Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Who decides on excellence?

The New Culture Forum has just launched a report about the Arts Council England in which various recommendations are made that would, if followed through, abolish ACE as it is not so affectionately known. Of course, the Conservatives will do nothing of the kind. As Ed Vaizey the Shadow Culture Commissar explained at great length during the launch, they do not think this is a fight worth picking. Many of us disagree.

Marc Sidwell, the author of the report, has gone through various other reports and attempted reforms of an organization that has become bloated and bureaucratic (something that surely could have been predicted from the outset).

In Section 3, “An Arts Council in Crisis” he describes several rather unpleasant funding stories, including the scandalous tale of The Public in West Bromwich, now deceased after swallowing £30 million of public and another £30 million of private business money.

He then proceeds:
In January 2008, the DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport, a somewhat redundant organization that creates unnecessary jobs for politicians and civil servants] produced the McMaster Review. It was asked to outline how British public arts policy could better promote artistic excellence. The very need for that brief (and the enthusiasm with which the report was received) is an indictment of established practice by that point. After 10 years of a supposedly golden age, arts funding had been drifting toward the politically correct (or at least politically expedient) rather than the aesthetically rewarding. And this had become a national commonplace.
That really sums up the problem but not quite in the way it is phrased. The question that should have been asked is not “how” but “whether”: can British public arts policy promote artistic excellence at all, never mind better promote? The truth is that those supposed ten golden years of the arts are very questionable, indeed, and have been questioned by all serious commentators from Norman Lebrecht to Brian Sewell (well, he can be serious).

Yes, we have wonderful exhibitions but do we have good or interesting artists. A walk round the RA Summer Exhibition yesterday confirmed my view that visual art is still living off the exciting developments of the early twentieth century.

Our theatres show mostly musicals and rarely manage to get filled (though according to Nick Starr, Executive Director of the National Theatre, it is in America that there is no good theatre at all) but can be said to be quite good. Who is the best and most popular playwright? Sir Tom Stoppard who has had little to do with the ten golden years.

Above all, there is the question of how one defines artistic excellence. If individuals and groups of individuals pay for works of art, they exercise their idea of excellence or simple attractiveness. If individuals or groups of individuals subsidize events or structures (the Travelex deal in the National Theatre that allows the public to buy tickets for £10 or £25 springs to mind) they exercise their own ideas of what is worth promoting and, if it is a business, the best way of advertising themselves.

A group of bureaucrats, spending the taxpayer’s money will not be doing any of those things as their aim is, by definition, promote certain policies, whether they have been defined by politicians or officials. Only if we assume that artistic excellence is part of an ideological system can the two be connected.

1 comment:

  1. Only if we assume that artistic excellence is part of an ideological system can the two be connected.

    But for those on the left everything is political.

    Most on the left not only acknowledge that art slants leftwards but defend it on the grounds that it somehow challenges the hegemony or provides a contrast to the default societal messages. I have had arguments where it was claimed that any advert was inherently right wing because it promoted consumption. Thus even a Beneton or a Body Shop advert containing very PC messages would be right wing because it reinforced the ruling consumerist culture.