The writing’s on the wall: some notes towards a Conservative arts policy

Who’d be a proper, MSM-grade journalist, forever digging through the muck for a tiny shred of straw around which to shape something that might plausibly resemble an actual, payment-worthy brick?

As the party of enterprise, at any rate, Conservatives really ought to applaud the efforts of the Sun hack who managed to extract from a speech by Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport Jeremy Hunt MP a story entirely worthy of being set alongside, last time I looked, articles discussing people having a shower in the Big Brother House, the Army’s discovery of UFOs flitting high above Shropshire, and the vexed issue of whether tennis shorts are ‘sexy’ (this latter complete with expository photos, to aid the uncommitted in their deliberations).

Admittedly, in this company the Hunt story suffers marginally from lack of colour. Titled Tory: Graffiti is so passionate (but Hunt enthusiasts needn’t worry, the usual ‘top Tory’ formula kicks in very soon thereafter), the point of the article — file under ‘Tory Gaffe’ — is to flag up an entirely unremarkable reference to the ‘thought provoking’ nature of at least some graffiti. The reference, in turn, was made in the course of Mr Hunt’s recent speech at the invitation of what ConHome described (only slightly breathless in its wishful boosterism) as ‘Peter Whittle’s increasing influential New Culture Forum‘, on the subject of Conservative cultural policy.

It’s a rich, if in some ways invariably depressing topic. Still, let’s get graffiti out of the way first. Predictably, because at some level he’s a very reasonable sort of person, Mr Hunt’s comment was itself perfectly reasonable — as I’d happily admit myself, some graffiti can be quite eye-catching, amusing, occasionally even powerful, as indeed can many things thrown up by life that don’t quite add up to ‘art’. Equally predictably, however, Mr Hunt has attracted criticism from traditionally-minded Tories who both view graffiti as vandalism, and who resent (implicitly or explicitly) the idea of mentioning it in the context of ‘culture’. And so it perhaps has more to do with the overall theme of predictability, rather than any native cynicism, that Hunt’s graffiti reference strikes me as so very calculated.

On one level, he’s down there with the (obviously non-homophobic, non-misogynistic, in fact impeccably liberal and indeed progressive) kids, ‘getting’ street art (a form that’s only been kicking around the halls of high culture for, say, a mere four decades or so, and that didn’t achieve its first six-digit auction-house hammer price until somewhere in, say, the mid 1980s), while at another level he’s splashing the clear blue water of ideological distinctiveness all over the sort of mythic Tory from the shires who doesn’t much like vandals, adores Munnings’s pictures especially when there are horses in them, and who has long since started to wonder whether that nice Mr Cameron was such a good idea after all. And while doing both these things — all without notes, according to ConHome, which with like-minded observers gets oddly excited over such minor miracles, suggesting (among other things) very little time spent at the theatre — Mr Hunt’s simultaneously managed to project a not-entirely-fascinating Tory policy statement into the red-tops. Greatness, or at any rate early promotion, surely beckons?

For the rest of Mr Hunt’s speech, however, we must rely on ConHome, as, once the potential for outrage had faded, the Sun soon lost interest, and as far as I can see the NCF are, understandably, confining their increasing influence to forms of communication less demotic than the internet.

The first point flagged up in the ConHome story is, in any event, this: ‘The creative industries are vital to the British economy and regeneration.’ So, the arts, sport and the rest of the ‘creative industries’ (some sources include amongst these PR, something which must bring a warm flush of pride to the cheeks both of Mr Cameron and Mr Hunt, both of whose careers have really included very little other than PR) are more than fluffy, feel-good amenities: they actually bring in money, too! Thus the prime justification for caring about culture, at least as a matter of policy, would seem to be an instrumental one.

