The arts: it’s time to trust the people Yorkshire Post 25 April 2011
Published in the Yorkshire Post 25 April 2011
As reported extensively in this newspaper, the arts locally and nationally face major cuts in public funding this year. InYorkshire, several organizations have been hit especially hard, including the Wakefield Theatre Royal, the Phoenix Dance Theatre and the Northern Ballet. Although there are a few winners, they are heavily outweighed by the losers. Taken as a whole, the cuts will reduce jobs and opportunity in Yorkshire, reduce the contribution of the arts to education and worthwhile activity for all ages in Yorkshire, and makeYorkshireless attractive to residents and visitors.
The cuts were the consequence of government policy. But none of them bear the government’s fingerprints – because they were done “at arm’s length” by the Arts Council of England. Ever since its inception, the Arts Council has regularly been pilloried for its supposed extravagance in spending public money on the arts. But in tough times, the Council actually makes it much easier to cut support for the arts. It allows ministers to dodge responsibility for the resulting pain and transfer the blame to an unelected quango.
No other branch of public spending provides such an institutional air-raid shelter to protect the responsible ministers. When Nye Bevan created the National Health Service, he famously claimed that the loss of a single bedpan would reverberate aroundWhitehall. In spite of endless reorganizations since then, that central principle still applies. Health ministers answer for every item of spending within the NHS. The same is true in defence, welfare, education, and all the other big-ticket items in public expenditure. But when it comes to the arts, a much smaller source of public spending, the minister signs a cheque each year and lets other people decide what to do with taxpayer money.
This so-called “arm’s length” principle for arts spending was established by J M Keynes, when he created the Arts Council as a successor to the more descriptively-named wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. Keynes was a polymath and a genius, but the arm’s length principle was something he got wrong. He wanted artists to be free to express themselves without the taint of political patronage and the fear of political interference. Yet throughout history, artists of all kinds have produced great work under the direct patronage of rulers and governments, with no need of a protective buffer. Handel’s music became no worse when George II started to pay for it, and Shakespeare’s plays no worse when his theatre company was taken over by James I. Rubens was paid and even knighted by two different national monarchs without compromising his talent.
Keynes saw how totalitarian states, especially Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, had turned culture into propaganda and tormented artists who refused to collaborate. Modern tyrants like Kim Il-Sung and Saddam Hussein followed them and littered their countries with monumental works of themselves in heroic poses amidst their adoring subjects. ButBritainis not a tyranny, and any government which commissioned artistic propaganda would be laughed out of office. Imagine a giant painting of “David Cameron Bestowing The Blessings Of The Big Society.” Imagine a giant painting of Ed Miliband… Doing what? This might have to be an abstract work. Perhaps an all-white canvas with a single black dot, leaving all the rest to the imagination.
The Arts Council is an elitist institution founded on distrust of the British people, and it would remain elitist even if Simon Cowell became chairman and appointed all the other members. By its very existence, the Council assumes that the British people would not make good choices in supporting the arts.
It recently produced a mission statement called “A Strategic Framework For The Arts.” Like most such statements, it is brimful of babble, bombast and bromides, and commits the Council to support excellence in the arts. The statement fails to define excellence, and it does not explain whyBritainneeds a collection of unelected worthies to set goals and standards in the arts. Why cannot the British people do this for themselves, through their elected representatives, as they do in every other branch of government?
It’s time to say thank you and goodbye to the Arts Council. The staff and funding it now devotes to Yorkshire should be transferred to Yorkshire councils, and elected councillors should answer to voters for the state ofYorkshire’s cultural life.
Of course, there are risks with this policy. Some councils might not spend the new money at all, and others would make what they imagine to be safe, popular choices – perhaps filling galleries with pictures of puppies in a basket or erecting silly statues of Michael Jackson. Others will be suckered into commissioning monumental follies in the belief that these will be “iconic” (memo to all commissioners: icons are small objects, not big ones).
Such risks are worth taking, because voters will eventually punish such mistakes and demand better choices. That is how democracy always improves public services, and if the arts are to be funded as a public service the people responsible for them should face voters directly instead of cowering behind a quango.