Art and money
I can’t help it-public subsidy of the arts in Britain makes my hackles rise. I intensely dislike the sanctimonious way in which the arts “community” demands money for itself in order to improve the rest of us. You only have to recall Peter Hall on his tabletop, sounding off against government stinginess and, more recently, embarrassing Chris Smith at a banquet.
Let me remind you of a few facts. For a start, there is more public money (including lottery money) going to the arts than ever before. This money (at least the tax part of it) is not put voluntarily into the public purse; it is extorted by the Inland Revenue under threat of fine or imprisonment. Natural justice requires that there be some connection between the wishes of those whose hard-earned cash has been forced out of them and the use to which that revenue is put. In the arts, because of the nature of the creative process, such a connection is impossible to establish.
This means that the public pays for art it often does not want. This transforms the arts into a kind of job creation programme which has little to do with creativity or the aesthetic needs of a commu- nity. And the justification of arts spending in terms of moral or aesthetic uplift inevitably turns the arts into a species of coerced self-improvement.
The arts, like any other business in society, are selling products. As with other markets, serious distortions occur when governments become involved, frequently to the detriment of the public. Some artists are superior creatures, no doubt, but the process of public subsidy has no accurate means of selecting those who are. It is crude, bureaucratic, often arbitrary, almost always wasteful, and subject to political corruption. (If you doubt that, try obtaining public money from the Arts Council for a project regarded as politically incorrect.)
There is a common-sense brake on spending when you see that your subsidy derives from an identifiable and finite human source, such as a company or a rich individual. Where the disbursement of government funds in the arts is concerned, that brake vanishes, resulting in grotesque cases like Covent Garden, or less expensive projects which consist of little more than arbitrary “underdoggery.”
It is always tempting to throw arrogant people to the Darwinian wolves of the marketplace, even when they are talented and amusing. But this self-importance is not entirely the fault of those in the arts community. If they have lost any sense of proportion over who and what they are, this has been foisted upon them in the years since the war. Let them be subsidised, but not with public money. The effort of seeking other funds may restore a measure of humility that can only be good for the artists and their audiences.
25th February 1998
All those rising hackles, all this cock-a-doodle-do whenever arts subsidies are mentioned still amazes me. Yet how dormant those same hackles are when other public expenditure is discussed. We all pay for things we do not use and, in some cases, actively dislike. We pay for bridges we do not cross, for parks we seldom visit. The childless pay for the education of the young. People who opt for private health care or education contribute as much as anyone else to the National Health Service and state schools. This is quite right; we pay for each others’ needs and the general good of society. Month after month the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee finds examples of profligacy with public money which would keep theatres running and concert halls open for years. Where in all this is your argument that money “extorted” by the Inland Revenue should, in natural justice, be spent on things the taxpayer wants?
There is, indeed, much evidence that the public does want good theatre and good music. If attendances drop at the National Theatre and RSC, their directors become extremely worried; they know that their grants will be cut. It is nonsense to suggest that they do not aim to please. This applies even more so to smaller organisations.
I do not know whether you are correct about more public subsidy than ever going to the arts. What I do know is that-at least until the current lottery bill is passed-lottery money is a mixed blessing, with spending restricted to improving buildings rather than what happens inside them. What I also know is that the main Arts Council grant is ?184.6m for 1998-99 which, adjusted for inflation, represents a reduction of ?34m since 1992. Yet on a purely commercial basis, the subsidised arts, through tourism and taxes, return far more to the taxpayer than they take away.
But there are more important things about the arts than their ability to make a profit for the public. I do not suggest that exposure to art always turns out better people-there was too much Schubert in the death camps for that argument to hold-any more than good education inevitably results in law-abiding citizens. None the less, education is better than ignorance and leads to more peaceful streets, and an acquaintance with Shakespeare and Chekhov often does arouse the human spirit.
I do not recognise the picture you paint of a sanctimonious arts community, even if Peter Hall did embarrass Chris Smith. Heavens to Betsy! Chris Smith is a politician and I should have thought that most people are in favour of embarrassing politicians, especially when they do not fulfil in government the promises they made in opposition.
Nor do I recognise the arrogant arts administrators you describe; I see people such as Philip Hedley at Stratford East and Dan Crawford at the King’s Head, struggling to provide good theatre for their loyal audiences; they are among the least self-important people I know. I see past and present directors of the RSC and the National-Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn, Adrian Noble-distracted from work they can do brilliantly and which the public clamour to see, by the constant struggle for funds. No doubt there are artists who feel that they are “superior creatures,” but the art is more important than the artist.