Now, there’s a sense in which I don’t entirely disagree with this. Of course, at the individual level, ‘culture’ signifies an awful lot more than the give and take of revenue. But at the level of state policy, ought it to mean anything more than that — at least in the broader sense, of serving the ends of the state? In my view, anyway, the few instances in which state ‘investment’ in culture has been anything other than malign, have invariably been those in which the goals were very tightly defined, and adherence to them ruthlessly policed, as for instance Kenneth Clark’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee, which nurtured some of the best British visual art of the twentieth century — not art for art’s sake, either, but art to help Britain first win a war then negotiate the beginnings of a sort of compromised, partial, contingent peace. What such schemes are not, in contrast, is a scatter-gun subsidy for self-expression, or a kind of pious dole expended with the hope that somehow better art, or at any rate better-funded art, will produce better Britons. Stretching back further, it would seem short-sighted to begrudge the public funds expended on Handel’s Fireworks Music, or James Thornhill’s various public commissions. The point, anyway, has less to do with the quality of the art in some abstracted sense, as the fact that in each of these instances the British state got good value out of the cash it disbursed. Culture funded at that level does, at some level, at least potentially ‘work’, which is why I can’t entirely bring myself to deplore, as most critics surely would by this point, the crass instrumentalism of what ConHome, at any rate, renders as a central axis of Mr Hunt’s cultural tour d’horizon.

According to ConHome, Mr Hunt’s second major point was to applaud the ‘many good things’ that Labour has done for the arts, but to insist that a ‘renaissance’ began under to Conservatives in 1994, with the establishment of the National Lottery. Personally, I could have done with a list of those ‘many good things’, which seem entirely to have slipped my mind, as the main thrust of Labour’s interaction with the arts seems to me to have been its embarassingly unrequited crush on Cool Britannia, a sort of tragic school-girl crush that only died when some half-forgotten band poured a bucket of ice over the Deputy Leader’s head, and then suddenly everyone who was anyone undertook anti-war agit-prop as the retro-style of several successive seasons.

As for the Lottery, again, my views are somewhat mixed. Voluntary taxes clearly have the edge over compulsory ones, while the revenue-raising strategies of seventeenth century Amsterdam tend to appeal long after the charms of nineteenth century state-aggrandizement have faded. As someone with a minimal grasp of statistics and a faintly pessimistic cast of mind, the Lottery is, I have long realised, not primarily aimed at me. And yet perhaps, sometimes, it funds something that would otherwise go unfunded, the positive consequences of which I enjoy. To the extent that Labour has turned its purposes to include the sort of projects (especially the health-care related ones) that have nothing to do with the original intentions with which the legislation creating it was framed, it had probably ought to be brought back to its four ‘pillars’ — arts, heritage, sport and ‘local community causes’. Yet at the same time, I cannot help but deplore the way in which ‘Lottery cash’ distorts the ‘market’ in charitable giving, so that some causes end up tainted by the fact that for whatever failure of politically-correct appeal, they are unable to achieve Lottery funding, while at the same time other projects are being dreamed up for the sole purpose of ticking the relevant Lottery boxes. Decent, sensible people like Mr Hunt, who wish to reform the Lottery, ought to stop and wonder why enterprises that are to a large degree publicly organised and funded — education, health, public transport — are invariably so tiresomely problematic, while the ones that are organised without intervention from the state — providing people with food, clothing and many of their leisure activities — simply work so much better. Might all those ‘good causes’ in fact be better off if they were liberated from playing this particular, in many ways flawed and mis-firing system?

All of which brings us to what appears to be the real substance of Mr Hunt’s recent talk: a call for greater involvement by private charities. No Conservative worthy of the name really ought to argue with this. Of course we ought to live in a world in which private altruism is not only welcome, but so instinctive and habitual as to be almost unworthy of notice, except of course by God, who, by virtue of His omniscience, can be expected to pick up the slack for quite an amazing amount of rational ignorance.

The uncomfortable truth that ‘progressive’ Conservatives tend to forget at this point, however, is that private altruism cannot truly be welcomed as natural or normal in the same world in which public ‘generosity’ towards ‘good causes’ is treated as anything other than the cynical theft of other people’s money in order to serve the ends of the ruling clique. (The ruling clique itself, of course, may not be expected to voice such objections very clearly, but any society really ought to throw up enough innate controversialists to do the heavy lifting themselves.) In other words, it’s fair enough to tinker with taxes and scatter the odd allowance, but as long as ‘culture’ is seen as the ambit of the State, into which private intervention can only be exceptional, ‘charity’ will languish, becoming the preserve only of those who will themselves to be virtually para-statal. People who only give generously in order to gain some worthless title (because during this annoying hiatus in the history of an effective hereditary peerage, all titles are by definition ‘worthless’) are in effect doing the State’s own bidding at some incalculably narrow remove. Meanwhile, libertarians, the sort of liberals who enjoy Hayek, and certainly real conservatives will wish for a more vigorous encouragement towards the obvious benefits of state-free philanthropy.

