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.

In this he goes against the present grain of artists, and in particular of writers, who are increasingly emerging from the age of being patted on the head. It is more than twenty years since television writers discovered that they could not only form but run a trade union for themselves, successfully conducting their own negotiations with the employers, and they have now been joined by writers of books, who, ten years ago, took on the task, not only of convincing the Government that there should be a PLR system in this country, but also of demonstrating to the Government how to use computer and statistical science to operate it justly. In the course of doing this they discovered that the mildly technical exercises that, for the most part, pass for the expertise of administrators are child’s play in comparison with the organising of a sonnet or a detective story. Alas, the writers were not allowed access to Parliamentary draftsmen, one of whom has lately run shrieking out from behind his traditional anonymity into the Times Literary Supplement. The PLR legislation is muddled and inadequate, no doubt because it was not touched by a professional writer’s hand. The pressure now exerted by artists’ unions on both the Arts Council and the private entrepreneurs is, of course, for better rates of pay, but it is also for better information. The agreement on minimum terms for book publication which the Writers’ Guild has negotiated with some publishers, and, in conjunction now with the Society of Authors, will with more, stipulates a minimum advance consisting of the royalty the author would earn on a sale of 65 per cent of the projected first printing of the book. This of course obliges the publisher to divulge to the author what print order he has in mind for the author’s work, and on the whole it is this disclosure, rather than the size of the cheque, that publishers apprehend as revolutionary.

Dr Pearson’s book is about the visual arts (in which, however, he doesn’t seem to include architecture) specifically and state patronage at large, Mr Hutchison’s about the arts at large and the Arts Council specifically. Dr Pearson is the more nearly thoughtful, Mr Hutchison the punchier. (Well, at least, he puns. One of his chapters is called ‘Truly Impartial? or The Making of the English Opera Class’.) Neither book is a work of literature, but (although only Dr Pearson’s has an index) either or both should be made available in public libraries for the sake of their accounts, which overlap quite a lot, of the history and the present organisation of state patronage.

The overlap does not stop with facts. Perhaps the two authors attended the same arts administration course. They seem to share a dislike of professionalism in art and a belief that culture is a class conspiracy. ‘The visual arts,’ Dr Pearson asserts, ‘have traditionally... reflected the interests and tastes of small and powerful sections of society. These classes have tended to universalise their tastes, experiences and culture, as being the culture of the nation. State policy thus far... has tended to reinforce and support such universalisations of the interests and experiences of particular groups and classes.’ Similarly, ‘the Arts Council,’ Mr Hutchison asserts, ‘is the product of a class and has the loyalties of that class.’ Its subsidies, he says, ‘keep down ticket prices at theatres and concert halls, at which nearly all audience surveys have produced similar profiles, i.e. largely middle-class and with dominant proportions whose formal, full-time education was (or will be) completed beyond the age of 19... Studying the Arts Council it is easy to see what Marx and Engels meant when they denounced the state as a committee for the management of the affairs of the bourgeoisie.’

Studying that last sentence, I do not find it easy to see how an impersonal ‘it’ can have been ‘studying the Arts Council’. The tapemeasure Mr Hutchison takes to profiles seems to me a bit inflexible and conformist, though I may have a special and proletarian sensibility here since I no sooner reached the age of 19 than the University of Oxford refused to continue educating me formally, but I am not sure what, in any case, he is measuring. Does he mean it would be better if students couldn’t afford concert tickets and if no graduates enjoyed music? Is he urging the middle class out of the concert halls and back to cultivating its pampas grasses? Though I lack one myself, I can’t concur in his grudge against people with degrees. It isn’t true that if you give baths to the working class it will use them to keep the coal in, but it often seems true that, as soon as the Labour movement has the smallest success in its struggle to get a decent education for the working class, someone will turn on the people who take the opportunity and rend them as bourgeois. I suspect that Mr Hutchinson is a philistine. Whether he is a bourgeois philistine I can’t authoritatively say in the absence of a profile of arts administrators, but I sense in him the basic mock-Tudor response to the arts – namely, that they aren’t any use. (And, indeed, they aren’t.) Still, sooner than scrap them and arts administration along with them, he has, with the help, I imagine, of ‘Lesson Eleven – Psychology’ in the arts administration course, thought of a way in which the public subsidy to the arts might be spent. ‘Distinguished psychologists, Fromm, Jung and others,’ he pronounces (the ‘and others’ perhaps marking that he has mislaid some of the notes he took at this point), ‘have argued that people have a need to express their grasp of the world of the senses – be this expressed through song, dance, drama, music, painting, or whatever – and whether this expression is conducted individually or collectively, whether it is called art or ritual, it is something that everyone needs to join in, not simply have served up by “professionals”.’