Yes, public subsidy is often crude, bureaucratic, arbitrary and wasteful. You also claim that it is subject to political corruption, saying that it would be difficult to raise funds for a politically incorrect project. But Oleanna, thought by many people to be a loaded anti-feminist play, was staged at the grant-funded Royal Court. In any case, try raising private money for anything that subverts the conventional.
Private sponsorship, both by individuals and corporations, has its uses, as most subsidised companies have discovered by now. But they could not exist without state subsidy. Great theatre and great music have always needed subsidy. The fact that in the past it came from princes, earls and bishops is irrelevant. That money originated in the taxes and tithes truly “extorted” from taxpayers or, as they used to be known, peasants. Without this support there would have been no Sistine Chapel and precious little Bach, Mozart or Shakespeare.
26th February 1998
Yes; no doubt taxpayers do fund things they don’t use, even things some dislike on moral grounds, such as nuclear weapons. But this argument for arts subsidy has never impressed me. All your examples are forms of capital investment with real returns which benefit practically the whole community. This is very different from the notional benefits of public expenditure on the arts.
I like least of all the assertion that subsidised arts collect “far more” revenue through tourism and taxes than they cost. This is a familiar cry; theatre people, especially, are fond of it. But I have never seen it proved with figures. I doubt that such figures exist; it would be too complex and expensive to obtain them. How many tourists patronise subsidised arts in Britain? How much money do they spend on the arts? Has anyone taken on the job of classifying and sifting revenue returns to extract such information? If they have, I have not seen the results.
The assumption, which you faithfully recycle, is part of the arts community’s self-regard. It has the kind of sub-text which we associate with mendicant monks in the middle ages: give me money and I will save your soul. I am sure that all the people you mention are hard-working and sincere. I have known a few of them myself. One or two-I name no names-are insufferably arrogant; others are good chaps. So what if they struggle for funding? That is not a distraction from their job; it is, and should be, a central part of it. The assumption that they deserve as much money as they want (which someone else has worked hard to earn) seems to me the distillation of arrogance.
As to the alternative: private money has financed very high quality art which “subverts the conventional.” To give one example, the privately backed Glyndebourne Opera has staged highly unconventional work by Peter Sellars, as well as other productions which can by no stretch of the imagination be called conventional. The very existence of Glyndebourne destroys your suggestion that high art cannot survive without public money. It provides one of the best arguments for private subsidy. Opera production is expensive, but Glyndebourne has no lack of sponsors, and it has extended its reach well beyond the “toff” class. If the present government were half as friendly towards the arts as it intimated during its election campaign, it would make private subsidy tax-deductible, as the Americans do. Simply on grounds of efficiency that would be of greater benefit than the present system of squeezing public funds through the bottleneck of a politically-skewed Arts Council. (Oleanna, by the way, is a poor example. David Mamet is on the left, and his reputation is big enough to override any PC considerations. Try something similar with an ostentatiously right-wing playwright such as Ian Curteis, and see what happens.)
Arts subsidy from despots in the past is not comparable to public spending in today’s democracies. “Peasants” stood in a relationship of obligation to rulers; this was taken for granted, sanctified by religion, and not open to challenge. Once money was in his hands, the ruler could do what he liked with it. Today we can challenge our rulers and turf them out if they displease us. That right of challenge extends to the use of revenue.
28th February 1998
The British Tourist Authority says that arts and cultural tourism is worth ?5 billion a year and growing fast. Eighteen per cent of the visitors questioned in the Overseas Leisure Visitor survey of 1996 said that the performing arts were an “important factor” in their decision to come here. Eighteen per cent of ?5 billion is a lot of money. The Edinburgh festival, many of whose participants are in receipt of subsidy, generates ?72m for Scotland’s economy. The RSC says that its economic impact on Stratford alone in jobs and visitors is worth ?34m a year. The company receives an Arts Council grant of ?8.4m and returns ?8.3m to the Exchequer in taxes and national insurance contributions. Other businesses pay similar taxes but none attract people to the places where they operate in such large numbers. The dividing line between subsidised theatre and West End theatre is not clear-cut. Transfers happen, with the big companies (Closer and Guys and Dolls from the National; Cyrano and Les Mis?bles from the RSC) and many from smaller theatres where the actors add to the pathetically small state subsidy by accepting ridiculously low salaries. At the King’s Head, for example, actors of the stature of Sam West and Susannah York get a top rate of ?120 a week; at the Almeida, Ralph Fiennes and Diana Rigg pull in ?250. Are these among the sanctimonious artists greedy for public money? Actors in the National Theatre and RSC consistently work for less than they could earn on television, in films or West End theatre. Every director I listed in my last letter is capable of earning more in the private sector-and often does-than in the subsidised theatre. They all do it because they want to be involved in work of the highest quality.
