Posts Tagged ‘arts funding’

Secular cathedrals

January 19, 2011

London transport – photograph by Liz Mathews

Introducing the building, the architect of the British Library invokes the lost library of Alexandria, that potent symbol of the treasure house of knowledge destroyed by the Barbarians.  He describes the library as a secular cathedral, an almost sacred space.  (I only query the ‘almost’.)  By presenting this library as the antithesis of the Nazi book-burnings, he also identifies it as a champion of ‘the freedom and diversity of the human spirit’, which the books that it houses both embody and protect.

(The Nazis, of course, weren’t the only burners of books.  Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, which now seems so innocuous, was burnt in the cellars of Scotland Yard, the fate of banned British books.  However, there are now several first editions, which somehow escaped the flames, perpetually preserved in the British Library, which is some compensation.)

Although the Round Reading Room at the British Museum was much-beloved by the scholars who used it and mourned its passing, there’s a grandeur about the scale and scope of the ‘new’ Library that makes it – especially now – a contemporary wonder of the world.  (I went on one of the early reader’s induction courses, when the whole puzzling system was carefully explained to bemused researchers who were used to filling in request-cards to order books they’d looked up in a physical catalogue.  I’m not sure if they even do those tours now, since the technology is more familiar, but the ethos is similarly serious and helpful.)

There’s a persistent urban myth that the British Library is nuclear-proof, and that many people sought shelter there in the confusion after the London tube bombs.  Its enormous storage basements are fire- and flood-proof, and would certainly serve as a deep shelter just as well as the tube stations that were used during the Blitz.  But since a nuclear strike doesn’t leave anything to emerge to, whether the cellars would stand up to it seems like an academic point for any human shelterers.

The books might well survive, though.  Since the collection is of virtually everything ever published, it would give a strangely complete picture of our civilisation to later visitors from another planet; from the ‘things in books’ clothing’ that still get an ISBN to the most obscure specialist monograph, it’s all there.  Not to mention the treasures; the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, original manuscripts by Jane Austen, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, et al. The impression given to the theoretical aliens would be of a wonderful civilisation, a breadth of culture and expertise beyond imagining, an artistic achievement that indeed expresses the intense beauty of the world, as well as its darker aspects.

In this anti-intellectual country, so distrustful of the arts, so resistant to education, it seems extraordinary that such a magnificently unapologetic, vast library was ever created.  Now it’s there, it would be difficult to abolish it completely, but like all our other monuments of learning, its funds have already been cut.  There may be fees for some of the services in future, or entrance charges for exhibitions. But for now, it’s all free – reading rooms, permanent collection, temporary exhibitions.

The current exhibition there, Evolving English, is huge, diverse and fascinating.  My own favourite exhibit is the Elizabethan phrasebook for adventurers to the New World, complete with advice on behaviour to the local inhabitants, as well as pronunciation of their language. But the signage is also a highlight, from over yonder to down the apples and pears; somebody enjoyed doing that, and the visitors like it too.

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Those who doubt

December 9, 2010

Rubbish – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behaviour of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it, and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

This pertinent admonition is from Mario Vargas Llosa’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  (More of it on The Guardian book page.)

Those who doubt that his world view has any great relevance to writers in Britain might consider the strange case of the Public Lending Right, about which I wrote so eulogistically back in February 2010, when my payment was due.  The PLR has escaped relatively lightly, so far, in the cuts; payment per loan drops from 6.29p to 6.25p, which is variously interpreted as a 3% or 1% reduction (as the Society of Authors point out, this is merely a mathematical excercise).  More laborious calculation brings forth the figure of a 6% (or 10%) cut in real terms over the next four years.  All the figures are available on the PLR’s own website, where even a non-mathematician can see that the annual budget available from which to make the payments is considerably less in each successive year.

The ‘Culture Team’, and the various politicians who implement these matters, take the line that everyone else is losing income and funding, so why should authors be any exception?  What they haven’t managed to justify, or even begin to explain, is why the pay-out organisation itself  – PLR – should be abolished and its work transferred to some other body.  The PLR has done its job for over 30 years, in Stockton-on-Tees, with a staff of nine people plus the Registrar.  They spend 10% of the total budget on running costs (maybe less, after recent savings) – and it’s obvious that no other body could do their complicated and specialist task so cheaply and efficiently.  The cost of transferring the job elsewhere would be enormous, and the organisations to which it might be sent – the Arts Council, or the British Library, are among the suggestions – have already suffered cuts of their own, and will be hard put to it to fulfill their previous obligations, without taking on onerous new duties.

