Friday Ephemera
Righteousness 101

Freeloading and Snobbery

Over the holiday weekend I somehow missed the Guardian’s latest musings on Thatcher and the arts. The writer Hanif Kureishi offers this:

[I]n the longer term, her effect has been disastrous. Thatcher, like the Queen, is basically vulgar, and has little cultural sophistication or understanding. But unlike the Queen, she actively hated culture, as she recognised that it was a form of dissent.

Ah yes, “dissent.” That’s up there with Polly Toynbee’s conviction that subsidised literary festivals are not only “hot new debating arenas” and “as good a measure of well-being as any,” but also, crucially, make up for “the nation’s democratic deficit.” Naturally, this is advanced as a basis for additional taxpayer subsidy of the art forms Polly happens to like, and in which she has a platform. (There is, sadly, no public subsidy of my CD collection or Battlestar Galactica box sets, for which I expect to pay full price. But then if I want some political edge to my entertainment, I’m more likely to turn to, say, South Park than the woolly blatherings of DBC Pierre or the plays of David Hare. No doubt that makes me a hater of culture.) Toynbee devotees may also recall her enthusiasm for the idea that “disruptive 16-year-old boys” should be taken out of class to spend a term being taught the finer points of dance, resulting in a “transformation in the whole year group.”  

But on the subject of dissent, one might wonder whether publicly subsidised art and theatre will tend to favour a political outlook in which the subsidy on which it depends is most vigorously endorsed, thus leading to uniformity, inhibition and a political comfort zone. Which raises the question of what “dissent” actually means when the status quo in London’s dramatic circles is, as we’ve seen, overwhelmingly leftwing. It seems to me the nature of arts and theatrical funding has at least some bearing on the political tenor of artistic establishments and much of the work that’s produced. In the case of museums and orchestras this may not be particularly relevant. But there’s no shortage of overtly politicised “art” that peddles an ideological message or badmouths the terribly bourgeois values of the terrible bourgeois people who are nonetheless expected to pay for it with their taxes. In such cases, objections are easy to understand. If people wish to use art to propagate a leftwing political message, perhaps they should find a suitably likeminded sponsor, or do it on their own dime.

But back to Mr Kureishi and his claims of cultural autism. Actually, I don’t recall Thatcher having much to say about the arts and culture generally, so I’m not sure what exactly the charge of being “basically vulgar” and “actively hating culture” is based on. Not being keen on unending public subsidy for a fairly narrow range of politically loaded theatre isn’t the same thing as philistinism, and I’m pretty sure one of Thatcher’s earliest speeches argued that the economic fallout of socialism had placed the arts under threat, along with a great deal else. Unfortunately, Kureishi doesn’t pause to elaborate on his claim; instead he presents us with the following fusion of telepathy and non sequitur:

She didn’t understand altruism, solidarity and identification with others as a basic part of human nature. Her failure to understand this helped give rise to mass forms of saccharine sentimentality such as that which surrounded the demise of Princess Diana.

Hm. Even if one assumes that Thatcher actually had such profound inadequacies, it still isn’t obvious how this personal shortcoming would lead to “saccharine sentimentality” in others on a sociological scale.

It’s ironic that we are discussing all this today because the enterprise culture that she so valued has finally exploded, bringing down with it the greedy bankers she so adored. It seems to me that at last we’ve probably come to the end of Thatcherism. I’m glad she’s still alive to see the whole thing collapse.

Where would Guardian contributors be without recourse to Schadenfreude? But wait. Without an enterprise culture and the tax revenue it generates, who will be paying for all of the commercially unviable art that Mr Kureishi thinks defines sophistication? The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington doesn’t say, but he does offer this:

Was the 1980s an unacknowledged golden age? In theatrical terms, absolutely not. Talent, of course, can never be entirely suppressed.

Note the word “suppressed.” Like “dissent,” it’s a tad grandiose. I’m not convinced that the reduction of taxpayer subsidy for loss-making plays qualifies as “suppression.” And reluctant taxpayers please take note: Despite all the years of providing handouts, you’re now on the side of the oppressor. That’s gratitude for you. Actually, one might argue that not making work of sufficient interest to put bums on seats is largely a failure of the artist. Not that Mr Billington has much time for productions that do put bums on seats, which the elevated socialist waves aside as “harmless pleasure.” Instead, he too sees the long shadow of Thatcher, on whom he blames,

a prevailing media assumption that a hyped-up West End extravaganza such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is somehow more “important” than, say, a new Royal Court play by Polly Stenham; that in itself is a direct legacy of a decade in which “bums on seats” became a more significant criterion of judgment than “ideas in heads.”