The commercial theatre acknowledges its debt to the subsidised companies for producing writers, actors, directors and designers who have created big commercial successes. London’s West End theatres sell about 11.5m seats a year, nearly a third of which go to overseas visitors, mainly Americans.
You approve-as I do-of the American practice of giving private patrons of the arts large tax breaks. But your whole argument has been that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for things they do not want. The private patron’s tax break adds to the general citizen’s tax bill. A report is about to be published which shows that the American taxpayer contributes more to the Metropolitan Opera than the British taxpayer does to Covent Garden. If you are in favour of the American system, we have nothing to dispute about-except the administration of the money. I prefer it to be handled by officials under someone appointed by an elected minister; you wish it to be left in the hands of a plutocrat answerable to nobody. It is, however, worth noting that the magnificent gifts of the New York rich are all for music and paintings. A theatre which critically examines society does not attract the private patron. Peter Sellars may be unconventional in the operatic world, but that has nothing to do with looking at the way we live. Glyndebourne itself proves nothing. It attracts support from the rich and the big corporations who entertain there. Not far away, the Chichester Festival Theatre, which has never received any grant and rarely if ever produced radical work, is moribund.
I am sorry that Ian Curteis has trouble getting his plays put on, but far more right-wing playwrights than he are regularly staged with the aid of considerable subsidy. Shakespeare is the prime defender of order and hierarchy; Barrie’s Peter Pan is not politically subversive; Rattigan and Coward were-are-establishment favourites. Anyway, the main point of subsidy is to give companies the proper resources to mount productions of great plays, not left- or right-wing propaganda.
3rd March 1998
Wonderful figures; guesstimates proving nothing except general enthusiasm for the arts and tourism. Hurrah for altruistic stars. But remember the scandal over Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall using subsidy to mount shows which transferred to the West End-at great personal benefit to them?
Some subsidised companies act as seed-beds. Some do so without subsidy. I know of six in Manchester alone, one of which produced one of my own plays.
Some of my argument rests on the will of taxpayers. Mostly I object to the inefficiency, waste, politics and arbitrariness of public arts subsidy-and the doubtful quality it produces. The National Endowment for the Arts in America was condemned as corrupt, and funded projects such as the notorious crucifix in a jar of piss. In London you have the subsidised Serpentine Gallery exhibiting cans of shit as a work of “art.” Cacata Carta.
On their track record, I prefer plutocrats who answer to stockholders rather than bureaucrats who answer to no one. Glyndebourne proves that private subsidy can produce high quality art; Chichester’s failure may have something to do with its sponsorship penury.
You want art “looking at the way we live”-in other words, political art. This nullifies your disavowal of propaganda. And Shakespeare is “far more right-wing” than Ian Curteis? Anachronistic, Humpty-Dumpty language, blowing your claim to plausibility. I mean, really!
4th March 1998
Some of us believed that it was not a very great scandal that Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall shared in the commercial success of their subsidised theatre productions so long as the subsidised theatres got their share of the profits-as they did. American corruption is no reason for scrapping arts subsidy here. I tend to agree with you about the canned crap, pickled sheep and much else that passes for art these days in both public and private sectors. But your point highlights the proper refusal of the disbursers of arts money to interfere with the judgement of artists and curators. This, on the whole, is better than private whim.
I would not argue with your view that dealing with the way we live-rarely if ever touched upon at Glyndebourne, the only example of high unsubsidised art you seem able to find-is political in the broadest sense. But that does not make it propaganda. This magazine is full of politics but contains very little in the way of propaganda. I do not know Ian Curteis’s work as well as you do, so I am happy to acknowledge that he is more right-wing than Shakespeare. All the same, Shakespeare supports the ruling classes, the prevailing order and, while it may be anachronistic to use the term right-wing, it does not follow that this is incorrect.
It never occurred to me that I could be plausible enough to make you change your mind, but I have enjoyed the encounter.