Many writers’ organisations have, of course, taken up arms; the PLR is uniquely popular for its ethos of politeness and respect towards authors.  Although PLR is acknowledged as a legal right, it still needs administrating, as well as funding, so to attack the way in which it gets handed out is a fundamental threat to its actual existence.  This is an indirect but very effective way of making it even more difficult to be an author in the future. Writers’ representatives also gave evidence to the select committee of enquiry on the ‘Funding of Arts and Heritage’  on 7th December, where they emphasised, again, the tiny budget allocated to ‘Literature, the work of our writers, acknowledged throughout the world as our greatest art…’ (as Maureen Duffy described it in her speech to the All Party Parliamentary Writers’ Group).

Despite all the action, the petitions and the statements of clear sense, the outcome seems unlikely to be good.  There might be a stay of execution, if it’s publicly acknowledged as blatantly nonsensical to cut such a model organisation – but since there was, evidently, never any reason to consider PLR a quango whose abolition would save money, it must be presumed that there were other motives for deciding that it must go. Which brings even those who doubt, by a circular path, back to the observation that there is an ideological distrust of writers at work here, from a regime not unrelated to those who ‘fear [literature] so much that they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers.’

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.

Art for the few

October 6, 2010

Although dissent from most arts organisations, on the subject of government cuts to the arts, has been notably mild, there are some more-than-murmurings from individuals.  Artists’ Newsletter sent this poster, by Jeremy Deller and Scott King, quoting the words of William Morris, to subscribers.

On the website of the save the arts campaign, there are details of the petition against the cuts, which has so far been signed by about 45,ooo people.  Although to do so can seem like a futile gesture, it’s still one worth making, a grain of sand on the right side of the scales.

There are also images of this poster, and other protest works, which suggest that there are some artists, at least, who don’t intend to keep quiet about it.

Waiting for the Barbarians

July 28, 2010

French number – photograph by Liz Mathews

I overheard some professional philistine on the radio in a shop, demanding what good it ever did anyone to learn French, especially now you can book your hotel room over the internet. (This somewhat ignores the reality of actual arrival in a Parisian hotel, but that is another story.)  The opinion was expressed with enormous self-satisfaction at the possessor’s plain-spoken insular common sense.  But surely even someone (like me) who unfortunately lacks fluent French themselves can comprehend the mind-expanding possibilities of knowing another language, having access to another culture’s riches?  Who could want to collaborate in depriving children of the opportunity – at least – to learn so much for so little?  Only someone who is against knowledge itself, who prefers the safety of ignorance for the future, the cutting of communication between as many cultures as possible, so that we can all sink self-satisfied back into our mire.  Nostalgie de la Boue, indeed.

Everyone is outraged when hospitals are run by managers who only care about profits, but what about schools where nothing is taught except what is needed for animal existence?  How can anyone who has devoted their life to learning bear to be told that it is valueless?  What will happen if we don’t teach anything but money-related pseudo-subjects?  The only possible result will be an increased polarisation between the priviliged (and eccentric) few who independently maintain their private culture, and the rest who only have access to a bogus celebrity culture.  

Now that there’s an opportunity for philistine ideology to be expressed with such pleasure, and vehemence, the old claims re-emerge that the arts are elitist, not for the masses. If art – and education, too – can be presented as merely a status symbol for the rich, then its funding by the government may seem inappropriate, its loss unimportant. This fear of intellectualism has always been a factor of British life, and the perceived divide between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘workers’ has been very useful in preventing any common cause.  It goes with the fears of women, homosexuals, foreigners, vegetarians, artists, etc, etc, which are still major factors in maintaining this unequal society.  As it’s a matter of education, it is self-replicating; the argument is circular, the prophecy self-fulfilling.  

Just as a false dichotomy can be set up between affording health or the arts, false competition can be set up between different arts organisations, between departments in universities, or different disciplines.  While these potential allies argue, the fabric around is dismantled.  I have been amazed to read academics bickering in print about the merits of teaching the humanities at all, or British academics taking issue with Americans for lamenting the loss of departments in our universities (not their business – or the business of the entire scholarly community?), or arts organisations unable to justify their existence except in terms of money.  This is the tactic of ‘divide and rule’ indeed.  

The Greeks who protest in the streets about cuts to the funding of their cultural life, among other areas of society, call the perpetrators ‘Barbarians’; an insult with a long history, beginning with the lack of a language in which to understand each other.  In this modern context, I don’t think the concept is over-emotional, I think it is a recognition that there are people who actually like the idea of destroying culture. We have barbarians here too, who will be only too delighted to bring back the dark ages, if we let them.