There’s something deeply amusing about egalitarian snobbery and its assorted conceits. The functions of the welfare state apparently include saving unprofitable drama productions from an uninterested public. Mere commercial forces and popular appetite must not impede work of such tremendous cultural importance that no bugger wants to see it. There’s an inescapable arrogance in the assumption that a given artistic or theatrical effort should somehow circumvent the preferences of its supposed audience and be maintained indefinitely, at public expense, despite audience disinterest or outright disapproval. And when that same indifferent public forks out its cash voluntarily for something it wants to see, this is something to be sneered at and blamed on former Prime Ministers. Marx would be proud. I’m not at all sure that the opinions above, which are fairly typical of the piece, tell us much about Thatcher’s view of culture, or her alleged philistinism, or her impact on the arts generally. But it does, I think, tell us quite a bit about the presumptions of the commenters and their intended readership.


James S

So bankers are "greedy" but artists that expect free money from the taxpayer aren't selfish or greedy at all?


I see you’re getting the hang of it. And if they don’t get free money, and keep on getting free money, then their “dissent” is being “suppressed.”

Horace Dunn

Yes, and that “dissent” is mainly manifested by producing artworks that rehearse the concerns and preoccupations of well-to-do Guardian readers for consumption by well-to-do Guardian readers.


Quite a few logical absurdities

"Altruism" isn't about voluntarily contributions to subsidise arts but forcing people who might not want to contribute.

As an artist he "dropped out". Well that's true in the sense that freeloading whilst being part of society is dropping out.

Arts being subsidised. I like the way that "art" is used as a general term rather than "left wing art". It doesn't occur to these people that there is a selection process and that a bureaucrat has to reject the non appropriate. The bureaucrat is part of the state and that therefore any art approved must, by definition, be "State approved art". It can only be ersatz anti-establishment.


I don't like Hanif Kureishi films or Caryl Churchill plays. Does that mean I hate "culture"– all of it?

John D

"So bankers are "greedy" but artists that expect free money from the taxpayer aren't selfish or greedy at all?"

A bit OT, but still…

"I don't feel we should apologise for being here. We're opportunists," says Ed, a mustachioed 26-year-old who works in video. "I'm damned if I'm going to work six days a week to pay for a studio space."


Billington says, “Even today, theatre, like so many features of public life including the BBC, is still suffering from the 80s assault on fundamental principles.” But it seems to me that theatre, like the BBC, is suffering from something else entirely. Something Fabian Tassano calls “mediocracy” and defines as: “a condition in which culture is subordinated to pseudo-egalitarian ideology. Symptoms include: dumbing, jargonism, infantilisation, vacuity, phoney democratisation and authoritarianism. A key weapon of the mediocratic agenda is the Orwellian redefinition of words and ideas.”

See, for instance, this:

“How do you know when a society’s culture has stopped being genuinely challenging and iconoclastic? When a government minister insists that “challenge” and “iconoclasm” are essential components of culture. […] A mediocracy has ersatz versions of everything related to intellectual or artistic independence: questioning, analysis, scepticism, radicalism, and so on. No real questioning or radicalism is involved, since that would be too dangerous. There are two reasons for a culture of pseudo-iconoclasm. First, having a replacement version is safer than trying to eliminate openly. The latter would make it too obvious that something was being suppressed. By suitable redefinition, it becomes impossible to complain that an activity (e.g. real challenge) is in fact absent. Second, the energies of those who might in other circumstances be doing the real questioning, challenging etc. need to be safely absorbed by being directed towards attacking the enemies of mediocracy.”


Art is a commodity, no different than concrete, to me. Its worth the amount people will pay. At least, thats what my artist uncle says. Sure, sometimes the artist just wants his own work for fun, but expecting something for work no one wants is silly.

