David Thompson


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April 14, 2009


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


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.

* http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/11/so-very-tired.html

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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