Even in dark theatres

October 29, 2010

Bridge reflection – photograph by Liz Mathews

In all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the arts cuts, there has been an oft-repeated word of comfort; ‘the arts will survive’.  This is often prefaced by ‘let’s face it’ or some other exhortation to be sensible.  After all, if the entire state is being dismantled, who are we to complain if our bit goes too?  Then, there’s much talk about ways of managing to create art without any funding, new strategies, the alternative approaches long used by non-establishment artists and so on.

Comment is superfluous on the bland corporate responses of most arts organisations, who evidently fear that outspoken opposition will jeopardise their own positions yet more.  It’s also all too obvious that the cutting of the arts budget doesn’t make any commercial sense, but is politically motivated.  (Lyn Gardner, writing in The Guardian, has been particularly convincing on the financial value of British theatre, and the high returns it gives for relatively low investment.)

A cursory glance at the discussions taking place shows that the divisive strategy of making people believe that they have to choose between arts funding and, say, hospitals or schools, has been very successful; (the idea that we might choose between arts and nuclear missiles, or arts and bankers’ bonuses, seems less prevalent.)  Also frequent is the false implication that ‘the arts’ are some rarified and separate minority interest, with no impact on anyone’s life, unless they go to grand opera twice a week.  But it doesn’t matter.  ‘The arts will survive, right?’

Of course they will.  Even in the supposedly golden age that’s now over, the vast majority of people who worked in the arts did so on a vocational basis – that is, they would have got more money doing something else.  (One of the things that unnerves governments about art is that it so often presents values which are non-capitalist, undermining the unquestioning acceptance of that system, not only in theory but also in the way many artists actually live.)

The arts will survive, not only because artists will carry on doing it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay, but also because our cultural life is too vital a fire to be stamped out quite that quickly.  Yesterday, I went to the Roundhouse in Camden to buy tickets for the RSC’s winter season in London – already virtually sold out.  This is one of the so-called ‘front line’ theatre companies, in other words an arena of real creation that’s also establishment status symbol tourist-magnet, but  – to be cut anyway.

Then I was sent this interesting flyer for a play by Maureen Duffy, also on in Camden in November at Theatro Technis, put on without the vast resources of the RSC, in the best traditions of professional off-West End live theatre.  It’s this, the strength of our theatre scene, the multiplicity of possibility, the variousness and vitality of it, that makes us so lucky – not only in London.  It’s the same inspiring story in so many different areas of creation, some of which have never been publicly funded, or only in a modest local way.

So, yes, of course the arts will survive, even flourish, against all the odds of climate.  In hard times, books will survive without libraries, drama will survive when theatres are dark, music will be played, art made in all its strange and beautiful forms.  Artists of all sorts will make their work in difficult conditions, audiences of whatever kind will struggle to witness, participate, celebrate.  We know from our own history, as well as from the contemporary experiences of other countries, that when art is banned – whether because music, dancing and plays are sinful, or because the message that literature or visual art speaks is too dangerous – its power grows.

Our arts funding may have been so drastically reduced that it’s officially considered inevitable that the cultural life of the whole country must shrivel, yet it seems that an alternative possibility is simultaneously envisaged, based on the legendary capacity of artists to survive in garrets, and audiences to seek out the art they desire even under the most dangerous circumstances.   But the existence of that hopeful vision doesn’t legitimise the idea that, so long as what concerns us all so deeply ‘survives’, however diminished, we can’t really complain.

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