Horace Dunn

I must admit that I am by no means averse to public subsidy of the arts. The problem I have is when nerks like those in the Guardian seem to feel that unless they get it all their own way, then some “fundamental principles” have been assaulted, as Michael Billington asserts (come on, Michael, WHAT fundamental principles are you talking about here?) There’s that whiny sense of entitlement that is so prevalent. I’m sure we all would like to receive greater remuneration and respect for whatever it is we do for a living. But somehow, once someone assumes the badge of the “artist” he feels that he deserves an easy ride, and is being oppressed if he doesn’t get it. And then there’s the unmistakeable aroma of preciousness, self-regard and bland conformity that always prevails whenever radical thinkers and artists come together. As I said, I’m not totally averse to public subsidy of the arts, but if the public purse is to be raided, the public deserves far better than this bloody shower.

My favourite bit, though, is Wayne Hemingway’s little contribution. The lesson here is that, if you are looking for a nuanced analysis of the current economic quandary we are in, you shouldn’t perhaps ask a dressmaker.



“I’m not totally averse to public subsidy of the arts, but if the public purse is to be raided, the public deserves far better than this bloody shower.”

But isn’t there an obvious problem here? If you don’t object to the broader issue of involuntary subsidy, you still don’t get any say in where your money is spent. Discernment is handed over to the Arts Council and other state agencies. So where’s the mechanism for getting you a better deal? You – we - have no discernible impact on what it is they do with money they didn’t earn.

Chris S

What I like is the non-suppression of these artists. They are free to create their works, about any topic, no-limits applied.

Real suppression would include things like prison terms, beatings, having parts important to creating their works removed, etc. Things that could actually be seen to be limiting their ability to create anything.

Whining about your allowance for "piss christ" isn't even on the same level as youths in Pakistan facing the death penalty if they get caught painting graffiti.

If their art was so important, they would create it without any help. You know, keep creating the art in spite of all the *supression*. Mind you, maybe no one would see it, but is the purpose of art to be seen by others or to be created?


Speaking of that whiny sense of entitlement, as Horace nicely puts its ... when working as a publisher's reader I was given the manuscript of a novel by an author who'd parted company with her original publisher. At the beginning was a single acknowledgement: 'I'd like to thank the f******* Arts Council for not giving me one f****** penny while I was writing this book.'

After reading the first few pages my respect for the Arts Council rose a little.


> It’s ironic that we are discussing all this today because the enterprise culture that she so valued has finally exploded,

Do you want to know what really happened?

My link attempts to explain what happened to the financial system.


David, NCF picked up on this too.

"Billington's claim simply shows a refusal to accept that it's not the popular shows which did for 'ideas in heads,' but the fact that the 'serious' theatre has had no new ideas worth listening to. The truth is that the hatred of these people derives now, as it did then, principally from the simple fact that, far from being hostile to the arts and the liberal intelligentsia, Thatcher simply didn't care what they thought. She didn't think what they said was important. And anybody who has worked in the contemporary arts world will know that, with its high quotient of distorted egotism and almost comical self-importance, not being listened or deferred to will make large sections of it unhinged."



Thanks for that. What struck me about the Guardian piece was how fanciful and self-flattering so much of it was. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons to dislike particular policies – some principled, some just personally expedient – but the bulk of the resentment being expressed hangs on some pretty big assumptions and some pretty implausible claims.


Some of that edgy "dissent" here:

"Just as they're reaching climax, his phone goes off - news just in, Thatcher's dead. Cue a simultaneous orgasm and guffaws of heartless laughter from the assembled die-hards on press night."

Horace Dunn


"You – we - have no discernible impact on what it is they do with money they didn’t earn"

True. But then the same could be said about how the health service uses our money - do we get to choose how much goes on kidney dialysis machines, for example, as opposed to how much is spent on producing leaflets warning of the evils of donuts? Ditto education, the police etc etc.

If arts funding is to continue (and I think it should, in some form at least) perhaps those who are offered it should be made to issue a public statement explaining why their artistic endeavour is more deserving of funding than, say, some much-needed hospital equipment. Such a statement is unlikely to be of much use in itself, but it will at least have the effect of making the Guardianista-artiste think less solipsistically about notions of entitlement and the public good.

Of course, the other thing that needs to be done is to take the arts funding agencies out of the hands of the people who currently run it and treat it largely (though, by no means exclusively, to be fair) as a private club for shunting sums of money around to their chums and chums of chums.



“…perhaps those who are offered it should be made to issue a public statement explaining why their artistic endeavour is more deserving of funding than, say, some much-needed hospital equipment.”

I quite like the idea of a TV game show in which artists compete to convince an audience of taxpayers that their work is more deserving than a range of things – dialysis machines, tax cuts, holidays, beers for the audience, etc. Yes, it could be a total waste of 60 minutes, but I’ve had worse times in galleries.

