State of the Arts, the national conference for the arts and culture sector, was hosted by the Arts Council on 14 February 2012 at The Lowry, Salford. Produced in conjunction with the BBC, Salford City Council, Manchester City Council and the British Council, the focus of this years' conference was on the artist's role in contributing to a changing society. In his closing speech titled 'Looking back, moving forwards' David Edgar, playwright and president of the Writers' Guild places some key policy debates within the arts in context, discussing issues of paternalism versus participation, populism, excellence and access.
25 February 2012
And yet. The great Birmingham pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones was asked why he drew inspiration, not from the thrusting industrial world growing around him, but from the Biblical and mythical past. His response was simple: ‘The more factories they build, the more angels I will paint.’
In other words, artists often define their craft in opposition to the culture around them. Which includes - in Burne-Jones' time and our own - the prevailing culture of the culture. Over the last 70 years, that culture has changed. But, as we know, there's been four basic views in contention.
Although concerned to widen access to the arts, the early arts council saw its role as defending the patrician principles of high art (art's role as ennobling, its realm the nation, its organisational form the institution, its repertoire the established canon and works aspiring to join it, including the high avant garde) against populism (art's primary purpose as entertainment, its realm the marketplace, its form the business, its audience mass). As Keynes himself put it: ‘Death to Hollywood’.
Over the next 30 years, the patrician view of the arts came under attack, but not from the populist market place but from artists who were artistically and often politically oppositional. In the theatre in the late 1950s, on the BBC in the early to mid 1960s, and pretty much everywhere from 1968, the patrician institutions were under siege from the self-consciously provocative.
What both the patrician and the provocative shared was not just a focus on the artist but a notable lack of interest in audiences. George Devine was famously contemptuous of what he called the 'fashionable assholes' who made up his Royal Court audience. For Schoenberg, the only point of having an audience was that it made a marginal improvement in the acoustic of the concert hall.
But what happened in 1979, in culture as in all spheres of life, was a power-shift from the producer to the consumer. So, like passengers, patients and parents, arts patrons became ‘customers’ From then on, and probably forever, artists realised they could no longer justify themselves without paying attention to who the art was for.
And some on the left were not entirely hostile to the Thatcherite assault on the great patrician institutions, and saw the possibility of a popular-provocative alliance, which would both democratise the notion of culture, and give it a new set of social purposes, contributing to urban rejuvenation, social inclusion, reskilling, and even healthcare. Combined with and enabled by a new emphasis on access, New Labour sought to democratise the arts.
This new settlement had dramatic results we all know about - in making museum entrance free, increasing subsidy to regional theatre and creating a culture in which every great institution felt obliged to find and sustain new audiences. Its belief in accessibility made it popular; its social purpose stopped it being merely populist. Its mission was analysed, assessed, lauded and - crucially - measured in countless analyses and reports. But we also all know what happened next. The backlash against instrumentalism - first by artists, then by Tessa Jowell and James Purnell - led to the McMaster report (Supporting Excellence in the Arts - from Measurement to Judgement), with its dramatic reassertion of patrician principles, and a major shift in emphasis away from the interests of the consumer back to the producer. True, McMaster proposed that everyone can go to the arts free for a week. But what they saw there would be defined by the professionals.
But it was never going to work, for a raft of reasons. ‘Excellence’ was as hard to define then as ‘great art’ is now. But the killer was the recession.
There's no question that, in time of austerity, publically-funded arts will be asked to justify themselves in terms that are comparable to those used to justify funding services with which they're in competition. However attractive, the return to justifying arts solely in terms of their intrinsic value was stillborn, and almost all the thinking and research since then gone back to trying to find a way of measuring artistic outcomes.
True, people are now insisting on looking at outcomes only arts can produce: empathy, imagination, expansion of horizons, making unexpected connections, simulating extreme or intimate experiences in safe sites. Sometimes that's a different way of saying the same instrumentalist thing, but buttressed by increasingly robust evidence for benefits of arts activity in schools - contributing both to informal and formal outcomes - in healthcare and the criminal justice system. For some time, it's been possible for young offenders to be sentenced to the New Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent.
