February 6, 2011 Leave a comment
The most important question that needs to be asked about public funding of the arts in the UK is this: what kind of an arts culture as a society do we want – even more directly indeed what kind of a society do we want?
The worst-case scenario is that the current government will cut public funding to the arts so much that only the so-called ‘heritage industry’ survives as being state funded, supported to cater for a financially viable tourist industry, and everything else – labelled in recent years as ‘the creative industries’ is left to fend for itself in the market place. Actually that is not the worst- case scenario – since this government in the end would, I am sure, privatise (or ‘devolve the functions of’) the national museums and galleries as well – I understand this has indeed been looked at and fortunately (for the time being at least) rejected. Free admission to the nationals would have gone as soon as this government had taken over except that that is a policy clearly popular with the public and – more importantly for this government – (fortuitously for us) it brings in money as well.
I wonder though if the tag ‘creative industries’ has now become part of the problem, encapsulating too much a sense of the market, reintroducing, as New Labour encouraged, the ideas of known and overly clarifiable intentions, (target) audiences and commercial return as being more or less essential aspects of artistic production, rather than the emphasis being laid on the work itself .
The previous government’s access policy, while being effective in encouraging public involvement in the arts through education and outreach programmes (which will be some of the first things to go with the current cuts), is also potentially constricting when applied to artists themselves who need to be allowed the space and freedom to do the work they do. It is well worth revisiting the views of those such as the critic Ken Tynan whose 1968 address to the Royal Society of the Arts on a new – and newly subsidised – National Theatre has been reproduced on the National Theatre website:
‘You would be surprised how hard it is, in a society where “theatre” “means theatre for private profit”, to explain to people that this theatre actually belongs to them. We are not selling a product; we are providing a service. Success at the box office is no longer the only criterion: we would rather have a first-rate work playing to less than capacity than a third-rate one filling the house.’
The argument, though – which is nevertheless a potent one – that the arts are now a huge force economically and that considerably more (not less) public investment would greatly help secure economic growth (the evidence is abundant that this is so) is not swaying a government plainly antipathetic to all public funding.
Indeed the usefulness of the economic argument is at present as much to trash the question ‘Why should the arts be supported when many important services are being cut?’ – a divide and rule policy of course as soon as one understands that there is no such thing as a government’s economic policy which is not deeply characterised by the political bias of the party in power. As a society we share all the cuts that emanate from the same current policy.
Further evidence of such a bias is clear from the fact that the government is strongly encouraging philanthropy and corporate sponsorship at a time when public funding in the arts is being severely cut, with the strong implication being that public funding is to be replaced, rather than the sector as a whole strengthened through overall greater funding.
My belief is that it is the work of the artist which is the contribution to society. If we shift the balance away from our mixed system of funding (one third state funding, one third box office, one third private investment) then we are – as in the USA with its largely philanthropic model – in danger of creating a blander, more conservative and less innovative arts culture.
The bottom line must be: do we wish to support artists or don’t we? If not then we will have a much more narrowly defined arts culture (one which does not prize risk-taking, depth or long term development) and, as a consequence, a narrower society and one indeed significantly further away from Keynes’s goal of a ‘communal civilised society’. The effect would be that the potential for much work will disappear, and many artists – those who can – are likely to leave for more exciting and stimulating cultural environments.