Creative Accounting

David Runciman

  • Artist Unknown: An Alternative History of the Arts Council by Richard Witts
    Little, Brown, 593 pp, £22.50, March 1998, ISBN 0 316 87820 0
  • In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen
    Harvard, 278 pp, £18.50, June 1998, ISBN 0 674 44591 0

Wilt ‘the Stilt’ Chamberlain, the former American basketball player, has three distinct claims to fame. First, there is the basketball, of which modest art he was, as his nickname suggests, a preternaturally gifted exponent. Then there is his much repeated claim to have slept with over ten thousand women during the course of his playing career, a boast which has generated fascination, disapproval and scepticism in equal measure, and transformed him, if such a thing is possible, into the Georges Simenon of the American locker-room, the object of a whole new kind of attention. And third, there is his improbable place at the heart of modern American political philosophy. It was, peculiarly, Wilt Chamberlain on whom the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick chose to hang his full-blown critique of the interventionist state. The argument runs as follows. Imagine a society of perfect distributive justice according to any model you happen to prefer, in which everyone possesses precisely what they ought to possess for justice to prevail. Now imagine what happens when someone like Chamberlain comes along, the most exciting basketball player in the world (this was 1974, when Chamberlain was the most exciting player in the world, and his extra-curricular activities were a secret between him and a few thousand others). Large numbers of people want to watch him play, and are quite happy to pay $1 for the chance to do so, knowing that for every dollar they hand over he gets to keep 25c. No one in this just world minds the loss of a dollar, and no one thinks it unjust that some of it should go to the man who induced them to part with the money in the first place. During the course of a season, one million people pay to see Chamberlain play. He ends up with $250,000. He is now considerably better off than he would have been under the original model for the perfectly just society. Injustice has been born out of a series of perfectly just transactions. So, Nozick wants to know, what do you plan to do about it?

This has proved a surprisingly difficult question to answer. To interfere seems to mean constraining the perfectly reasonable choices that individuals must be allowed to make for themselves; not to interfere looks like accepting that there is nothing we can do about grotesquely unequal distributions of income; pleading that the real world is more complicated than this seems evasive. But what happens if you turn this argument on its head? Imagine a society perfectly just by pure libertarian standards, in which individuals are assured of all their manifold rights against the state, in which private property is (literally) ring-fenced, in which the feckless face the prospect of starvation and the charitable the thrill of banding together to save them from that fate. Now imagine that someone quite unlike Wilt Chamberlain comes along, an artist of immense but complicated gifts who is quite unable to persuade anyone to part with so much as a dollar to enable him to live by his art. You might expect such a person to pose few problems for the libertarian, who is after all generally quite sanguine about the fate that awaits individuals in uncharitable neighbourhoods who are unable to help themselves. Those who disapprove of the principle of taxation are supposed particularly to disapprove of being taxed to pay for someone else’s art. In fact, art is one of the few things that can be expected to induce a few pangs of conscience in a libertarian society. Human beings come and human beings go, winning or losing in the game of life, but art is by definition something else. To be indifferent about whether or not human beings produce things of enduring artistic value looks perverse even by libertarian standards. And yet it is impossible to argue that an economy of individual preferences, of the kind that the libertarian cherishes, would guarantee all true artists their living. Some, inevitably, would suffer from the indifference of the people among whom they lived, even if such people included many wealthy patrons. These artists would have a justifiable claim on public support, provided by the taxpayer.

No libertarian, however, would be able to sleep at night in the knowledge that public officials, whose ostensible function was simply to keep him safe in his bed, were also giving away his money to creative beggars. Perhaps the only thing worse would be the thought of the artists, with their notorious disregard for private property (why else would they be in this predicament?) making the decisions for themselves. The least unpalatable option would be to set up a body of neutral and relatively powerless bureaucrats to distribute a carefully controlled sum, kept near to the minimum, without starving the artists. Even then no libertarian could believe with consistency that a group of bureaucrats would be better able than individual members of the public to judge artistic merit. So this body would have to fund a good deal of bad art along with the good, to demonstrate that they were not in possession of superior sensibilities, and that no private passions were being indulged. Not a lot of money, reluctantly given, inexpertly handed out, thinly spread, in order to protect and promote the highest standards of excellence. How very unlike the home life of our own dear Arts Council.

