In the UK today, the arts are an overwhelmingly, (though not exclusively), bourgeois and minority activity. In any given year those who attend the major subsidised opera’s more than once could probably be counted in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands at best. The figures for the major subsidised dance companies and orchestra’s would be similar and in a UK population of 60 million they represent a tiny, tiny minority. And yet annually these elite minority arts activities receive hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.
The contemporary arts scene is also shockingly irrelevant to the majority of the population outside the professional arts elite; who in their turn seem entirely obsessed with each other and uninterested in anything outside their own tiny world.
It is inconceivable in the UK today that a play could be deemed so important it would be banned because of its politics; works of art can still occasionally cause sexual or religious offence but very rarely, and all that really illustrates is that so much of our drama operates at the personal rather than the social or political level.
This lack of controversy could be because society has become ultra tolerant and because a political consensus has emerged that has meant the end of the need for serious political debate. But in an age when the UK is involved two wars and with the rise of the far right in UK politics, the international anti-capitalist riots and the anti-West Muslim extremists, it seems there is still plenty for us all to disagree about.
So how and why have the arts become so irrelevant in the twenty first century. I believe one primary reason is because the arts establishment in the UK is still dominated by 19th century Romantic and Aesthetic notions of art as being a pseudo-spiritual activity based on ill-defined notions of beauty that supposedly lift art into a metaphysical realm far above such mundane concerns as instrumental value.
This combined with the Aesthetic notion that the source of artistic inspiration resides in the tortured mind of the psychologically suffering artist has created an current orthodoxy that sees art as a sort of therapy for the inward looking, self-obsessed artist and completely divorced from the real world concerns of the rest of the population.
If this vision of the arts is true, or indeed, even if it is just a widely held public perception of the arts, then justifying the use of public money to subsidise the arts becomes a very difficult job. In times of economic crisis it is not unreasonable to expect the middle-classes to pay the full cost of their own artistic preferences out of their own pockets and it is hard to see why the rest of us should sibsidise artists to therapeutically indulge themselves.
The condescending argument that middle-class cultural preferences are somehow morally superior or “higher” than other preferences and thus need to be maintained and disseminated to those currently not interested in them also seems equally difficult to sustain in the 21st Century. This argument rests on the idea that experiencing the arts somehow makes members of the audience better people, more “civilized” even! The brutal carelessness with which the cultured, ruling elite sacrificed millions of less well educated men’s lives in WWI and the Nazi’s well reported love for “culture” in WWII have surely fatally undermined that argument?
So what arguments are left?
Well, there is good evidence from the Social Sciences that the main beneficiaries of the positive intellectual and emotional (civilizing?) effects of arts activity are those taking part in creating the art – rather than the audience. This theory would suggest that the way to increase the benefits of the arts is to increase participation in the arts by non-professionals. If proven this would suggest a policy of diverting resources from professional companies who provide the arts to passive audiences, to companies that provided extensive opportunities for non-professionals to actively participate in the arts. But this is essentially a debate about what to do with state subsidy of the arts, not whether we should subsidise at all.
Nonetheless, I think there is a very persuasive argument to justify public subsidy of the arts but one that is often rejected by the arts elite themselves. This argument asserts that culture (high & low) is the central process through which human societies exchange competing ideas of “the good life” and establish the changing normative behavioural values that are acceptable at any given time. I would also suggest, (contrary to prevailing orthodoxy), that culture is far more important in this process than other forms of knowledge exchange such as non-fiction books, academic research, political & moral philosophy and the media. If this is so then culture is far too important to continue with the current backward looking agenda so dominated by the classical repertoire and the romantic concept of the artistic genius.
In this conception of the arts, their value lies in the central role they play in this process of dialectical cultural exchange. I would argue that this is why totalitarian regimes, have been, and still are, so keen to get control of the arts and the artists who create it – because the arts are so important in conveying ideas.
Indeed, in the post-war years this idea was widely accepted on both sides in the Cold War. For example, in the 1950”s the CIA was extensively involved in covertly promoting the arts in Europe. They were particularly fond of Modernism because by it’s nature modernist art puts the concept of the individual at the heart of the work and was thus a threat to the Stalinist collective ideology. In-turn this was recognised by the Soviets who vehemently opposed modernism because they perceived the artistic movement as a potentially dangerous radical political idea that had to be suppressed.
From Aristotle to Brecht many thinkers and artists have recognised this essentially political role that the arts play in any society and I would argue that it is this conception of the arts that could justify the use of public money in supporting the arts.
By the way this is not an argument for any particular form of art; I am not arguing for social-realism or any other form of moralistic art that supports any particular prevailing orthodoxy or hegemony, on the contrary, in any society that purports to be democratic, the free and public expression of dissenting views, and the forms in which those views are expressed, has to be encouraged, (and perhaps even enabled), because it is almost always dissenting voices who initially lead progressive social change.
And again, I am not assuming left wing dissent here. In a democracy dissenting views should come from the left, right and centre and the extremities, and for a democratic society to be worthy of the name those dissenting voices not only have to be free to express themselves they also have to be seen to be free, they have to be heard.
All cultural activity (high & low) contributes to this process and thus a thriving, diverse and dissenting arts culture is far more important to our society than the “market value” of any individual cultural artefact at any given time might suggest. The arts and culture are (or more accurately, could be) part of the democratic process and as such cultural artefacts become more than simply commodities whose value can safely be determined by the market.
However, If the arts in the West are to regain their potency and power and justify the political defence of public subsidy articulated here, then they have to stop being therapy for artists and re-engage with society; become direct participants in the social discourse surrounding the economic, social, philosophical, ethical, moral, political and aesthetic dilemmas that face our society.
Only then should we feel able to look the politicians and our fellow citizens in the eye and say that the stuff we do is important enough to take money away from defence, hospitals, schools and welfare.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society