This seems an excellent example of what Dr Pearson calls the tendency of small and powerful classes ‘to universalise their tastes’. We all, the argument now runs, need to fling paint or our limbs about; since this is merely giving vent to a universal impulse, no one need be paid for doing it with talent or skill (or, as the philistine invariably replies when an artist seeks a living wage for his work, ‘No one asked you to be an artist – surely the only reward you need is the satisfaction you get from doing it?’); but society will need hundreds of arts administrators to dole out the paint and the ballet shoes. These administrators will happily be free of the tiresome and pointed demands of professional artists. In being bent or warped to this seemingly social service, the arts have, in Mr Hutchison’s vision, ceased to be arts. The notion that an art is ‘something that everyone needs to join in’ perhaps discloses what Mr Hutchison has against middle-class and graduate concert audiences. They don’t sing along with the music.

The call to ‘democratise’ the Arts Council doesn’t mean ‘democratise’. An Arts Council that exactly reflected the artistic opinions of the national electorate would simply reproduce the society whose deficiencies have, in its own view of itself, made state subsidies necessary. The proposal is merely to change the present arrangement, which is certainly a paradoxical one if you consider its formal aspect. By what jargon calls ‘the arm’s length principle’, the Arts Council intervenes between the Government, which allocates the taxpayers’ money, and the recipients of particular arts subsidies, thereby preventing a government from expressing its party politics and an arts minister from expressing his personal politics or taste by means of choosing certain artists or artistic enterprises to promote. However, the chairman, the vice-chairman and the other 18 members of the Council are appointed by the Government. They are appointed as individuals, not as representatives of organisations. The Council in turn chooses whom to ask, again as individuals, not representatives, to join its 11 (Music, Literature, Drama etc) panels, which formally wield no power but merely advise the Council.

(I don’t think they truly count as an interest to be declared, but I record my two transactions with the Arts Council, so that anyone who can detect may discount any bias they may have caused. In the Seventies, when it still gave grants to writers to encourage them to go on writing, a system it has now replaced by fewer and larger awards to more firmly established writers, I had £1,000 from the Council. In 1967 I joined the Literature panel, from which, however, I resigned after a few months because Lord Goodman, who was then chairman of the Arts Council, did not convince me, as he did the rest of the panel, that the Council should withhold subsidy from a magazine that held a competition for poems written under the influence of drugs. I kept thinking of Coleridge.)

The proposal to ‘democratise’ the Council is a suggestion that some or all of the appointed individuals on the Council and the panels should be replaced by elected representatives. The question of who should have the right to elect a representative usually receives two answers: organisations, including regional arts associations, that receive subsidies from the Council; and arts trade unions. Neither answer has much democratic standing, since no wider electorate elects them. To obey the first answer would presumably inhibit changes in Arts Council practice. The representative of a body that is getting a subsidy can scarcely be expected to use his vote or his power on the Council to shift that subsidy to someone who might use it to better purpose. The second answer seems to me a suggestion for wrecking the unions. The first rule of a trade union is that it deals impartially between member and member. The Writers’ Guild, to take my own union as a paradigm for all the arts unions, contains novel-writing and biography-writing members. I can’t think of a quicker route to its ruination than if it agreed to elect a representative to a Council or a panel that then decided it must decide between subsidising fiction and subsidising non-fiction. What the unions must squeeze out of the Arts Council is information from and access to the people who make the decisions. A suggestion, however, that they should themselves join the people who make the decisions is dangerous to workers at all times. At a time when many of the decisions are bound to be about where to impose cuts, it is simply a suggestion that the workers should pop in and share the stick.

However, even if the system of appointment is maintained faute de mieux (and to my regret I can’t think of mieux), it could easily be made possible for the minister and the Council to seek the people they appoint much more widely than they do. (Mr Hutchison has some justified fun in establishing how small and how ‘masculine and metropolitan’ a pool has been tapped so far.) Much of the real power at the Arts Council belongs to the paid staff, of whom, according to a memorandum from the Council to a Select Committee of the House of Commons that Mr Hutchison reprints as an appendix, there are 384 in England, Scotland and Wales, because, like civil servants in relation to politicians, they are permanent, whereas Council and panels are transient, and because they control the information presented to Council and panels for them to act on. The deliberations of a panel on the information it receives are necessarily scanty and selective, because they all have to be fitted into the compass of five afternoons in the course of a year. Quite apart from the merely advisory function they are given (myth has it that the Council never flouts their advice), this is the real source both of the impotence of the panels and of the homogeneity of their composition. Neither Mr Hutchison nor Dr Pearson nor the Council’s memorandum mentions how infrequent meetings are: as a rule, once a month for the Council and four or five times a year for panels. Clearly, the Arts Council can’t ask more hours from a labour force that is unpaid (though it can claim back its travel expenses afterwards); and there is a clearly circumscribed pool of people who can without embarrassment be asked to donate even so low a number of hours in which they might be earning. Among employees of other enterprises, the Council’s choice is limited to those who are senior enough to take time off; among artists, it is limited to the financially successful or those unofficially subsidised by spouses or ‘private’ (in the discreet English idiom) incomes.