The ease with which one can get from libertarian political philosophy to the Arts Council, that grubbily real symbol of bullying and inefficiency, shows how easily the problem of arts funding can turn expectations around. The question of whether or not the public should pay for their art through the state rather than at the gate is one of those political issues which is frequently held up as an unambiguous benchmark against which other less clear-cut positions can be measured, an unequivocal means of sorting out the interventionists from the free-marketeers. It is nothing of the sort. Nothing about arts funding is unambiguous or clear-cut. It is of course true that the market will always have its unequivocal champions, like Tyler Cowen, who argues that competitive capitalist economies are the seedbed from which the fullest possible range of artistic excellence and diversity can freely grow. But establishing the conditions for cultural diversity tells us nothing about what we should do for those who can claim with real conviction that the market does not provide the conditions to liberate them and their creativity. The problem of arts funding is specifically the problem of what to do for people who need help, not what to do to make people less likely to ask for help. Only the blithest of cultural optimists could claim that a society in which no artists felt the need to look beyond the market for support was one in which the arts were fully extended.

Nor can it be the case that the problem is simply one of deciding whether the disaffected artist is better served by public or private patrons. It is one of the ironies of most arguments about state funding of the arts that they look back to an age of private patronage – golden or corrupt, depending on your point of view – now departed. But most of the patrons of the past were public men performing public roles. An artist who found his work in the king’s collection, though he may have seen it lost from public view, was not in the pay of a private individual. As Cowen points out, the great era of private patronage is the present day, when unheard-of numbers of private individuals are able to contribute something to artistic projects, quite a few impossibly wealthy ones are able to fund projects all on their own and corporations made up of such individuals are able to sustain whole economies. State funding is more visible only because it has been more clearly separated out from the private resources it used to call its own.

The problem with most arguments about arts funding is their tendency to resolve themselves into arguments about the public versus the private, the heavy-handed conviction of the state versus the nimble confidence of individual preferences. This tendency is exacerbated by what might be called Nozick’s fallacy, the supposition that such questions as these have as their bottom line the willingness of individuals to put their bums on the seats. The obvious attraction of Nozick’s analysis of the problem of state intervention is its apparent prescience – we do live in a world in which basketball players earn increasingly jaw-dropping sums, in which small but significant shifts in public taste lead to massive wealth differentials, and in which there seems to be little that the state can do about it. But it doesn’t happen the way Nozick would have us believe. The astonishing sums earned by the cream of current American basketball players are not a direct result of their share of the gate money. It comes from hugely complex TV deals, marketing, saturation coverage, advertising, product endorsement, all the flim-flam of the multimedia marketplace. The real world of professional basketball is more complicated than Nozick’s model. It has little to do with unfettered individual preference and a great deal to do with the way individuals are offered their choices, though it remains true that, other things being equal, the best players get the most money. The same goes for the arts. Take the arts world’s closest equivalent to Wilt Chamberlain, Luciano Pavarotti. The willingness of individuals to pay to hear him sing looks like the reason he is so rich. But his wealth is a function of that willingness not a product of it. And we know this because he can demand large sums from the states who subsidise the opera houses in which he sings, because ticket prices don’t cover the costs of staging an opera with a world-class cast. State subsidy of opera is not simply there to pay for one of those things that individuals prefer not to pay for. It is there to provide for individual preferences in a world in which such preferences no longer directly control the finances of performance.

In fact, opera has always functioned as a winner-take-all economy. The Royal Academy of Music was plunged into financial crisis almost from the moment of its inception in 1719 by the extravagant demands of Europe’s best opera singers (the Italian castrato Nicolini charged eight hundred guineas a season, an astronomical sum). And these crises were not lessened by the exorbitant amounts people were prepared to pay for a ticket to see the stars (up to half a guinea a throw). Opera needs subsidy, because the quality of performance does not stand in any simple relation to what people are prepared to pay. It is therefore meaningless to bemoan the ways in which the state distorts any ideal relation between what people want, what they are prepared to pay for and what they get. There is no such ideal relation – the market performs its own distortions with a brutality of which states can only dream.

Instead of expecting the state-subsidised arts to compete in some idealised marketplace, it is better to ask how the state can use its monopolies to help to create markets for the arts that actually make sense, and bring them within direct and easy reach of individuals and their preferences. It is with the help of state money that scenarios like the one Nozick takes to be typical – what people like being reflected in box office takings – can be achieved. Art galleries that are privately funded (the Saatchi) are self-evidently worse equipped to give the public a chance to exercise discretion than state-funded galleries (the Hayward) that can put on and charge for shows at a rate that might reflect what people think a trip to a gallery is worth. State-subsidised repertory theatre can offer both celebrated actors and difficult works in a setting that allows something like an economy of preference to operate. (When private companies attempt the same, as now at the Almeida in London, where Hollywood stars are working for basic wages and the seats are kept at reasonable prices, the hoopla is so great that neither love nor money will get you a ticket.) Meanwhile, the trouble with opera is not only that it is so expensive but that it is so erratic in the demands it places on performers and audience. The measure of success can vary so greatly from production to production, and depend so heavily on expert and prejudiced opinion, that any attempt to recreate recognisable conditions of supply and demand will inevitably founder. With the lack of even state-sponsored market controls, what looks to the outside world like the endemic corruption, incompetence and sheer frivolity of opera houses should hardly come as a surprise.

