14 September 2020

The Arts Council is beyond help, but it could at least be honest about its agenda

By Kit Wilson

Writing in the Spectator 30 years ago, Kingsley Amis described the Arts Council as a “detestable and destructive body”, whose grants encouraged artists to “sod the public” and “seek the more immediate approval of their colleagues and friends instead”. 

Amis was giving voice to a widespread suspicion of the time: that cabals of high-minded artists were snaffling up large pots of public money. But today, the Arts Council has cleaned up its act. Gone, supposedly, are the factions, the snobbery, and the blatant favouritism. And frankly, I’m not sure the results are any better.

I’m here with the Arts Council’s ‘Strategic Framework’ for 2010-2020 in front of me, trying to tease some life from its 10,000 words. I start, somewhat mischievously, by searching for the word “sublime”. No results. Fair enough – it’s a bit archaic, after all. How about “beauty”? Nope, nothing. Fine, let’s lower the bar a little further: “passion”, perhaps? Nowt. Hm. “Emotion”? Zilch. 

Ten thousand words.

Never mind. At least “stakeholder”, that nifty catch-all, appears seven times. And variants of “diversity” feature a whopping 24 times. Art helps us to “raise awareness”, “challenge ideas” and “question the world”. You know, a bit like a fortune cookie.

These days the Arts Council can justify every last penny of its £622m budget; it just does so without mentioning any of the things that make art… well, art

No hint of craft, or inventiveness. No suggestion, even, that there’s such a thing as ‘good’ art. The manifesto writers restrict themselves – as if to make my point for me – to using the word ‘good’ just twice: “good policy decisions”, and some candyfloss about how art is “good for society”. 

Which is a little odd for a pamphlet called ‘Great Art and Culture for Everyone’. 

But then, to talk about quality would be a bit elitist, wouldn’t it? Instead, the Council simply demands that organisations “demonstrate how they will make their work relevant to a wider range of audiences”. 

This all has consequences. Take the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, for instance, which had its funding entirely wiped out a few years ago. Shortly afterwards, its artistic director limply admitted – as the Arts Council’s firing squad reloaded just off-screen – that, well, yes, “the audience does need to diversify even further to more fully reflect south-west London”. The poor guy is their artistic director

Look, I agree with the Arts Council that poor kids should have better access to good art (well, we almost do: I added the “good” bit). But you don’t achieve it by telling the artists themselves what to do. 

“They’re not telling anybody what to do!” the apologists reply. “The Arts Council is neutral—it’s not supposed to define good and bad art, just to ensure equal access and opportunity.”

But that’s a fib.

Consider this from the Arts Council’s former Chief Executive, Alan Davey: “if we get diversity right we get better art”. Or how about this quote from Brian McMaster, used in the Arts Council’s Creative Case for Diversity: “It is my belief that culture can only be excellent when it is relevant, and thus nothing can be excellent without reflecting the society which produces and experiences it.”

It seems to me – if you look at the great artistic rivalries – that the best art arose quite often from something Mr Davey would hate: the basic impulse to eclipse everybody else. I’m not sure Schoenberg and Stravinsky, or Matisse and Picasso for that matter, were too hot on diversity. But the Council paints in primary colours – equality is good; if we graft it onto the arts, we’ll get better art. Right? 

Part of me secretly pines for the pompous cliques that ruffled Amis. I like to imagine an austere modernist, sitting in a fuggy office somewhere, muttering, “damn them all to hell, we’ll fund nothing but serialism”. At least we’d know where they stood. But today’s bureaucrats wouldn’t have the first clue where to begin. The utilitarian sleight of hand, which made social progress, not aesthetic quality, the whole point of art, has left them completely stumped.

It’s easy, in retrospect, to see how it happened. A little over a hundred years ago, when God was laid to rest, they buried him with the words “good” and “bad” at his side. Artists, in search of something else with which to plump up their creations, suddenly turned to politics. For a while, they managed to convince themselves that an angular chord here or stodgy brushstroke there really could convey some political truth: the avant-garde composer Luigi Nono once slapped his protégé Helmut Lachenmann on the wrist for repeating a pair of notes more than once. “Where is your political standpoint?” he demanded.

But no such illusion is possible today. We realise, now, that it doesn’t really matter how many times you repeat the notes. Music is, after all, as Steven Pinker says, just “auditory cheesecake”, however you choose to slice it. Want to change the world? Then your best bet is just to donate the ticket sales to charity.

Having been stripped first of its aesthetic allure, then of its political clout, art ended up with nothing better to do than to stand around with a donations box, offering pleasantries to passers-by. And that’s just how the Arts Council likes to think of artists – as a bunch of harmless social workers.

There’s something tragic about this reduction of art – perhaps the highest form of human expression – to mere box-ticking. Organisations are now refused funding without exception if they cannot demonstrate, with cold, hard data, reasonable levels of “diversity”. Can the Arts Council conceive of no higher purpose for the arts? Is there no celestial sphere beyond basic do-goodery towards which artists should set their sights? Or is it that it believes society is now so utilitarian that we would rise up against anything that smacked of the transcendent? 

Whatever the reason, it evidently feels the need to conceal its decisions beneath shawls of corporate jargon, as though trying to convey as little actual meaning as possible—take this beauty, for instance: “It was a successful intervention that laid the foundation for the breaking down of existing disability and race ‘silos’ and a release of dialogue, collaboration and creativity.”

So here’s my suggestion: set aside some public money to subsidise writing workshops, instrumental lessons and theatre tickets for kids who can’t afford them. And be honest about it – call it an ‘Access to Arts’ fund, or something. Hell, establish some ‘social benevolence’ grants for select organisations doing demonstrable good in our communities. But leave the artists themselves alone. 

If you want the disadvantaged to genuinely benefit from the arts, hoist them up so they can see what’s out there. Don’t patronise them by telling them that good art is really just that which makes them feel warm and fuzzy.

As for the arts themselves, the formula is simple: stick your neck out, make the honest case for why something is great, and fund it. Sadly, I’m not convinced the Arts Council will ever really be up to the task. Bureaucracies tend not to notice exceptions, and it’s the exceptions that make the best artists. The great patrons invested irrationally and obsessively in their artists, and I don’t know how the state can ever emulate that. But it can, at the very least, be honest about its agenda.

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Kit Wilson is a writer and musician.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.