Funding and the Arts

Posted on April 4, 2011

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From a Guest Blogger:

The National Gallery

Painters, writers, musicians, dancers and curators have now been put out of their anxious expectation and into the misery they foretold. The arts are being slashed and there is nothing, it seems, they can do about it. On the lips of so many public servants of all (non-creative) stripes is the mantra that the arts must be cut not only in line with everything else but even more so. We do not need a symphony orchestra as much as ICU beds or Trident missiles and in such straightened times as these money has to be taken from somewhere to support those parts of civil society most in need. ‘Pretty pictures are no more than such and there are probably far too many of them anyway.’

Those with a vested interest in the arts (I count myself as one) can easily retort that such sentiments smack of philistinism. Yet this sad state occupied by, it seems, quite a vocal number outside of the arts community is one that they themselves view with indifference. For those to whom the charge of philistinism is one of the most grievous this is roughly the same as accusing a soprano of being bad at accounting.

Indeed, artists have never got on well with money. The idea of the penniless artist struggling to survive is real enough (see Franz Schubert) but so, too, is the decadent artiste who squanders his wealth and probably ends up producing only work of questionable value (see a compser of certain pieces of musical theatre not to mention the odd prominent conceptual artist). At bottom, the arts are difficult to value. Should this painting by Picasso be valued at $XMillion? Is it really worth more than a Renoir or a performance of the Eroica Symphony or subsidies to public transport? More people use public transport than know that Renoir existed so from the point of view of central government it inevitably makes more sense that artistic endeavours suffer more of a cut. There will be fewer people who will vote against them at the next election. But it’s not that ministers dislike the arts. In fact the government has a particularly fine collection of paintings that ministers can choose to have hanging on their walls, and they do. The cries of philistinism do not, at least, fall on deaf ears when they reach Whitehall. There is a reason the Arts Council exists and it is not simply because of the fancy of a few wealthy dilettantes.

The creative faculty is a deeply human one. The fact that there are more humans in the world now than ten years ago is testament to this. Procreation is perhaps the sine qua non of this capacity. No artist has ever created such a wonetic value, made purely for a deep and very special kind of contemplation, flow from the human desire to create and enjoy things of great beauty. Over the millennia we have been able to do this to an extraordinarily high level of sophistication and with a seemingly unending capacity for originality and fine distinction. Great works have been, and can be again, created on a shoe-string. Where there is a will there is a way, but the human capacity for creativity is not, in the case of the individual artist, a limitless one. Artists need to eat. They also need to study. If they cannot eat or learn their craft because the money is not there the traditions that are the bedrock of the artistic life of our or any culture will die. Traditions are not (as some presume) museum pieces viewed as if they were from another planet. They need to give birth to new works in order to remain traditions. Whatever one may think of the modern art scene, across all genres, it is vital that new works are made and made to be new works, rather than sleepy copies of old masterpieces. If not, then those works that have brought us some of the greatest instances of human flourishing will simply be forgotten. Should, Heaven forbid, the the cultural life of our country go into a permanent relapse one can imagine, perhaps in fifty years someone may start a small endeavour to re-invigorate opera or poetry just as in the United States there are battle re-enactment societies playing at soldiers and history in an effort to recreate the past. But that is all they can do, they cannot create something for the present after the tradition has gone.

Arguably some of the problems faced by the arts are self-inflicted. The idea that art should reflect the alienating surroundings of industrialised civilisation has clearly led to works that are very effective in alienating people but not very good at making them feel any better about this state of affairs. Likewise attempts to shock viewers for one reason or another have not delivered the goods in terms of audience numbers in the manner of a Turner, a Shakespeare or a Beethoven. This is a problem that money itself cannot solve but without government input, and sufficient funding to keep our galleries, orchestras, publishing houses and theatre companies going, it may well come to be a problem that can never be solved at all.

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