“…the other thing that needs to be done is to take the arts funding agencies out of the hands of the people who currently run it…”

But hasn’t the Arts Council just become what any conceivable replacement would, in time, become? Isn’t that just what happens with socialised art?


A few quick points:

1. Is subsidy really the issue here? The whole "Brit Art" movement flourished under the patronage of Tory advertising millionaire Charles Saatchi, and it gave us the same "edgy" art you guys hate. Obviously wealthy individuals like Saatchi can collect art works as an investment where they can't really "collect" plays.

2. Subsidy can be right wing, or at least serve a right wing agenda. The CIA subsidized difficult avant-garde art, like the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollack, during the Cold War. They did this to raise the prestige of American art, and to show that "Nato" art was more advanced than Soviet art. The music of Stockhausen and Boulez was also a product of this postwar public subsidy in western Europe. Fighting Communism with atonality, no less. Presumably you know about "Encounter" magazine:

3. Hanif Kureishi, for all his faults, is very good when he writes about Pakistan, Islam and British second generation Pakistanis. His "My Son The Fanatic" - written back in 1994 - anticipates the turning of younger British Pakistani men towards Islamic extremism, which would eventually lead to the 7/7 tube bombings. I recommend you read Kureshi's "The Word And The Bomb". Kureishi is an atheist, and he has no time for the usual Guardian line on Islam.



“Is subsidy really the issue here?”

Public subsidy, yes. There will always be bad art and collectors of bad art, but that isn’t the issue, at least not today. I don’t think anyone here wants to police art, as it were - quite the reverse. Saatchi can collect whatever he likes with his own cash. It’s an issue when the crap is being paid for by thee and me. I might want to buy my own crap.

“Kureishi is an atheist, and he has no time for the usual Guardian line on Islam.”

I wasn’t dismissing Kureishi’s work in general, about which I’m indifferent; I was pointing out the doubtfulness of the particular claims above. There does seem to be a pattern.

“Fighting Communism with atonality, no less.”

A moment of unspeakable genius, surely? :)



Whether the art is good or bad OR right or left is a straw man. There's plenty of subsidised art that I enjoy. Despite my enjoyment of it I still think it wrong that the public be forced.

Even some left wingers I know hate arts funding for its elitist focus. Money isn't given to the Hoi polloi to spend as they see fit, because they might "waste" it on less than wholesome purchases. The money is spent on behalf of them by people wise enough to know what the worker really needs. The lumpen proletariat can't be trusted to buy the approved things without supervision.

I like the conceit that CIA funded art is right wing. Is that because it was implemented by a Republican, not Democratic administration, or because the CIA is the clichéd boogie man for the left? On that logic would art subsidised by the NHS be intrinsicly left wing?

Is an artwork depicting a brave farmworker left wing if Stalin funds it but right wing if Hitler funds it? Does EMI signing the Gang of Four make them a right wing band?



Maybe it helps if you think of the issue in terms of individual autonomy and personal freedom. (Not the most popular subjects at the moment, I know.) When a person is taxed they lose some autonomy – their degrees of freedom are reduced, and sometimes they’re reduced quite a lot. Some reasons for inflicting this reduction are easier to justify than others. If I get knocked down crossing the road, I’d quite like an ambulance to turn up. And I’d quite like my bins to be emptied. There’s no great argument there. But depriving individuals of some autonomy and freedom shouldn’t be done lightly, though it very often is. And taking money from people via taxes in order to indulge artists whose work wouldn’t succeed on a commercial footing isn’t an entirely persuasive reason. And, contrary to the grandiose claims above, objecting to this reduction of autonomy doesn’t make one mean or vulgar.

Rich Rostrom

TDK: Money isn't given to the Hoi polloi to spend as they see fit, because they might "waste" it on _wholesome_ purchases. _Real_ art is "trangressive", "deviant", etc; obscene language, deviant sex, atonality, and ugliness. The hoi-polloi don't appreciate the merits of, for instance, Brutalist architecture; left to themselves, they'd pay for saccharine, boring neo-classical or neo-Victorian structures. They don't appreciate Stockhausen, Cage, or Boulez; left to themselves, they'd pay for Sondheim, or the Beatles, or Ellington. They don't understand the genius of Bunuel, Antonioni, Godard, or Brakhage: they waste money on _Star Wars_ and Adam Sandler comedies. Therefore, proper "high art" has to be funded by the state.