The conundrum was and is that most of that evidence comes from people conveniently gathered together in schools, hospitals and prisons, and most is about participating in arts, not attending them.
It's much, much harder to quantify the beneficial effects of what most arts consumers do most of the time, which is to stand or sit hearing, reading or watching what other people are doing or have done. So it seems to me the crucial question is: how should we think about how we relate to spectators? How do we make spectatorship genuinely participatory?
No one is seriously going to defend the traditional patrician principle of handing down the arts that are good for us from a great height, though - of course - that's how the overwhelming majority of arts events are actually programmed.
And we might have things to learn from the populist marketplace. Clearly, there is a level of personal ownership by audiences of the great west end musicals which many arts organisations would envy. The audiences who dress up as its characters make the 'Rocky Horror Show' a genuinely interactive event. As Neil Bartlett points out, no one ever turns to their lover in the theatre and whispers: ‘darling, listen, they're saying our speech’. And the fact that audiences are prepared to pay huge sums to see shows based on films, often - like the 'Wizard of Oz', 'Chicago' and 'Billy Elliott' - films of unbeatable quality - is a monument to the continued and unique power of the live theatre experience.
But the fact that over half of the shows in the west end are based on material which the audience already know - films, television shows or rock songs - demonstrates the limits of the populist model. Surely what the public sector ought to be doing is finding ways not of confirming the familiar and the formulaic but going on a shared journey to somewhere new.
It's troubling to me that almost all of the arts reports and studies of the last five years have uncritically cited the role of the arts in cementing rather than challenging, and the only one that questions the arts as a social palliative was published by the right wing thinktank Policy Exchange. Last year's CASE report on the values of arts and sport engagement lists continuity with the past, community cohesion and a sense of national pride among the benefits which the arts can generate. Of course, the arts can promote these values. But, unlike the other creative industries, they can, should and do call them into question as well.
Of course there's a risk that involving audiences in curation will make the arts less innovative. As David Bowie once said, "producer power gave us the Beatles, consumer power gave us boy bands and the Spice Girls." And, as we know from the arts council's 2008 segmentation of the population into rigid sociological silos, only ‘urban arts eclectics’ and ‘traditional culture vultures’ go to the arts a lot, while ‘fun fashion and friends’, ‘mid-life hobbyists’, and ‘retired arts and crafts’ will never go more than a bit and ‘time-poor dreamers’, ‘older and home-bound’, and ‘limited means and nothing fancy’ won't ever go at all. But I'm more taken with FreshMinds 2007 report for the DCMS, Culture of Demand, which argued persuasively that if sensible and welcoming things are done (among them involving families and an element of the social), the barriers to arts attendance are not insurmountable, that forms of cultural democratisation - elements of co-creation, consultation and commission of arts events - are appealing, and that audiences not treated as ‘assholes’ aren't averse to the unexpected.
I remember the inspiring television documentary on the curation of a sculpture park by residents of Newcastle's Byker Grove estate. I know of the transformative power of writing community plays. I'm excited by the work of Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Company, which integrates professional singers and musicians with amateur actors and dancers who reflect the city's diversity and bring an equally diverse audience of family and friends into the opera with them. Up and down the land, arts organisations are finding new ways to engage with the public as co-curators, thinking about how to prepare audiences get the most out the arts events they attend and to voice not just the public's contents but their discontents.
Which brings me back to Burne Jones and his angels.
Our equivalent of his factories is the twin, unintended but pervasive evils of globalisation: homogenisation (Starbuck Nation) and atomisation (bowling alone). What the arts should do is provide an alternative both to mass popular entertainment and to the isolated individual sitting alone in front of a computer screen. Not death to Hollywood, but an alternative to Hollywood. Not art as schooling or social work or policing carried on by other means, but art that does things no other form of cultural expression can do, because it's live and it's here.
And so I end with the person with whom I hope the future lies: the provocative participant.
Five-year-old Lucy is in her painting class when her teacher asks her what she plans to paint today.
‘I'm going to paint God,’ announces Lucy.
'But Lucy,’ says the nervous teacher, 'no one knows what God looks like.'
Says Lucy: ‘They will now.’