Creating monopolies of commercial integrity within the broader marketplace means making judgments about which art forms deserve help. Decisions of this kind are inevitable somewhere down the line, but the state doesn’t always have to take them itself. The majority of state funding of the arts, in Britain and more particularly in the United States, comes through the tax system. It is just one more simplification of the arts problem to contrast the libertarian condition of arts funding in America with its centrist European counterparts. The arts are more diversely funded in the US, more localised, and considerably more dependent on the well-wishing of individuals. But this is not because the state chooses not to fund them but because it chooses to fund them through tax breaks and thereby to relinquish direct responsibility for how that money is spent. This is usually held up as a philosophical distinction; it is in truth a pragmatic one. The arts are still dependent on the largesse of the state, but the state is free from both the bureaucracy and the flak that such largesse tends to attract. There are obvious advantages to this system – variety, efficiency and in many cases the sort of passion that states cannot replicate – but there are obvious disadvantages, too. Privately sponsored variety tends to mean concentrated arts-rich communities in a sea of pap: if you let people choose how to give their money away, you have to let them choose where, and money follows money. Governments may be bad at knowing whether projects have a real basis of local support, but they are better at giving different localities the chance to find out themselves. (The Arts Council, for all its metropolitan bias, tries to be even-handed in its dealings with the provinces). Moreover, it is simply wishful thinking to expect wealthy individuals and the charities they support to prove any less capricious, blinkered or temporising than the state bureaucracies they are supposed to replace. It could be said that if there is enough scope for caprice everyone will be catered for in the end, but it tends not to feel like that to those on the receiving end.

Maynard Keynes, the man who effectively set up and was the successful first chairman of the Arts Council, was also a generous private patron of the arts, in particular of the artistic projects of his wife, the dancer and actress Lydia Lopokova. In Cambridge, Keynes established an arts theatre to provide the town and his wife with access to the best of the stage, and he set up a trust to supply it with funds. The terms of the trust also allowed for an arts cinema to be attached to the theatre, and for over fifty years the cinema has provided Cambridge with one of the best repertory film programmes in the country. In Britain and the US, trust funds have always provided the most readily available means of making use of the state’s indirect largesse towards charitable and artistic projects. Both flexible and durable, they are adaptable to almost any purpose and able to keep money intact for long periods, suiting the time-scale of artistic endeavour far better than the active charitable lifespan of individual human beings. They are also a good way of preserving in aspic the wishes of the dead. Keynes’s Arts Theatre has swallowed up large sums of money over the years, not just from his own funds, but from the Arts Council before and after his chairmanship and now from the Lottery. But it’s never been enough, because the theatre has never been able to find a sustainable, albeit artificially sustainable, place in the local economy. It has simply been too inconsistent over the years in what it does. Meanwhile, the cinema, though far from profitable and itself permanently in need of financial support, has established a consistent hold on the life of the town. In terms of the artificial economy of subsidised art, it’s popular and successful. Thus in Cambridge, which may well need a theatre more than it needs a cinema, the cinema works better than the theatre. And yet by the terms of Keynes’s trust, the theatre must take priority, and so, with the theatre facing bankruptcy, the cinema must be sold. The state’s largesse to Cambridge through its indulgence of the private passions of one wealthy individual gave the town a theatre and a cinema, but it also meant that the interests of the long-departed Keynes and his wife, rather than those of the town, would ultimately prevail.