Trahison des Clercs

July 9, 2010


Traitors’ Gate – photograph by Liz Mathews

The Treason of the Clerks is one of those book titles (by J. Benda, 1927) that’s become a lasting phrase because it expresses the exact nature of a betrayal; the intentional betrayal of culture by those intellectuals who are supposed to support it. This kind of treason is taking place now, too, though sometimes it seems not so much a result of betraying culture as of being indifferent to it. Some of the many individuals and organisations who are supposed to champion the importance of the arts appear somewhat puzzled as to why it should matter, other than financially. And if the call to arms is still couched in the jargon of such arts administrators and their desperate capitalism, it’s doomed, irrelevant.

Making Value, a recent ‘qualitative research survey’ commissioned by the Crafts Council, seeks to explain that makers ‘contribute to economic growth, within and beyond the cultural and creative industries…[through apparently unexpected means such as]… product innovations featuring strong person-centred orientation…. Enhanced narrative characterisation in film and television and digital environments’. (Imagine!) Among many other important revelations, the study discovers that makers have a ‘Passion for materials and the material world’ and ‘Evidence a deep sense of integrity in relation to their creative identity’, together with an ‘Understanding of how people relate to objects, both emotionally and in a functional sense…’.

This is not news, presumably, even to the Crafts Council, who seem dimly aware that there is some sort of ‘social contribution’ made by artist-makers – those strange creatures of artistic integrity, passion, and even (weird, this), belief in ‘making a contribution through the application of their practice beyond making for exhibition or sale’. But is an industry-speak survey really the best way the CC can think of to emphasise the crucial importance of a living culture? Would the money not have been better spent on commissioning some artwork from actual artists, who could express their own truths for themselves?

Not in the logic of those who don’t expect anyone to want or understand a commodity that they’re condemned to sell without wanting or understanding it themselves. No, the best way is to spend a lot of money trying to persuade other, impressionable people to buy – not art, obviously, but something saleable like ‘uniquely valuable consultancy services’ or ‘entrepreneurial strategies’. Perhaps it’s just the ethos of a parasitical industry, perhaps it’s treason.

Interesting Times

July 3, 2010


Light in the valley – photograph by Liz Mathews

Art flourishes in difficult circumstances; in bad times people turn to it. This rather obvious statement is convenient for funding bodies, who can be assured that artists, like other vocational workers, need never be paid properly because they will carry on anyway, starving in their proverbial garrets. Whatever else is cut, there’s a vague belief that the arts won’t go away, entirely, just as learning will be maintained by independent scholars if the humanities vanish from our universities. This paradox means that the arts will always fare badly in the unseemly struggle for cash, and that any expression of optimism about their survival seems like an acceptance that, in times like these, the arts are a long way down the list.

A more sinister unspoken desire comes from those who’d like the arts to go away entirely, who feel that hard times are the perfect excuse for a philistine field-day. It’s easy to see why the powerful-but-inept might be frightened of the arts. It’s also easy to see why the false dichotomy is set up between (for example) health and arts funding, in order to represent the arts as non-essentials that must be sacrificed now. Rather like measuring the worth of humanities departments by monetary values which may be relevant to (some of) the sciences but can’t be applied to other fields, so to justify the arts in merely monetary terms leaves out some fundamental element. What is immeasurably important can’t be quantified – another convenient truism.

So, we’re all in an uproar. Following the university financial disaster, the arts will be next to go; execution has merely been postponed by the Arts Council’s use of the reserve fund. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth among the great and the good, even, about the lack of publishing contracts, the dearth of commissions. Even in my own (less elevated) circle, there is lamentation about the future of culture. All the old arguments are rehearsed, then it’s objected that everyone knows that already, then it’s vehemently upheld that it must still be said, again, often.

Well then: art has always been a means of protest and resistance, an expression of forbidden identities (national or individual), a measure of civilized existence in continuity. It provides spiritual sustenance in extreme circumstances, courage to endure loss, consolation and healing, even hope. It tells truths which cannot be expressed in other ways, opens doors to places within which are otherwise inaccessible, interprets our world and creates imaginary worlds beyond, helps us travel towards understanding.

Since none of these matters can be measured or given a monetary value, it’s easy to dismiss them with a cheery assurance that only when people are financially comfortable will they be interested in ‘the arts’ (as one of many possible ‘leisure pursuits’). But the enormous popularity of the cinema during the Depression of the 1930’s is often explained as a distraction from hardship, a necessary escapism. And that cinema (to say nothing of the other arts) also expressed discontent, criticism, a wish for change. This, of course, is the role of art which is so feared by all governments. Totalitarian regimes of all political colours always censor the arts, in fear of what they may express, yet also attempt to use them, because of their enormous power of communication. The puppet theatre which defied the Nazi occupation in Poland, or the music which gave solace to people in the extermination camps, are both human proofs that such regimes are right to be afraid.

