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Where is the wave of protest over the arts spending scaleback?

By Paul Goodman
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Why have the arts elites leant left for the best part of a century?  I find three main reasons.  The first was the reaction against the establishments that governed before the first World War.  Paul Johnson chronicles a symbol of the change in his Modern Times: the transformation of the Apostles at Cambridge from a secluded literary society into a provocative cultural force.  Membership of the society trod a path from Alfred Tennyson through Lytton Strachey (whose Eminent Victorians was a sustained assault on Victorian ideals) to, eventually, Guy Burgess and treason.  Sentiment trumped morality.  E.M Forster wrote: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

The second came some ten years later: the reaction to the great depression.  Johnson identifies it as marking the point when opinion among the literary elites swung decisively to the left, never to swing back for the best part of a hundred years that has passed since. (He notes that the American intelligensia were queueing up to praise Stalin in the wake of the forced collectivisation of the peasants.)  The same reaction took place in Britain. Or, rather, artists embraced both extremes, communism and fascism, as western democracy was seen to fail.  W.H.Auden served as an ambulance driver on the republican side in the Spanish civil war.  Roy Campbell worked as a war correspondent alongside Franco's forces.

The third reason is more prosaic.  The state's involvement in the arts has mushroomed since the Arts Council, first chaired by Keynes, replaced the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts in the aftermath of the second World War.  It's scarcely surprising that people who get money from the state tend to want more, and identify with those in the same position.  Margaret Thatcher reined back the rise in spending and had little interest in the arts.  The combination of a Conservative Government, less money (relatively speaking), the cultural legacy of the 60s and a Prime Minister holding both Victorian values and a science degree was explosive.  Look no further than the refusal of the dons of Oxford University to grant her an honorary degree in 1985.

Britain's artists can't be blamed or praised for a decision made by academics.  But their dismissal of the then Prime Minister as an unlettered pavenu caught part of the mood of the times.  The list of literary assaults on her - and the ideas she propagated - is legion: Caryl Churchill's "Money"; Martin Flannery's "Singer"; Salman Rushie's "The Satanic Verses" (a less well-known feature of the novel is the depiction of Thatcher as "Maggie Torture"), much of the output of the alternative comedy movement.  None of all this seemed to do her her much harm, and some it did her good.  Take that Spitting Image puppet, for example: "I will have a steak." "How would you like it?" "Raw, please." "What about the vegetables?"  "They'll have the same as me."

It would be a mistake to take most of this too seriously.  Artists shouldn't be cheerleaders for the government of the day, and Tony Blair, in his turn, was mauled savagely after 1997.  But when the party's reputation for competence collapsed after Black Wednesday, its wider reputation suddenly mattered more: to be perceived as competent and uncaring is one thing, but to be incompetent and uncaring is quite another.  The party couldn't prove governmental competence in opposition so it worked away on the caring side - Iain Duncan Smith's advocacy of social justice being the most outstanding example.  So here we are again: in Government, clearing up Labour's mess, scaling back spending - including the arts budget, which has been cut by almost a third.

In some ways, the reaction has been vintage 1980s.  Hare's comment was: "As always with Cameron's coalition, you can only pray that its incompetence will finally mitigate its spite."  But in many others, it's so far been different this time round: much, much quieter. Given the long leftward slant of the arts elites, where are the thunderous editorials of protest beyond Guardian-land, the demonstrations against the cuts, the new anti-Tory novels and plays, the pounding waves of anti-Cameron satire, sweeping all before them?  The latter will probably come in due course, but the relative quiescence of the arts networks has been a dog that hasn't barked in the night.  Why? I will hazard to the following reasons.

  • A large number of people don't care much about the arts.  Never neglect the obvious.  When all other budgets are being scaled back, and even the protected ones - health and aid - are threatened by inflation, reductions in the rate at which arts spending rises won't detonate an explosion of protest.  I'm not saying it's a good thing that more people don't care about books, music and the visual arts - merely stating a fact of life.
  • Times have changed since the 1980s.  The period from the Callaghan/Healey cuts of the mid-70s through Thatcher to the present day have had a long-term social impact.  To the left elites in the early 1980s, the break from Keynesianism was shocking.  But the left now has no alternative economic model, and thus finds it hard to generate the same protest momentum.  Private and charitable arts funding is less controversial.
  • The role of the Arts Council of England.  It's worth having a look at the Guardian article containing that David Hare quote.  There are a few absurdities - see Sam West's - but what's striking is the relative lack of anger, and marked displacement of criticism in the general direction of the Arts Council: the tone of Richard Eyre's comments is worth noting.  There is a wider a sense that it doesn't always spend well or wisely.
  • Nick Clegg.  As far as I know, Clegg has no particular interest in the arts and no special role in deciding itd funding.  But a truth applies here as elsewhere: by taking his party into coalition with the Conservatives and performing his about-turn on tuition fees, Clegg has become a lightning conductor for the protests that might otherwise have targetted Conservative Ministers.
  • Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey.  Some of Thatcher's Arts Ministers had a serious interest in their brief: Grey Gowrie, for example, who later chaired both Sothebys and the Arts Council itself.  But they tended to lack political savvy.  By contrast, Hunt is an alert politician and Vaizey a formidable schmoozer: both invested much time and effort in Opposition in trying to make the arts lobbies feel loved, and their efforts have paid off: credit to them.


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