Tuesday 4 May 2010

Arts funding: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil

Public funding of the arts has not been an issue in the general election. It should be.

There’s been scant discussion about arts funding, or the future of the BBC, in the run up to this year’s election. Some might heave a sigh of relief that politics has finally moved onto more hardcore issues like the economy and immigration. Yet this would miss the point. In truth, a refusal to think openly about public funding of the arts in the UK not only reinforces the idea that today’s problem are simply technical and ‘economic’, but implicitly affirms the instrumental logic of contemporary cultural policy itself. More than this, sidelining public service broadcasting means failing to do justice to what should be one of the biggest issues of the election: the future of the welfare state.

Indeed, brushing aside discussion about the future of UK cultural institutions like the ICA (recently propped up by the Arts Council), the Arts Council itself, the British Library, the nation’s museums - along with the whole gamut of public subsisdy to various cultural initiatives in various forms - does not represent a newfangled return to party political lines about more Serious matters. Neither does it come from a thought that ‘cultural politics’ are not actually all that. Pas si simple. In fact, it only expresses the worst instincts of the political class; avoiding the problem where it is at its most acute and obvious. And significantly, when the cultural sector, which has in many ways been at the forefront of the British political agenda for at least the last decade, is about ready to morph into something quite different.

Striking the future of cultural institutions and publicly funded or sponsored arts initiatives - not least the BBC, C4 and so on - off the debate agenda means stymieing discussion where it could be most out in the open, where it could potentially develop new ways of doing things which more directly respond the wants, tastes and interests of the electorate, such as they are. Importantly, this would mean acknowledging the decrepit nature of multiculturalism and moving swiftly on; making a sharp turn away from a patronising pandering attitude to ‘the public’; and daring to begin to develop new ways of coming together as civilised adults.

Questions such as what radio stations and programmes we’re happy paying tax for (if any), where our news should come from and where our political debate should take place, what artworks should be displayed in national galleries and museums, whether we think publicly funded opera is a public good or national heritage sites are worth the upkeep, what cultural authorities we want to defend – and which get rid of – what’s the future of the internet and is there potential for one nation-wide provision if we all sign up, in this sense have an admittedly limited - though in fact quite telling - importance. Not least is it worth thinking about new models for relating to such institutions not as consumers (which is the trend today whether they’re ‘state’ or ‘market’ - and the line is increasingly blurred), but as actively involved participants; patrons or dedicated audiences. As they often lead the way, for better or for worse, it is possible to conceive that experimenting in this vein with the arts and cultural sector is wiser than going haywire in surgeries and schools.

Of course, these things may seem in some ways ‘trivial’ or self-propelling in the face of unemployment or bed shortages in the NHS. But again, to see it this way would be to miss the point: that these ‘hard’ issues are neither honestly approached nor seriously considered. Regardless of whether we’re turned on by particular ‘artsy’ issues on an individual level, a discussion about the public worth – and public funding – of today’s cultural institutions goes beyond a tit for tat about whether the BFI shuld get more than the NT or the MiMA be more flaghsip than the Turbine Hall, darling. What is important is to foreground the public aspect of these institutions, to think about what is good for the wider society. It is this that has real potential to go beyond the empty form of many political ideas and realities and fill things out with real content. And even, to maybe break free of the stifling managerialism that tempers most political discussion and social realities elsewhere. This is precisely because of the peculiar status of the arts and culture in contemporary society, not in spite of it.

Of course, this is not to claim there are not other pressing issues connected to the welfare state, such as the future of healthcare and the benefit system. Neither is it to mindlessly cheerlead about the arts - or to make an ipso facto case against socialised provision and safety nets. Quite the contrary. Indeed, it is telling the popular case around the NHS and benefits seems to take a one-sided and flimsy approach that favours ‘cuts’ on mostly technical grounds of the need to reduce spending - simply, so the wisdom goes, because we’re not rich enough. This defeatest mentality often ends up borrowing moral authority from today’s obsession with managing everyday behaviour (ironcially, most enacted through the state itself) – the idea that smokers’ bad habits must be discouraged through schemes to make smokers pay for their own treatment, for instance, is perceived as at least a passable reason to rethink welfare, rather than any more positive idea of a healthcare system fit for twenty-first century lives. 

Furthermore, today’s odd lack of discussion around the arts can’t simply be traced to a disorientated political class, increasingly aware of its own lack of legitimacy and afraid to put a toe out of line. It also concerns a quite real inability in the wider society to imagine what the arts, and our public cultural institutions in general, might look like - both in the present and beyond.

This is why the state of the arts, even of the BBC, is actually quite embarrassing not just to policywonks and politicians with their endless stream of schemes and initiatives to improve either ‘social’ or ‘economic’ benefits, but to these institutions themselves and the people who use them. Even then, as much as there are complaints and frustration with the Beeb, not least a failure of its mainstream channels to connect with audiences, it seems equally cherished as a progressive good few will attack (at least explicitly) at institutional level. Of course, historically the BBC has played a frequently positive role; and there may well be many aspects of the institution we still consider both worthwhile and useful today and want to preserve - the idea of a reliable news source, Radio 3 or regular local and national coverage of events for instance. Yet we should not let this blind us to new and better possiblities.

Indeed, the arts - drama, theatre and programming more broadly - can also have a peculiar knack of reflecting and distilling contemporary social realities; throwing them back at us and forcing us to engage and reconsider. The shape of things can be very clear through the arts. In current times, this is true in a double sense. Not only do various artists and artworks manage to express at times how people may feel or see things, in a succinct way – however dissatisfying this may sometimes be to audiences, but further, the state of the cultural sector itself is a very clear example of what is both wrong and damaging about contemporary society: a shoehorning of the imagination coupled with genuine and quite palpable social atomisation.

We live in a time of both unprecedented material wealth and freedom, and histrionic problematisation of wealth and ambivalence about that freedom. The arts express this contradiction clearly; they are both more stable and better supported than in the past and can depict more or less what they want to, yet they are also laden with petty legislation and a culture of conservatism and self-censorship, suffocated by all sorts of expectations they can - on their own - never fulfil.

This is why it is of key importance that artists and musicians, playwrights and architects, have full freedom of expression to explore their own ideas, pursue their own creativity, associate and move freely - and make what they will of their material and the world. Policy initiatives clog up what has been termed the ‘cultural sector’; a climate of box-ticking and hoop-jumping burdens the artistic imagination with endless ‘to do’ lists and appointments other than the important business of thinking about, developing and making works of art with great aspirations, whatever they may be.

In this, politicians would do well to free up the arts from such murderous expectations and checks. Of course, this means not just challenging libel laws and the extension of hate speech laws and anti-terror legislation to art galleries and theatres (in the spirit of the Institute of Ideas Pledges for Progress), but also challenging audiences, artists and concerned citizens themselves seeking to overcome the broader culture of conservatism and censoriousness in the arts, to defend the importance and integrity of artistic judgement.

There is a second function other than reflecting and distilling that the arts can play in society (in fact, there are many). The arts in many manifestations represent a space where new possibilities can be imagined, free from the petty and often wearing constraints of the everyday. Indeed, it is only when the arts are able to unabashedly be themselves in this way that that they can lift us beyond the here and now. New ways of constructing cultural institutions, importantly their relations to audiences and their funding, are key to this end. And perhaps once the issue is openly considered, there will be some surprising conclusions.

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