For myself, I think accursed Trident should be a lot further down the funding list than money for the arts. But nevertheless, I do feel a certain optimism about our cultural survival, but not optimism as any form of acceptance or collaboration. It does seem that the arts and humanities are under attack specifically, not merely as part of a package of inevitable/neccessary/etc cuts. But – just as the open country that is in the planned route of a motorway is suddenly revealed, not as a quiet valley belonging to nobody much, but a fiercely beloved landscape, a place of beauty deeply valued by a vociferous people who will fight body to bulldozer to protect it – so our cultural life, when it’s really threatened, is recognised anew as precious and vital. Interesting times.

Comrade Artist

March 23, 2010


Walking on the edge – photograph by Liz Mathews

Rather strangely, both my most recent publication, and my partner’s most recent exhibition, carried the Arts Council logo. Although we are personally remote from such kinds of funding, both Carcanet Press and the Southbank Centre receive grants which must be acknowledged as they trickle down to the actual artists. In the past, some individual artists were eligible to apply for various funds, but apparently this has now been entirely abolished. Arts money is only available to arts organisations.

The title of a recent show at the (funded) Whitechapel Gallery, I shake your hand, Comrade Bacon, is apparently taken from a visitors book entry saluting Francis Bacon at a British Council exhibition in Moscow during the days of the USSR. There were certainly many problems for the artist who was a direct servant of that state, if not always the agonies suffered by Shostakovich working for Stalin (though these wouldn’t be so frequently expounded on Radio 3 if he hadn’t managed to outwit his terrifying patrons and make his own music). But even so, there is a joyful idealism in the vision of the comrade artist whose work is recognised as an intrinsic part of the collective effort – and how daft it seems in a British cultural context!

During the Spanish Civil War, the writers who were British delegates to an anti-fascist cultural conference were amazed when field-workers greeted them with cries of ‘Viva los Intellectuales!’ (‘A strange sentiment to English ears’, as Sylvia Townsend Warner tartly remarked.) The delegates’ experience of the cultural deprivation of the workers in their own country had left them completely unprepared for this comradely salute. The expected reply was probably something like ‘Viva los Labradores!’, which, with its implication of class, they’d perhaps have been embarrassed to make. But they did recognise that in this new social order, everyone worked according to their capacity, one task was not glorified over another, and every contribution was recognised. Artists had a job too; those who said (like Virginia Woolf) ‘Thinking is my fighting’ had better think well, then.

Idealism is easy to mock, deflate, prove unworkable. But the establishment of the Arts Council after the war was an idealistic act of almost early Soviet proportion. As Maynard Keynes observed in a 1945 radio talk ‘A very important thing has happened; state patronage of the arts has crept in… at last, at last, they have recognised the support of the civilising arts of life as part of their duty…’ He traces the acceptance, during the war, of the need for ‘all sources of comfort and support to our spirits’, and the power of art to ‘stimulate, comfort and support’. Then, he adumbrates the then-extraordinary idea that there is a large, eager audience for the arts; people have been educated by listening to classical music on the BBC, and will now go to concerts, if such things are available. There’s even a suggestion, almost hidden by his patrician tones and mild language, that artforms which were once the preserve of the few will become available to the many. And the artists themselves will benefit too; ‘new work will spring up more abundantly in unforeseen quarters and unforeseen shapes, when there is universal opportunity’.

Universal opportunity isn’t exactly how most of us think of the Arts Council these days. Keynes’ claim that it would be free of red tape produces a hollow laugh. Yet we two artists – most definitely ‘outsider’, not promisingly ‘emerging’ nor reassuringly ‘well-established’ but slogging along ‘mid-career’ – both had recent opportunities from Arts Council funded bodies to do our actual work (however poorly paid). This will be increasingly unlikely. The funding cuts which have already taken place seriously reduce its capacity to support even the major arts bodies, and must inevitably make funding decisions tend towards the safe bet. After the recent attack on the Universities, the financial future of any cultural organisation must seem unsure.

As far as individual artists are concerned, of course we’ll carry on doing it anyway, even if opportunities in the public sphere dwindle, even if it becomes too easy for potential commissioners to use the excuse of the ‘current financial climate’. We can comfort ourselves with the oft-repeated reassurance that art always flourishes in adversity, that much great work has been produced in circumstances of constraint – sometimes far beyond the merely financial – and so on. But this is a very different future from the one Keynes imagined. Like the embattled NHS, the Arts Council is a last vestige of socialist idealism still hanging on while some residual sense of civilised obligations yet remains.