Recently the Daily Mail theatre critic had a dig at The Arts about their funding. He was responding to unhappy noises being made by Sir Nicholas Hytner and the film-maker Danny Boyle about cuts in the arts budgets and the Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s lack of interest in culture. He thought Maria had more important things to deal with (like the BBC and the Levenson Report) and questioned why The Arts should be funded at all.
It’s a reasonable argument if you only look at Danny Boyle or Sir Nicholas – men who earn huge salaries, have a measure of fame and who would probably rise to the top of a ruthlessly commercial Arts world, never-mind a heavily subsided one. It’s also a reasonable argument if you’re Quentin Letts and you’ve grown-up surrounded by genteel wealth. A good education, access to books and theatre tickets, nice dinner parties in nice houses – all these are perks of his class, even if his own pocket hasn’t always stretched to them (I wouldn’t know).
But the point of subsidising The Arts is that it gives The Arts an ability to reach out to us common types (the lower middle and working classes) who wouldn’t have access to these resources, and their civilized ethos otherwise. We’d be stuck in council flats and semi-detacheds, we’d be working in shops and call centres or not working at all. We’d have to struggle to buy books on a regular basis (& without subsidy – we couldn’t borrow them from the library), we’d go to the cinema to see big Hollywood blockbusters and we’d watch the telly (without the subsidised BBC – ITV wouldn’t have a prestigious rival to compete with – we’d have a constant diet of sport & police dramas). We’d have bars and beaches and boybands. It wouldn’t be terrible – but a lot of intelligence and talent would be wasted.
Britain would be a harsher, more boring, more limited, more unequal, more unfair place.
What can be commercial – should be commercial. And the government should encourage it. But we need The Arts to be more than money. We need them to improve our society. Opening minds and hearts. Bestowing a bit of glamour on everyday life. Helping children to develop. Giving adults more to do than sleeping and eating and working. Subsidy means more education, more community involvement, and more risk taking. It means quirky things can happen. Quirky things that might become phenomenons. Even J.K. Rowling had an Arts Council Grant.
It means our decaying towns and cities can have a bit of life in them.
If some salaries at the top are too big, and some careers are too self-serving and cosy – that doesn’t detract from the greater good it does to everyone else. And focusing Tory rage on those salaries and those careers (which are rare) without noticing the benefits to the rest of country is myopic. And a bit nasty.