Ultimately, however, the most brutally effective means of cossetting private philanthropy — which is to say, cutting off all public funding to the arts immediately, coupled with some commensurate if probably undetectable reduction in taxation — requires stronger nerves than contemporary politicians of any party possess. The problem, here, has less to do with electoral unpopularity per se than with the entirely understandable, indeed wholly recognisable personal vanity of individual political actors, who may not wish to be labelled ‘philistines’ by Simon Jenkins, or made the subject of wounding reproaches by Kevin Spacey, or subjected to an icy glare from Neil MacGregor at some otherwise genial social function. For we have arrived, somehow, at a point where to be ‘the party of the arts’ — a title that Mr Hunt, somewhere in his talk, apparently claimed for the Conservatives — equates to being a party of a species of virtue all the more uncontroversial for being secular, apolitical and personally advantageous. The reason why 10 per cent tips, and upwards, seem ‘normal’ is that we know that the staff involved are often sadly underpaid. Trust me, if we knew the same about ‘the arts’, a bit more cash might well be forthcoming.

All of which brings us to something else — the notion that ‘free museums are here to stay’, according to Mr Hunt. The career of Hugo Swire MP, a genuine Tory and a decent man, came unstuck on this exact point, when he was forced to resign over saying what, to me, sounded like something perfectly sensible. For why on earth should cultural institutions not be given the ‘freedom’ to decide whether to charge or not, with the understanding that such revenue could indeed fund new pictures, exhibits and visitor facilities?

And here, I admittedly write with a degree of special pleading. I have a three-year old son, who is very curious about the world around him, and am fortunate enough to live in central London, and am not a fan of professional childcare. Thus, over the past three years, I have spent a peculiarly enormous amount of time in museums, galleries and other ‘cultural institutions’. Some, like the Natural History Museum, the British Museum or the Science Museum, do not charge for entry. But other firm favourites do indeed charge, and in fact charge quite a lot. The London Transport Museum, for instance, costs £10 (gift aid included) for the single adult who necessarily accompanies the three-year old free-rider. Entry to the Tower of London costs, as it were, ‘a mint’, were we not members of the excellent Historic Royal Palaces scheme, which makes admission, as well as a slice of walnut cake and a book by David Starkey, much cheaper. If we lived closer to the London Zoo, we’d doubtless have joined their similarly helpful ‘Friends’ programme. We are enthusiasts for the Household Cavalry Museum and remain incredulous that they do not offer some sort of ‘pay to be a virtual trooper’ membership scheme, as well as adoring the Guards’ Museum all the more for its formidable eccentricity. When my son was marginally younger, I bought a £30-something ticket in order to be able to see the Velasquez show, at the National Gallery, as often as I wished — a price that always seemed small, each of the many times I used the ticket. And, as mentioned elsewhere, I am unable to leave our beloved National Army Museum without chucking a small handful of cash into their collecting tin, if only because doing so always seems a sort of tribute, none the less sincere for being so inadequate, to qualities that far transcend anything ‘the arts’, for all the claims made on their behalf, ever seem to offer.

In short, while some punters will give a museum a wide berth if it charges anything at all, others will not only contribute funds, but may possibly develop a powerful, possibly formative sense of institutional ‘belonging’, based on their financial relationship with a museum or gallery. Is there anything so wrong with offering cultural institutions the opportunity to control their own charging arrangements? Wouldn’t it at least be worth a try? Well, under a Conservative government, not only will museums — the select band of museum deemed worthy to a level that makes ‘free’, i.e. particularly highly subsidised admission possible — not be able to discover this, but, to judge by past form, any minister who suggests such a desideratum will be sacked. So much for choice, opportunity and enterprise … and for the possibility of finding clever ways of attracting gift-giving not only from oligarchs and social-climbing rich folk, but from mothers with lively toddlers, too.

Finally, we turn to what appears to have been Mr Hunt’s final flourish. Mr Hunt, apparently, said that the arts should not be seen as purely ‘instrumental’ by politicians, but also as ‘inspirational’. Quoting that towering intellectual figure Alain de Botton, apparently in Jesse Jackson mode during the relevant evening, Mr Hunt claimed that the arts helped us ‘thrive, not just survive’.

Let us take, in addition to this wisdom, brothers and sisters, two other comments. Mr Eliot offers this: ‘Mankind cannot bear very much reality.’ And from Herr Nietzsche, ‘We have art that we should not perish from truth’.