This situation could easily be reformed by payment of Council and panel members (at the Writers’ Guild suggested minimum rate for speaking engagements, namely £50 for an engagement that takes, travel included, between one and a half hours and half a day). This will make it practical for the Council and panels to meet weekly, which is the minimum frequency at which you can attend to the business of disbursing £80 million a year and know what you are doing. Simultaneously it will make it possible (as payment of MPs did in the case of the House of Commons) for the Arts Council to broaden its social and professional composition, taking in people who have personal experience of the dilemma that most commonly faces artists in Britain today: namely, whether to remain alive or to remain an artist. Neither need it add a penny to the Council’s internal expenses. The reform I suggest is an obvious candidate for the present government’s job-sharing wheeze. Councillors and panelists should take over half the duties (which will automatically give them the information they need in order to make decisions) and half the salaries of the 384 staff.

The other cry long raised in Labour Party discussion papers and now taken up by these two books is for a minister of culture. Norman St John-Stevas was Minister for the Arts and a cabinet minister, but the duality was, like a seat on the Arts Council, personal to him. When Mrs Thatcher sacked him, the minister for the arts resumed the status of a junior minister at the Department of Education and Science, presiding over his own cubby-hole, the Office of Arts and Libraries, within the Department. An arrangement whereby the arts minister has first to brief and persuade the Secretary of State for Education, who has then to brief and persuade the Cabinet, is a game of whispers in which something vital is in danger of being lost at each transfer. The chances of keeping up, let alone increasing, the arts subsidy can be improved only if the arts have a minister able to wrestle himself with the Cabinet and the Treasury. That is also the best way, though it is not infallible, of making the arts job something more than an overnight stop for an ambitious politician or a rest home for a lazy or exhausted one.

Various maps have been sketched of the empire an arts minister of Cabinet rank might build himself, consisting usually of the arts, communications, entertainment and ‘the Heritage’, a term which would be vetoed by any minister whose aesthetic impressions were not formed in a tea shop hung with fake horse brasses but which points to the most urgent artistic imperative in Britain today – to stop the philistine bourgeoisie and upper class pulling down handsome buildings. Lord Jenkins of Putney, who, as Hugh Jenkins, was the most recent but one Labour arts minister, would add sport to the list. In reality, however, the most vital territory for a vigorous arts minister to annexe is copyright, which badly needs to be snatched from the Department of Trade, where the overdue reform of the 1956 Act is withering in a bud that was never very promising, and which should be transformed, along the lines of the West German Act of 1965, into a formal and legal recognition of the unique and inalienable connection between an artist and the products of his imagination.

A tradition of professional arts, once you let it die, cannot be reinstated merely by an act of will or by the expenditure of money. Ours, long battered by philistinism, is now further imperilled by the physical and nervous breakdown of the whole country’s economy and by voguish and foolish twitterings among the ruins. If we ever clear the rubble and reconstruct, the society that emerges will be post-industrial, with new relationships between work, spare time (time, that is, not in hock to an employer) and the pleasures of intellectual exertion. It is to exploit these new relationships that an imaginative arts policy and an imaginative and powerful shadow arts minister should be laying plans now. It would be harsh if we got a society better adapted to enjoying the arts at the same time as we ceased to have arts. Favourable influences on the arts have been exerted by aristocracies, princelings and sultans: but although many democracies do, there is no law of nature that a democracy must have bad taste. Fifth-century BC Athens was a democracy (admittedly imperfectly so, but then so is ours; it is conceivable that each is the best available at its date). Its taste ran to building the Parthenon and to supporting a theatre that supported three unmatched poetic dramatists. The theatre was, incidentally, run on a mixed-economy subsidy. A private patron paid the chorus and the state paid the actors. When I was an innocent classical scholar, I thought the supreme miracle was the occurrence of so much literary genius in so short a span. In a compass of twenty years, an Athenian theatregoer could see new works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Increased acquaintance with how literary matters are nowadays managed, under both state and private patronage, nationally and internationally, has shewn me that the real knockout of a miracle is that each of the three was (more than once, actually) first prize-winner in a literary competition.