Arts Councillors

Brigid Brophy

  • The State and the Visual Arts by Nicholas Pearson
    Open University, 128 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 335 10109 7
  • The Politics of the Arts Council by Robert Hutchison
    Sinclair Browne, 186 pp, £7.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 86300 016 9

My fellow members of the Left often seem to have met an entirely different middle class from the one I was brought up in. Left-wing chat about education accepts without challenge the thesis that book learning comes easily to middle-class children because they come from homes conversant with books. Chat (which is rarer) about arts policy accepts that ‘standards’ and ‘quality’ are bourgeois conventions which the middle class has contrived to impose on public patronage of the arts, thereby getting itself, at the taxpayers’ expense, a bonanza of the kinds of art which it happens to enjoy. This gives me a surreal feeling that I must be the only member of the Labour Party who has hacked through the pampas grass in the front garden, penetrated the mock-half-timbered facade and set actual foot in any of the thousands of middle-class homes where no kinds of art are enjoyed, where the most bookish book to be accorded houseroom is the AA Members’ Handbook and where an invitation to partake in the bourgeois bonanza by passing a publicly subsidised evening at a Shakespeare play or a Bartok opera would elicit bafflement, fear or derision.

To be fair, the carapace of middle-class philistinism has softened a bit over the past twenty years, from hostility to the arts to indifference. Some of the improvement must, I think, have been wrought by public patronage. The grand success is opera, for which the Welsh and Scottish Arts Councils, as well as the overlord Arts Council which funds the two national companies, have conjured up informed and sensitive audiences throughout the length and breadth of what was once a desert island and have presented to them a repertory more adventurous and less tied to one tradition or language than the opera houses manage to mount in many of the traditionally opera-loving and highly opera-subsidising countries. The public library service, too, which has grown hugely since 1945, can claim a success in at least putting books within reach of the middle class. Before 1945, the middle class left the ‘free’ libraries to the proletariat, in the belief that one was likely to catch a contagious disease if one handled pages that had been turned by proletarian fingers, a pendant to its taboos on public drinking fountains and lavatories. Having once ventured into the public libraries, the middle class presumably found there enough factual information to dispel its superstitions.

However, although the Secretary-General of the Arts Council explained in 1981 that the Council’s reason for allocating to literature only about I per cent of the public money it distributes to the arts is that ‘literature is very heavily supported by libraries, which are separately funded’, the public libraries do not in fact support literature. What they buy and lend out are books, some of which are literature. Whether in any true economic sense they ‘support’ even books at large can be disputed, since the admirable ubiquity of the library service in Britain, which, measured by loans, is much the largest in the Western world, goes with a dearth of bookshops. The Federal Republic of Germany makes about a third of the number of loans that Britain does and has about three times as many bookshops. The Netherlands, which has a population of 14 million, makes about a quarter of the British number of loans and possesses, as the Bookseller reported in August this year, 18,000 bookshops. All the same, provided it does not starve professional authorship out of existence, which Public Lending Right ought to prevent, though the first British payments, due in February 1984, will probably be at a rate quite inadequate to the purpose, the multiple use of books is more socially sensible than individual ownership (and dusting), as well as being more sparing of trees; and by tempting the bourgeoisie into buildings that house a wide range of books, among which some literature may be lurking, the public libraries must surely have made matters a little easier, if only from a logistical point of view, for those members of the middle class who are in rebellion against the philistinism endemic in their milieu.

The incorrect belief that the middle class is cultivated and the erroneous corollary that culture is middle-class have provoked a pseudo-liberationist cry: ‘Democratise the Arts Council.’ This has now moved out (or been democratised) from Labour and trade union circles to what you might call the arts-administrative class. It is echoed both by Nicholas Pearson, who is described in the blurb to his book as ‘Visual Arts Marketing Officer at the Welsh Arts Council’, and by Robert Hutchison, who ‘worked for five years as a Senior Research and Information Officer for the Arts Council’ and who seems on the way to elevating arts administration into one of the arts. Besides recording with disapproval that ‘it is, for the most part, professionals who sit on Council panels and committees, it is professional organisations and professional artists that receive practically the whole of the subsidies distributed by the Arts Council,’ he throws in, apparently by way of a counterbalancing good word, that ‘the Arts Council has done a great deal to create the arts administration profession.’ He is a little slapdash with his praise and blame, not always making it clear which is intended to land where, but I get the impression that he would like a world where all the artists were amateurs and their affairs were managed (or their playgroup minded) by professional administrators.

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