Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Art for the economy's sake

Last night I snuck into the ippr debate on ‘why should government support the arts?’ It was held in the super-salubrious top people’s fun palace, the Royal Opera House (cost well over £200 million of mainly public money). Under the chairmanship of Nick Pearce (ippr chief), the heavyweight panel comprised Tessa Jowell, Sir Christopher Frayling (Arts Council chairman), Tony Hall (ROH boss), and Ferdinand Mount (rubicund Times columnist).

Audience members were mainly dressed in arts black, although there was an excellent range of unusual yak skin footwear. Few were paint spattered and it eventually became clear these were not artistes at all, but two or three hundred bureaucrats from the subsidised arts industry (cost £500 million pa direct government funding plus a couple of hundred mill more from the lottery).

Tess kicked off by saying the BBC licence fee would protect us from ‘content becoming prey to unfettered market forces’. We needed only to look at the US to see where that would take us. I could tell she wasn’t a fan of the Simpsons, South Park, West Wing, ER, Desperate Housewives, Pimp My Ride etc, but wondered why she was focussing on the BBC (cost £3 billion pa), rather than the question of arts subsidies generally.

Then she stared at us intently, and slowly intoned ‘what the arts do, and only the arts do, is most important.’ She carried on staring, and said it again, even more slowly. I could tell it was important from the grave nods around me, but…well, what on earth did it mean? Was it perhaps Dada-ism?

I decided it probably was, when she went on to say we need to ‘embed arts subsidies in a more complex narrative of value.’

Much of the debate was similar in tone, but what I gleaned was that there are five key arguments for subsidies:

1. Arts are good for the economy. The creative industries apparently employ two million people and are ‘worth £118 billion a year’. They are growing either twice or four times faster than the economy generally (opinions seem to vary). 29 per cent of overseas visitors come here to see the performing arts.

2. Arts ‘slay the sixth giant- poverty of aspiration, what Bevan called the poverty of imagination.’ It’s reckoned that the arts can motivate underachieving kids, and reform criminals. Tess stressed this is ‘not social engineering, but a social mission.’

3. Arts provide ‘a shared experience’, and are therefore ‘central to our identity and aspirations.’

4. Arts can regenerate inner cities, like the Lowry in Manchester and that converted satanic mill place in Gateshead.

5. It’s the will of the people- “opinion polls” show 70-80 per cent support for the arts.

6. Subsidies permit experimentation.

Umm…you see, the problem with most of these arguments for subsidies is that…er, well, they’re not actually arguments for subsidies. For example, the finance industry is growing faster than the general economy, but nobody thinks we should subsidise that. Why should the arts industry be different? Some guy from the advertising industry said it was because subsidised arts were necessary to feed the…funnily enough, the advertising industry. And there was I thinking admen were fed quite well enough round the plush watering holes of Mayfair.

As for “opinion polls”, and using our taxes to fund impenetrable new dance troupes…

I eventually worked out that the underlying argument is the old public good thing- although we won’t pay individually, we’re all better off with a motivated honest citizenry bound together with those shared experiences etc. So we must pay collectively through taxes. Just like defence or law and order.

Of course, the problem with this approach- ‘mere instrumentalism’ as speakers scathingly called it- is that it leads on to asking whether the arts actually deliver what’s claimed? And even if they do, are they the most efficient way of doing it? For example, we could reduce the social cost of criminality just by banging up more criminals. Teaching villains to hold up sub post offices in blank verse sounds sort of superfluous.

The two best questions from the floor highlighted the non-existent foundations of instrumentalism. A clearly well informed researcher from the University of Kent noted that the evidence was purely anecdotal. To which Frayling reacted like a scalded cat, reading out some waffle that he reckoned proved the evidence was hard. Of course, he was the one who kicked up a terrible fuss just before Christmas when philistine Gordo froze Arts Council funding for three years.

Then- and I never thought I’d find myself saying this- a guy from the ippr asked the excellent question ‘how do you tell how much arts support is enough?’ The by now seriously rattled Frayling blurted out ‘there’s never enough- it’s like the NHS!’

So there we are: even though we can’t measure- or probably even agree on- any of the outputs, the arts need infinite amounts of taxpayers’ money.

Overall, I was struck by how little confidence these people have in their ability to survive in the private sector. As explained in a previous post, Mrs Tyler and I would still go to quite a bit of stuff, even if we had to pay more. Why should everyone else have to subsidise us?

But of course, last night’s bureaucrats are not the guys we actually pay to see. I have no doubt most of our performers and artists would survive and even prosper. However those girls in the yak boots might need to get themselves proper jobs.


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