Art? Stop Worrying and Enjoy It

New Statesman (1996), August 21, 2000 | Go to article overview

Art? Stop Worrying and Enjoy It


Former controllers of BBC Radio 3 wishing to sell autobiographies about the good old days might be expected to address book festivals with strongly worded criticisms of government arts policies. Even so, Sir John Drummond's excoriating address in Edinburgh last weekend, in which he described the entire Cabinet as "professional philistines", can fairly be described as over the top.

Sir John made the predictable lament that the nation has irreversibly dumbed down, and that all public funding is directed towards art and culture that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Then there was the headline-grabbing personal abuse. Tony Blair ("you can tell what type of man the Prime Minister is by his choice on Desert Island Discs") hadn't "savoured" a book since reading Ivanhoe at school; other governments had included men of real culture such as Edward Heath and Michael Foot, while, for this government, culture was "instant gratification"; the BBC director of drama, Alan Yentob, was a "prat"; and arts policy pandered to "middle-aged men in baseball caps turned round the wrong way."

What haughtiness! No wonder Sir John earned the nickname Joan of Art at the BBC, where his stance of self-appointed avenging angel of high culture was viewed as somewhat comical. None the less, lurking beneath his desire to expel from the temple the bureaucrats, management consultants, think-tankers and, above all, politicians, there is a point.

Governments that try to make the arts serve their core beliefs are quite likely to get it disastrously wrong. Labour's laudable ambitions for social inclusion are no exception. Art is anarchic and unbiddable, following imperatives only of excellence. Policies for bringing the socially excluded into civil society follow, we hope, more predictable economic rules. Manipulating arts policy to respond to caricature notions of public taste results not in popular art, but in white elephants such as the Millennium Dome.

But, more importantly, the current mantra that government-funded art must shrug off elitism and reach out to "new" audiences is based on a serious misconception: namely, that the arts in Britain are currently exclusive, and appeal only to a rich minority. It is not so. The arts in Britain are healthy, some would say healthier than they have been for decades, and even undergoing a renaissance. …

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