Keynes’s personal endeavours in the arts illustrate, just as well as anything in his abstract economic theories, that, when it comes to state funding, nothing is ever as simple as the ideologists would have us believe. About one thing, however, he remained quite clear. He was insistent that direct state aid for the arts should go to projects aiming at the highest standards of artistic excellence, exclusively. The Arts Council, for which he was responsible and from which he secured funds for his own artistic projects, was there for the high arts, and the high performing arts in particular. At the time of its inception, during and immediately after the Second World War, this meant taking a stand. The first forays of the British state into direct arts funding during the war were undertaken not for the sake of artistic excellence but for cultural unity. Theatre tours, concerts, art exhibitions were paid for in order to help people feel they belonged to and were fighting for something more permanently enduring than what they had then to endure in the course of their everyday lives. The art itself was neither narrowly nationalistic nor explicitly jingoistic but it was there to serve the nation all the same. It was perhaps the only time in the history of the modern British state when it had consciously to adopt, albeit in a very British way, the persona of the German Kulturstaat, a compromise forced on it by war with the most grotesque, and most grotesquely inadequate, Kulturstaat of them all. It was this that Keynes wanted to get away from when the war was over, believing that the true benefits for British culture from state funding could only accrue indirectly from the state’s support for cosmopolitan artistic excellence. In taking this line he was opposing the one adopted by the overtly German-influenced John Christie, who argued that what Britain needed was a Volksoper – a People’s Opera – building on the spirit of popular cultural identity forged during the war. Christie shared with Keynes a horror of the crudely amateurish and folksy national art of the kind in which Nazi German came to specialise. Nevertheless, he believed the way to avoid folksiness was to ensure that high art became truly volkisch. It was an argument he was destined to lose. Defeated by Keynes, and cut off from control of state funds, Christie was forced to seek corporate finance, and to turn his People’s Opera into Glyndebourne.

The battles between Keynes and Christie surrounding the birth of the Arts Council are turned into camp soap opera in Richard Witts’s engagingly superficial and highly eccentric history of that organisation. The book seems to have been published just too soon to bear witness to the whole thing coming full circle, as the Labour Government attempts to reinvent the Arts Council as a vehicle for cultural triumphalism and the new chief of the Royal Opera House re-dedicates it to the People. Current Labour arts policy brings Christie to mind in various ways: the uneasy and frequently implausible alliance of big business finance with rhetoric about the People’s this and the People’s that, the readiness to equate high art with culture (indeed, this Government goes further than Christie – it’s prepared to equate high art with popular culture). Labour politicians, like most politicians, insist on the seriousness with which they take the distinction between public and private funding for the arts, and the responsibilities that come with the former. In this context, their reorientation towards the populist is presented merely as a re-emphasis on what is the one salient fact about the public, that it is constituted by the people as a whole. But it is the wrong distinction that they are taking seriously. The breach between the public and the private is neither as well-defined nor as impassable as is commonly supposed, and, as any functioning arts policy will quickly demonstrate, it is the line between art and culture that is the important one, all too easily lost sight of.

Only in special circumstances should the state be in the business of furthering national culture, as when, for example, the nation itself is newly-born or under serious threat. Yet in all circumstances national culture must exist independently of the state, unless the state is to be engaged in the entirely fraudulent business of seeking to invent it. Arts funding, by contrast, is about providing for what would not otherwise exist, and is permanently necessary. Of course, it may be that Britain will soon find itself and its culture under threat from European integration, though for now the prospects look pretty remote (and the example of French resistance to American culture is a salutary reminder that there is little modern governments can do about it anyway). It may also be that the British state is about to break up into lesser nation states, each of which may require government help in sustaining national cultural identity (although here it has to be said that, if it happens, cultural conditioning is less likely to be an effect than a cause). But none of this should detract from the fact that there is all the difference in the world between a government seeking to ‘build on’ cultural success (for example, on the much-touted success of a film like The Full Monty), and a government willing to take a chance on artistic failure (for example, to fund films in which the public may have no interest whatsoever). It is the difference between a government that wishes to ‘further’, say, what Terence Conran has achieved, and a government that seeks to help individual designers escape from what Terence Conran may have done to the marketplace. It is not that the former shouldn’t happen, but it shouldn’t happen with money that might be spent on the latter.

The Lottery, I’m afraid, may have something to do with all this. Its spurious status as part of a voluntary, almost Nozickian economy of choice encourages the belief that what matters most is that the money was freely handed over, and therefore imposes obligations on those who spend it to refer back to its source among the people. (If this were really true the Government would be better off letting the Royal Opera House try to drum up public support by running its own lottery, as once happened in Naples, Milan and Vienna, where the great opera houses had casino sites.) In fact, none of the supposedly clear-cut distinctions between the public and the private holds any more in relation to the Lottery than they do in relation to the arts, as practice again reveals (Lottery money is now earmarked both for the Health Service and for ongoing cultural and recreational grants). But they persist as rhetorical devices, making it easier for governments to shirk their responsibilities. Culture doesn’t necessarily need help from government – which is one of the reasons why it is so easy to be seen to give it. Art does, even though any means of providing it will always seem relatively wasteful, élitist or inefficient, in a world which contains a lot of people who think like Nozick, and one or two who play basketball like Wilt Chamberlain.