Two items in the media over the weekend got me thinking about the perennially contentious subject of what the arts are for and whether or not they should be subsidised.
I found myself listening to a programme on Radio 4 about the folk singer Ewan MacColl, whose pioneering role in the revival of British folk music in the 1960s was closely informed by his Marxist beliefs.
MacColl was famously abrasive, dogmatic and hostile to the ‘élitism’ of the arts establishment. But like many of us perhaps, he was also inconsistent in the application of his principles. He sent his children to private schools, for example, and was not averse to owning large, expensive cars. In his case, clearly, the personal and political did not automatically converge.
Also at the weekend, the Guardian published an article by the Birmingham-based playwright David Edgar, which adroitly summarises the arguments that politicians, artists and arts administrators have used since the Second World War to justify or denounce public subsidy of the arts.
In the immediate post-war period the Arts Council’s founding chairman, John Maynard Keynes, saw the newly established council as a vehicle for disseminating high art to a mass audience and halting the debasement of British culture by Hollywood.
Then came the anti-patrician backlash of the 1960s, in which Ewan MacColl played a prominent part, and the validation of working-class creativity as a significant aspect of our culture.
The mood changed again in the 1980s, as Thatcher’s ministers placed a new emphasis on business sponsorship of the arts and the heritage industry, promoting a nostalgic view of British culture that reflected their own fogeyish tendencies.
This was promptly superseded in 1997 by New Labour rhetoric about the social benefits of arts participation and the economic value of the creative industries, a view subsequently tempered by the publication of the McMaster Review and a new set of ideas about artistic excellence as the overall goal of arts funding policy.
Now, of course, in a post-crash climate, we must find new arguments again or else recycle old ones in ways that the present government will find compelling.
However much I agree with it, I’m not convinced that David Edgar’s central thesis – namely that the arts express dissent and therefore strengthen our democracy – will win over the Ed Vaizeys of this world.
Where the visual arts are concerned, I suspect we must turn again to the economic case, by which I mean not just Tate or even the countless subsidised art spaces outside London which feed the capital city’s outstandingly successful commercial sector.
For imagine a world in which nobody could draw. As Bob and Roberta Smith puts it in a trenchant open letter to Michael Gove:
“Everything has been fashioned by human beings who have considered all aspects of what they have made… The relationship between sheets of blank paper, pencils and innovation is undeniable… Where are our future designers, architects, craftsmen, engineers, technicians, software designers and mathematicians going to come from if no one can draw?”
The visual imagination, curiosity and divergent thinking are vital dimensions of social and economic progress. Among many other reasons, that is why the arts deserve investment and why, in particular, the role of the individual artist remains fundamentally important.