Now, while Mr Kimball, and the boys and girls from the NCF, may well demur, I’ve got to say that mankind can do perfectly well without ‘art’, at least as a matter of public entitlement. For secularists, it looks enough like a long-haul departure lounge to the sempiternal to offer something that smells a bit like hope, while for outright atheists, it’s surely the only watchable show in town. For the rest of us, I suppose, it’s simply a chance to see life from someone else’s standpoint, to engage in what sometimes feels like a sort of imaginative sympathy (however spurious), or to be part of a crowd that somehow seems to be shouting out for the same sort of thing that we want, too. And that, ultimately, is why I wonder whether ‘the arts’ need public money at all. Honestly, if we want culture, we’ll ask for it — with increasing urgency as our desperation grows — even if what we request ends up being an old watercolour from the 1930s rather than some sort of ‘challenging’ installation at the Hayward, or the music of the Band of the Blues and Royals rather than something less familar and possibly better for us, or indeed an indie gig above a pub rather than yet more left-of-centre, self-indulgent, loss-making theatre.

And then there’s the matter of public culture. Again, if the State needs this sort of expedient to further its own dubious ends, it, or rather we, can pay for it. Otherwise, if some great scheme of alleged cultural benefit emerges — nationalising houses, nationalising land — it ought to be regarded with instantaneous and biting scepticism, by Tories perhaps more than anyone. And while it’s all very well to hope that the State will invariably share our own most deeply-held and personal prejudices about what constitutes ‘culture’ worth encouraging, the evidence to the contrary — everything from the existence of the expensively useless Milennium Dome to the inclusion of jazz in the Radio 3 programme and the increasingly witless Fourth Plinth project — is all but overwhelming. If art were, somehow, truly ‘inspirational’, would one trust the State, rather than the rich diversity of individual activity, in particular the alternating shrewdness and nuttiness of private patronage, to manage, let alone sustain its inspirational force?

My criticism, here, is not so much that Conservatives are saying the wrong things about culture (not always the easiest thing to discuss from a Tory standpoint, although always worth a try), as that what they are saying is so very dull and predictable. In any event, until our Conservative Party works out whether it’s conservative, liberal or progressive, or until the high unreliable winds of electoral expediency propel it yet another unanticipated direction, this highly contested landscape is the one that it confronts with a faintly discouraging blend of blandness and acquiescence. And as things stand at the moment, it’s fortunate in facing only the critiques of the Sun and so forth, rather than the beneficial proddings and provocations of a Peter Fuller, let alone a Ruskin or a Hazlitt. What could be worse for culture, ultimately, than uncritical support — other than, perhaps, the anxious and weary re-definitions of Western Civilisation purely in opposition to some paranoid vision of Islam, to which the NCF is arguably too partial? ‘Why do I do this every day?’ ran the line of graffiti quoted by Mr Hunt and praised as ‘thought provoking’. One is left wondering, more than anything else, whether Mr Hunt and his fellow Conservative policy-makers have pursued that line of thought quite as far as they should.

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2 Comments

Filed under art, politics, Tory things

2 responses to “The writing’s on the wall: some notes towards a Conservative arts policy

  1. I’m a fan of the admissions scheme at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    They have a published schedule of “suggested” admissions fees, which most visitors cheerfully pay, but one may pay as much or as little as one likes–including nothing–and enjoy all of the museum’s exhibits, even, I believe, the special exhibits.

    There doesn’t seem to be much of a free-rider problem; the museum is fiscally fit and enjoys a large and enthusiastic membership as well.

  2. fugitive ink

    Thanks for the comment, Barry. I’ve seen similar ‘suggested donation’ schemes at work elsewhere, and suspect they can be very successful — especially for large, metropolitan (as it were) collections that receive much of their footfall from tourists, not just the sort of local residents who are likely to succumb to ‘friends’ schemes.

    In any event, it seems odd for the government to seek to bind the hands of prominent museums and galleries here, preventing administrators from experimenting with new funding sources that might or might not work well — experiments which surely ought to include learning from the boundless diversity of overseas success stories.

    In other words, nobody’s suggesting that it’s ever going to be easy to bankroll as much culture as some of us would like to consume (!), but it baffles me why anyone, least of all a Conservative, would expect the nation state to come up with cleverer ways of accomplishing this miracle than decentralised, private initiative.