Example: Compagnie Marie Chouinard, a modern-dance troupe appearing this week at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Here is the description in the Chicago _Reader_, which made it a Critic's Choice:

Choreographer Marie Chouinard likes to make an impact. In her solo Afternoon of a Faun, performed here in 1995, a woman grows a penis. A 2000 program included a solo that consisted entirely of the female performer drinking water, then peeing in a bucket. In Chouinard's Orpheus and Eurydice, being performed this weekend by the Montreal-based company, men and women alike are bare from the waist up and wear gold pasties. Like most of the costume choices here, including feathery ear decorations reminiscent of Swan Lake, this one makes the dancers seem regal, even mythic. No worries about following the story: there's a spoken precis near the beginning of the 65-minute piece that's later fleshed out, so to speak—with plenty of simulated masturbation, intercourse, and cunnilingus. The dancers' spastic grimaces and tortured utterances are even more bizarre, recapitulating ancient Greek theatrical masks and rooting the poetry of the piece in anguish. Wrapped in a cloak of high art, Chouinard's outré treatment makes the story strange, ritualistic, inhuman.

As they say, you can't make this stuff up. Their website thanks the following agencies for their support:

The Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec
The Canada Council for the Arts
The Conseil des arts de Montréal
The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Is anyone surprised? And does anyone think that Canadian taxpayers would voluntarily pay for this stuff? (They do have some private funding, from the usual sort of elite philanthropists.)


Just to pick out one thing.

"The hoi-polloi don't appreciate the merits of, for instance, Brutalist architecture"

I lived in Leeds during the 1980s. Trendy left wingers of that era had completely forgotten the disaster of Quarry Hill Flats,_Leeds

and were then complaining about the disaster of Hunslet Grange Flats

and demanding that planners act NOW to fix the problem.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Jonny Newton

Superb post.

Warning, pedantry follows:
I think you mean "uninterested" when you use "disinterested".



Heh, thanks. I meant disinterested *in the sense of* uninterested - according to my dictionary it’s a righteous modern usage. But I see I used it too often, which is certainly fair comment. Actually, I thought someone would pick me up on this gaffe: “Even if one assumes that Thatcher actually *had* such profound inadequacies,” which suggests the woman is no longer with us.

Jonathan Newton

Fair enough :)

Alternatively, Thatcher 'had' such profound inadequacies, but has since surmounted them and is now a Tate member.

James S

I like this comment at Samizdata:

"The trivial final straw for me was the plan to provide free theatre tickets to under-26s. The minister announcing it all but apologized that it was only a few million. All the tax I will likely ever pay, plus everything my wife will pay, and probably all the tax my kids will ever contribute, has gone on a plan to help young people see actors."

sackcloth and ashes

Can anyone explain to me the difference between Kureishi's attitude and that of the beggar screaming at passers by 'Give me some money you c***s!'?

Karen M




Heh. Well, I’ve yet to meet a beggar or busker who assumed it was his inarguable right to be handed money, despite what would appear to be more pressing circumstances. And the beggars and buskers I’ve given money have generally said “thank you.”

I think part of the problem is the tendency among some to think in terms of “spending society’s money” (as the Guardian’s Zohra Moosa put it*), which can lead to a disregard for how “society’s money” is arrived at. And hence the ingratitude. There’s a tendency to assume that spending other people’s money is An Entitlement Of The Just™ and that those who take umbrage are simply being mean, as if no moral argument could possibly be imagined.


The North Briton

I had the misfortune of coming across the same supplement on Saturday morning, courtesy of my not-yet-weaned-off-the-guardian art industry friend. I read most of it open-mouthed, a clear and highly co-ordinated attempt at a final nail in the coffin character assasination.

Epic fail. The predictability of the contributor-list, and the fact that you can't charge into such a muddy battlefield led by a squealing Germaine Greer.

She even tried to quote Hayek...


I've just come to this re-heated post. I thought the whole premiss of the 'special', that Thatcher was a blind worshipper of bankers, was wrong:

Goodbye Lenin

Reheat, so forgive the lateness: "Her failure (Thatcher) to understand this helped give rise to mass forms of saccharine sentimentality such as that which surrounded the demise of Princess Diana."

But... wasn't it Mr T Blair in charge of us at the time of Diana's death? So, the sugary stuff is as much Labour's fault? Fascinating.

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