Iain Sinclair, the nation’s favourite Olympics critic, recently described the whole affair as a “mass hallucination.” Although this is an accurate metaphor for those hazy, sunlit weeks of collective joy, I would like to propose another: Christmas. A lot of money was spent, some people had fun, others argued; then it ended and everybody was left feeling bloated and pissed off.
Any minute now, Lord Coe, the spoilt child in this analogy, is going to burst into tears and be sent upstairs for a lie down. This is because the government (parents) may forget all about it and return to sorting out the economy (paying off the mortgage) rather than investing millions in the “Olympic legacy” (replacing the Wii that cousin Darren stood on).
I hope this is exactly what happens. Like most people, I enjoy breathlessly expounding on how we must encourage our youth to play sports. But I also worry about where the money is going to come from, and my guess is that it will be the arts. As both culture and sport come under the same government department, if funds are to be injected into one, they are likely to be siphoned off from the other.
There are striking similarities between the two. Both require talented individuals prepared to dedicate themselves to their chosen field. Both demand huge amounts of money to stay afloat, and yet can survive on very little. They have their pariahs and their heroes, making some inexplicably wealthy while others barely earn a living. Playgrounds of the rich, they can still be enjoyed for free and are considered to be “improving.”
If the state is going to fund something, it has to be demonstrably beneficial to society. The Olympics appear to have ticked this box for sport. Moreover, sport is generally considered the domain of the everyman. The arts, on the other hand, have always struggled to prove their worth in real terms, and can’t quite shake off suspicions of elitism. They request public funding but demand to be left to their own devices. What’s more, it is widely believed that they can do without money, because art will always just get on with being arty, whatever the circumstances.
But it is a question of “access.” There will always be those who can afford membership fees, inflated ticket prices and as many books as they desire. We cannot be as confident about the future of free entry to national galleries and museums; discount schemes for the young, elderly and unemployed; outreach and education programmes; and local theatre companies and orchestras. To cut state funding is to push the arts deeper into the realms of private and individual patronage. This increasingly makes them accessible only to the privileged, which then reinforces the argument that they are not beneficial to wider society, leading to further cuts—a perfect catch-22.
Just as no one appreciated beach volleyball until the Olympics, we won’t realise how fortunate we are to be able to walk into the British Museum, look at the Elgin marbles, worry about whether we should return them and then leave without paying a penny until it’s too late. To prevent this from happening, we need a healthy balance of private and public investment. We tinker with that, breathlessly or otherwise, at our peril.