Friday Ephemera
Elsewhere (20)

Is That Your Hand In My Pocket?

The playwright Jonathan Holmes indulges in some special pleading for the arts, and for people much like himself.

All three parties find themselves scrambling for a coherent arts policy, with the Tories currently making the running by suggesting a combination of a revamped lottery contribution plus a peculiar beast they are calling “philanthrocapitalism.” What they seem to mean by this is that businesses and wealthy individuals will make up the shortfall left behind when Jeremy Hunt and co have finished taking the Arts Council to pieces – in other words, a spectacular piece of wishful thinking.

Now might be a good time to ask whose thinking is most wishful here. If the art world’s theoretical customers don’t regard what’s on offer as of sufficient value to hand over their cash directly, voluntarily, then isn’t that telling us something? Isn’t it a tad grandiose to expect one’s commercially unviable art to be subsidised by the taxpayer - irrespective of whether those taxpayers would choose to fork over their cash, which they most likely had to earn by doing something of more obvious market value? What Holmes and his colleagues are advocating is a confiscation of other people’s money and therefore other people’s freedom, though of course he takes great care to avoid such unambiguous phrasing. Sadly, Mr Holmes doesn’t quite get to grips with such basics or their moral implications. He teases us, though, with this:

Lurking underneath all this there is, of course, a much bigger issue. Why should the arts receive any subsidy at all? The first argument is that almost everyone else is subsidised too, so why not the arts?

Despite the regularity with which it’s aired, this is a not the strongest argument to advance. The fact that six people already have their hands in my back pocket isn’t the most persuasive reason for inviting in a seventh, eighth and ninth. There is, after all, only so much pocket.

Mr Holmes then changes tack.

The arts in this country are a major financial success story. The income from creative industries generates revenues of around £112.5bn, and they employ more than 1.3 million people, which is 5% of the total employed workforce in the UK.

Note the sly use of the term “creative industries,” which includes advertising, commercial television, recording studios, graphic designers, computer games developers... i.e., businesses run as businesses and which generate profit because what they produce is of value to their customers, as determined by their customers and not by some imperious committee.

Finally, the big guns are wheeled out to thunder.

A mature democracy should have the courage and the understanding to see the debt it owes its artists,

What? You didn’t expect modesty, did you?

and to continue to support them, because what it gets in return – economically, socially, aesthetically, philosophically – is almost immeasurably greater than that which it dispenses.

Oh, don’t look shocked. It’s hard to recall a Guardian arts funding piece that didn’t invoke both selfless heroism and cruel persecution.

The benefits of the arts are such a no-brainer, so obvious, that the sole genuine reason for cuts is censorship of some form. In the 20th century, the only governments to systematically attack the arts have been the ones that also attacked democracy.

Note how the prospect of reducing coercive public subsidy is framed rather grandly as “censorship” of artists - and by implication an attack on democracy itself. No other genuine motive could possibly exist. Those who would rather keep a little more of their own earnings and choose for themselves which art forms they indulge are clearly monsters. We’ve heard this pompous guff before of course, as when Hanif Kureishi and the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington conjured a world in which artistic “dissent” was being “suppressed” by suggestions that artists might actually consider earning a living.

Yet the most profound argument for art runs much deeper than any of this. Art, very simply, is how we comment on our world, how we speak truth to power.

Blimey. Sceptical readers may wonder if Mr Holmes thinks a little too highly of his vocation and its political, sociological - indeed, cosmic - importance. Mr Holmes would have us believe that he’s “speaking truth to power.” But one has to wonder who has more power in the current funding formulation. The taxpayer, who is forced to bankroll projects regardless of personal interest or objection, or those who take the taxpayer’s money and expect to go on doing so?