THE CASE FOR public funding of the arts occasionally pops up into national consciousness, arousing emotions on both sides of the debate, before subsiding into oblivion again. The news that the leaving do for Liz Forgan as head of Arts Council England cost the tax-payer £8,130 has duly kicked the wasp’s nest again.
A second kick was delivered when it was revealed the original budget of £12,500 was refused by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the resulting shindig had to be re-branded as a “thought leadership” bash in order to qualify for public cash. Leadership, by the way, is one of the favourite themes of the progressive tendency, hence the existence of groups like Common Purpose. Interesting, too, that the Arts Council can think of themselves as leaders, as opposed to mere dispensers of the public’s money.
Dame Liz has an impeccable left wing record: private school (Benenden), Oxford, the Guardian (as journalist, editor, non-executive Director of the Guardian Media Group and a Chair of its Scott Trust), Channel 4, the BBC, etc. Even for the new, detoxed and progressively invertebrate Tory administration this was perhaps just a little too left for comfort, which is presumably one of the reasons Jeremy Hunt got rid of her.
Critics complained that she took the thought leadership session as a chance to defend the arts from government cuts. To be fair, though, it was part of her job (when she had the job) and she’s hardly likely to demand the whole department be abolished, is she? It won’t affect her own career, of course, since she will undoubtedly turn up in some other quango or institution that can benefit from her talents.
FORGAN BELONGS TO the new cultural and political elite; people blessed with comfortable backgrounds, the correct views and an adamantine belief in their right to be in charge; elitists who make a career out of pretending to be anti-elitists. Toffs who put on oikish accents; middle class media types who talk about their favourite football team but who would only have been seen dead at a match before the 1990s; politicians who talk about popular tv programmes they’re never seen. And pasties they’ve eaten; let’s not forget the pasties. If you want a succinct analysis of this phenomenon I suggest you read George Walden’s book, The New Elites (which features Pastie Boy Cameron on its cover).
And who’s replacing Dame Liz Forgan? Sir Peter Bazalgette, the man who brought us Big Brother. Such a perfect example of Walden’s thesis, a man of the elite making his career out of peddling “anti-elitist” television for the masses.
The crucible of this change can be located in the 1980s when the arts, like every other sector, came under the petit-bourgeois scrutiny of the philistine Thatcherites. Justifications for the spending of public money on arty-farty stuff were urgently required. Administrators duly came up with the community benefits and creative industries schtick. The arts could now be sold to penny-pinching politicians as both social work – writers in prisons, dancers in pitless villages, drama lessons for urban junkies, etc, thus heading off potential civil unrest, and as a legitimate sector in the world of business, attracting private sponsorship and breeding financial lilacs out of the dead land of post-industrial Britain. The politicians bought it. They had been outflanked by the hard left. Not for nothing is the Conservative Party known as the Stupid Party.
Although this guaranteed the continuity of public arts funding it did, however, embed two unfortunate (and apparently oppositional) elements into the whole of the arts scene: the dogmas of the hard left and the idiocy of fashionable business-speak. Hence we got grants being awarded on the basis of ethnicity, class and sexuality, rather than quality; and artists and organisations having to come up with SWAT analyses, vision statements and brand awareness development (what a fine irony that the Arts Council itself should have to resort to re-branding a leaving do as a “thought leadership” session in order to score some money!). A further unexpected consequence was the creation of another tier of the arts economy – consultants. The whole sector, to sum it up, became professionalised (or more specifically, became professionalised leftism), and that’s the way it has remained.
I can’t say that I think this has been a good thing overall. It’s true that before the big shake up in the 1980s many organisations were terribly inefficient and wasteful: they had little idea about running things, budgeting, marketing and so on. They needed to be reminded that they could handle things better and still remain true to their principles. The adoption of inappropriate business practices, however, combined with the demands of political correctness, made dealing with the Arts Council (and its various regional subsidiaries) a nightmare of box-ticking and form-filling. Controversy, when it ever arose, would still conform to the hard left dogmas of identity politics. Mediocrity was often, and still is, the result.
It’s a point reinforced just today, by Roy Strong:
Sir Roy Strong has criticised museums and galleries for being obsessed with political correctness and blighted by a “sea” of committees and box-ticking. The former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the National Portrait Gallery believes that a reluctance to upset anyone has led to safe and predictable themes for exhibitions.
There’ll be plenty of people who know the truth of what he says. Conformity is still the order of the day. Thanks for giving the wasp’s nest another kick, Roy.