Sunday, January 27, 2008

As you might expect, I’ve been mulling over this whole Arts Council business recently. I thought it might be interesting to put it into some sort of historical context, so I re-read the sections about ACE in John Carey’s lively and provocative 2005 book What Good Are The Arts? What he has to say seems so relevant to recent events (in particular the publication of the McMaster Report with its re-focussing on ‘excellence’) that it bears reproducing in some detail here:

“In England, public policy has not favoured the view that the making of art should be spread through the community. When the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which later became the Arts Council, was set up in 1940, it had to choose between promoting art by the people or art for the people. Should central government funding of the arts encourage us in using our ‘marvellous, long-evolved, specialised hands’, or should it turn us into passive art worshippers? The Council chose the latter course. The mandarin aesthetes among its members, headed by Kenneth Clark, who saw the arts as essentially a professional activity, prevailed. W.E. Williams, the Secretary General of the Arts Council, in his 1956 Report, made it quite clear that the Council envisaged art as enshrined in showpieces of national pride, precisely of the kind Hitler had planned to build. ‘The Arts Council believes that the first claim upon its attention and assistance is that of maintaining in London and the larger cities effective power-houses of opera, music and drama; for unless these quality institutions can be maintained, the arts are bound to decline into mediocrity.’ The image of ‘power-houses’ is revealing. Art is to be beamed out to consumers like electricity. All they have to do is switch it on. It is not something that arises from them and the cultivation of their abilities.”

Later in the book Carey goes on to examine the transformative power of creative activity upon the individual in a lengthy case study of the work of the art-in-prisons charity The Koestler Foundation. He concludes:

“There is evidence that active participation in artwork can engender redemptive self-respect in those who feel excluded from society. This may be the result of gaining admittance to an activity that enjoys social and cultural prestige. But it seems also to reflect the fact that standards of achievement in art are internal and self-judged, and allow for a sense of personal fulfilment that may be difficult to gain in standard academic subjects. The difficulty prisoners meet with when they try to pursue their artistic interests after release is a consequence of our inadequate support for art in the community, which stems from a belief in ideals of ‘excellence’, as reflected in Arts Council policy. The contention that the money available for the arts should be reserved for ‘quality institutions’ such as the Royal Opera House, rather than being spread through the whole community, automatically relegates the public to the role of passive art-worshippers. It is not a decision that would be countenanced in any other area. The proposal, for example, that the money available for education should in future be spent only on the supremely gifted would immediately arouse opposition. The idea that the arts are things that happen in ‘quality institutions’ seems to be essentially competitive. It puts ‘achievement’ in the arts on a level with national sporting triumphs or scientific breakthroughs. This triumphalist view of art seems to be related to the notion that high quality artworks are ‘monuments’ to the human spirit … [and] should be left to geniuses, and that ordinary people should not be encouraged to play any part in them."

Now of course, in recent years the Arts Council has become known for its box-ticky ‘inclusion’ agenda – which I’ve argued in other posts and in other people’s comments boxes doesn’t seem so unreasonable to me as it does to many. But put into the context of ACE’s historical raison d’etre, it could be that this social agenda was an aberration. What we are seeing now could be a sudden reversion to type in ACE policy. The emphasis does certainly seem to be shifting away from artistic process and back towards artistic product, which is perhaps why companies such as the inspiring and much-loved community theatre company London Bubble are getting it in the neck (not that their shows aren’t brilliant, just that their community sensibility and aesthetic doesn’t fit the ‘product’ model when it comes to judging value).

My dictionary defines ‘to excel’ and ‘excellent’ as ‘to be superior to or better than; to surpass others’ and notes its Latin roots in ex (‘out of’ or ‘from’) and celsus (‘on high’). I don’t like the whiff of snobbery in the etymology of that word. And I certainly don’t like it in the art which I pay for or consume.

Let’s hope that the Arts Council has learned something about art’s role in the community in the past 60 years, and outgrown the unpleasant and elitist post-war culture which engendered it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

If any Arts Council employees with a conscience are reading this, can I just draw your attention to the rather marvellous www.wikileaks.org

Have documents the world needs to see? They protect your identity.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Separated at birth?

This made me smile: This photo accompanied an interview in today's Guardian with new Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, with the tag line 'The Lib De m leader says he's no Cameron clone'.


The difference is most striking when you put them side by side isn't it?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Goodness me. What a firestorm to come back to. I leave the country for three weeks and the Arts Council goes mad and stabs everyone to death. I shall have to be more careful about leaving them unattended.

I've not got much to add to this debate which hasn’t been said elsewhere. I’ve done a bit of letter writing but won’t bore you with the text, you can imagine the sort of thing I said. I thought it might be more useful to publish the details of those in whose power it lies to fix this mess (with thanks to the brilliantly organised Bush Theatre for putting these together into a briefing pack):

In no particular order, they are:

Moira Sinclair
Acting Chief Executive
Arts Council England
2 Pear Tree Court
London
EC1R 0DS

Barbara Matthews
Director, Theatre Strategy
Arts Council England
14 Great Peter Street
London
SW1P 3NQ

Lady Sue Woodford Hollick
Chair of the London Regional Arts Council
c/o Arts Council England
2 Pear Tree Court
London
EC1R 0DS

The following Councillors and London General Assembly members also sit on the London Regional Arts Council and can be emailed as follows, if you’re writing in support of particular London theatre companies:

General Assembly:
Londonwide - Sally Hamwee - sally.hamwee@london.gov.uk
London Borough of Enfield and Haringey - joanne.mccartney@london.gov.uk

Local Authorities:
London Borough of Richmond on Thames - cllr.jcoombs@richmond.gov.uk
London Borough of Harrow - anjana.patel@harrow.gov.uk
London Borough of Hackney - guy.nicholson@hackney.gov.uk

You can of course also lobby your MP to raise your concerns with James Purnell at the brilliant www.writetothem.com

I’ve already had a message back from Sally Hamwee who seemed very open to hearing from both theatre professionals and ordinary Londoners in support of the companies under threat. This is by no means a fait accompli. Together I really think we can fight it.

Was anyone else at the meeting at the Young Vic this morning? What rousing stuff. Josie Rourke in particular I thought was inspirational. Peter Hewitt on the other hand came across as an irritable schoolmaster, berating his naughty assembly. Though I had to admire his balls for being there at all.