It feels fair to say that there has always been something of a strained relationship between politics and the arts. Whether it is in the form of brilliant disregard or manipulation, it somehow remains a relationship that doesn’t quite work.
Maria Miller, the Cabinet’s latest Culture Secretary, made an argument for the arts that appears to have left most of the artistic community out in the cold. As with everything of late from the British Government, economy is king. Miller is looking for artists to view their work as a commodity and keep a strong focus on our culture’s “economic impact”, akin to pumping money into a large scale advertising feature for the UK.
Now despite the imagery feeling a tad distasteful, there is some truth and fair argument in what Miller is putting across. It is a necessity to be in some ways self-sufficient, particularly when starting out. Restrictions and financial constraints can inspire creative solutions and develop new models of working. The risks and the making do can sometimes produce the most exciting, creatively rich material. Conversely, it is also true that an endless budget does not necessarily lead to exceptional results. We’ve witnessed safe, big budget musicals endure early closures, dismissed as expensive flops.
We have, right from the beginning, been aware of the importance of viewing your company like a business with a product to sell. This does not necessarily have to devalue your work, it just means that you need to realise the commercial value of your work, and when money is tight simply think outside the box to make things happen.
In reality, no one simply goes cap in hand to an arts council for money to fund their creative dreams without putting any thought into how it might work financially. Anyone who has put in a Grants for the Arts application will be familiar with the late night calculator sessions and the real cost of putting on a theatre production. In addition, the arts councils often do not fund projects unless there is a high percentage of matched funding. As a result they are encouraging theatre organisations to think about ways of drawing in cash. This could be in-kind support from venues, ticket sales or other ways of generating income. Does this sound like an industry that thinks it can mess about with public money?
There are two main issues we have with the statements put forward. The first is that for all of Miller’s attempts to support the arts industry – and her intentions are not what are in question – her basis is weak. There is nothing that she has discussed which enables her peers to view the arts in any other way than in financial terms. We all know the tourist trade appeal of the West End and how thrilled everyone was with the Olympics. However, this does not mean that valuable activities such as small scale productions, rural touring and taking risks developing new collaborations are not worth supporting. As a result she is still managing to alienate her arts community.
“To the arts community – she is saying that in this age of austerity, continued state funding of the sector cannot be justified on the basis of arts for art’s sake. That, I have been told, “will not wash”.” – Will Gompertz, Arts Editor, BBC
The basic underlying problem is that it feels like politicians don’t quite ‘get’ the arts. Art won’t just function on economic success – you clearly can’t buy creativity – and critical acclaim does not necessarily result in financial security. Likewise, with oh-so-helpful ideologies like ‘selling out’ and ‘not being true to your art’, it’s no wonder the creative community do not want their work quantified by economic deliverables.
Our final issue is that, amongst this jostling for budgets and position, there is a crucial question underpinning this debate that appears to have been flagrantly ignored. That is, what is the value of the arts and what is the function of our state funding? There is an insinuation in Miller’s comments that the value of the arts can only be measured in cold hard cash. This is her sales pitch to those at the Treasury. We would like, however, to see this as an opportunity for the collective artistic community to see how they view its value. Is there a place for art for art’s sake? Is there anything other than just funding we are looking to our government for?
Who knows what the future holds for government funding in the arts. But it does seem clear that if the inevitable relationship between the arts and politics is to be successful then there needs to be a radical change in attitudes on both sides.
Image: Houses of Parliament