|This geezer – he was right.|
Earlier today, a tweet landed in my account from the Royal Opera House, asking why those looking in thoughts that the arts were important.
Well, 140 characters isn’t really enough to do justice to such a big question, so it seems worth going into rather more detail here.
The question itself was directly related to that of funding – or subsidy, as it’s often referred to. And one of the first answers – whether intended satirically or not – was that “I like my opera tickets being subsidised”.
Actually, this rather takes me back to my first venture into any form of political activism. It was the early to mid ’80s, and I got rather heftily involved with the Campaign for the Arts.
I handed out leaflets and posted posters (with permission!); I even wrote to my MP.
Indeed, I still have the reply from the sub-Thatcher handbagger that was Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman. It took on a tone – unexpected to naive little me – effectively accusing me of being a Loony Lefty. The irony is that, in those days, I had no party politics – or if anything, it was in a conservative direction.
But supporting the arts remains seen as a liberal/lefty sort of thing. Perhaps, without her ever intending it that way, the dame gave me a little shove in that direction. I was certainly not only shocked at her response, but somewhat indignant too.
Now I don’t really do indignation much these days. Little surprises me about pretty much any politician – my faith in the majority, on all sides, it little greater than my faith in a god.
But here we are, with the same old question – and the answers remain largely the same too.
It strikes me as rather perverse that many of those who bemoan the state of our culture – or at least, convey a perception that it is being allowed to die (and by which they generally mean white Western European culture) – also object to arts subsidy.
Yet subsidy is vital if we are to maintain a thriving and cultural life that everyone has access to and can feel part of.
Of course the arts are not the be all and end all of culture, but they make up a neat part of it and, for the sake of this piece at least, that’s what we’re going to mean by the word.
It’s easy to forget that one of the results of the post-war settlement was the expansion of the arts beyond something that was largely enjoyed by an elite.
Funding meant that working-class people could not only watch good theatre, for instance, but could also study to become actors, directors and writers.
An entire generation of talent was able then to go on and produce some of the iconic plays and films of the 1960s and ’70s. The entire kitchen-sink oeuvre came from precisely such a point.
The plays became films – which boosted a then vibrant British film industry. Yes – we really did have one.
They gave voice to a working-class experience that otherwise would never have occurred – and in so doing, created art that was well worth the name.
Without funding, there would almost certainly, for instance, have been no Joan Littlewood at Stratford. And in that case, no Oh, What a Lovely War! and no Oliver! – both of which continue to make money to this day. And that also provides a very succinct indication of the variety of works that were produced.
Many of the generation that we now venerate as great actors came from working-class backgrounds outside London – Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Glenda Jackson: it’s a lengthy list.
Many of the writers who went on to pen classic TV shows, from Z Cars to I Claudius, were from working-class backgrounds, and were able to achieve what they did because of the equalising effects of that post-war settlement.
And in so doing, they didn’t simply contribute (massively) to the cultural health of the nation as a whole, they provided a voice for other working-class people – and not one bent simply on vilifying such people, as we increasingly see now through so many entertainment means.
How else would the likes of Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Alan Plater otherwise have had the chance to make their own contributions?
And in what we’ve just discussed, we have already acknowledged that the subsidised arts create money.
Let’s take the economic issue further, because this is important.
The arts in the UK create far more wealth for the country than does the monarchy.
More tourists come to the UK for our cultural life than to try and glimpse HM. That was a fact in the 1980s and it’s still a fact today.
We have an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage – and people come from across the planet to explore and discover and experience it. And tourism is one of the most important sub-sections of our service-based national economy.
The arts are use in terms of diplomacy too.
Now try and put all of that in terms of the simple buck. If you can, then I suggest that you know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
It’s been said that the great artists of history were not subsidised, but were paid by private patrons. Well, in many cases, yes.
But that meant art for the private individual, not the masses.
Personally, I’m with old Dickie Wagner in thinking that we should hark back to Grecian times and a belief that art should be for everyone, not just some elite.
In that vein, I deeply believe that every single child in the UK, whatever their background, should have the chance to experience ‘high’ art.
I believe that music lessons should be widely available, for instance: it is a well-documented fact that learning an instrument provides many other benefits – helping develop powers of concentration, for instance.
Why should the nation deny itself the talents of many people from homes that cannot afford training privately? And equally, having the money to do just that does not equate with real talent.
But the arts are more than something merely aesthetic – and I think I’ve touched on this already. High culture promotes something that can be seen as a tad dangerous: thinking.
It is no coincidence that all totalitarian regimes seek, as a matter of import, to control the arts.
The Nazis, after rising to power in 1933, rapidly got rid of opponents, including those from the cultural community. Yet they also sought to continue culture – making it ‘purely’ German; safe and so on. But it was never a question of scrapping culture/art per se.
Quite the contrary.
Similarly, Stalin didn’t get rid of art – bought sought to control it and exploit art (including composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich) for the benefit of the state.
Even dictators know that culture and art are important.
But then again, we live, so it seems, in days when culture is denuded to the point of ‘reality’ TV and a general trashiness – and to complain about that is itself a form of snobbery and elitism.
Just remember: one Rupert Murdoch is a great believer in railing against the 'elite' – and dumbing down as much as he can get away with, to his own profit.
No: this isn’t cultural snobbery – as I have clearly laid out, the post-war settlement allowed working-class culture and experience to be acknowledged at the highest cultural levels, at the same time as working-class people could also access art.
I dread to think that we should step back into a past where we lose all the gains of that post-war settlement.
Culture should be for all.
It is a unifying and educative force. In that sense, it is perhaps little surprise that successive neo-liberal governments, for 30-plus years, have sought to reduce the reach and importance of the arts in the UK.
Yet where regimes as diverse as the Nazis and the Soviets were united in recognising that high art should be for all, this lot seem to believe in a dumbing down that does absolutely nobody any good whatsoever.
There's a lesson there.
And to be honest, it’s even hard to imagine that most of them really appreciate culture beyond it having a perceived societal kudos.
So when the Royal Opera House asks about the arts, essentially in response to yet further onslaughts against the arts by government, let’s all be a bit Wagnerian and not fall into the trap of thinking that it’s only a subsidy for the entertainment of posh, rich people.