibilities merely lead to compromises: they do not imply intelligent patronage and can hardly be said to encourage the best in art. The third possibility is equivalent to the administrator's own choice, and the State is really paying for the indulgence of one man's taste, to which it then proceeds to give the sanction of its anonymous authority."

Knew what he was talking about, old Herbert. (Of course, a fourth possibility may be considered: that the composition of the selection committee and the significance of the opportunity might be such that after sparkling and impassioned debate and argument, a project of great merit and substance is selected to everyone's satisfaction. I have heard of such things happening, and occasionally -- very occasionally -- have even witnessed it.)

*Herbert Read, 'The Fate of Modern Painting', Hudson Review, vol.1, no.1, Spring 1948.


Laurie Duggan said...

Welcome back. you've been missed!

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Cheers Laurie. Nice to be back. It's a feast or a famine!