Government-funded programmes are helping underprivileged children through music. But might they also help us to redefine art itself?by Ivan Hewett / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Teenagers at a music class at the Pie Factor project: “we don’t ban songs about drugs…”
“Through music-making, any young person, regardless of their background, should have opportunities to discover their creativity and fulfil their potential.” This is part of the mission statement of Youth Music, perhaps Britain’s highest-profile and best-funded community arts organisation. Founded in 1999, Youth Music receives around £10m a year through Arts Council England, with which it has funded 830 projects during its first ten years. Since 1999, it has reached over 2m children and young people.
Community music was once a politically subversive grassroots movement. As the rise of organisations like Youth Music testifies, though, it’s increasingly a top-down, policy-directed exercise. And this means it’s also a field that’s close to the heart of a decades-old debate over what the arts are really for—and why the taxpayer should fund them. Should we take the so-called instrumental view, and define the value of the arts in terms of their good effects on individual and social wellbeing? Or should we follow much of the art world in taking the view that art is indeed useless, and this is its glory?
With the Arts Council facing spending cuts of close to 30 per cent in the wake of the government’s October spending review, these are urgent questions for many organisations. The culture secretary Jeremy Hunt declared, while still in opposition, his desire to “move on” from the conflict between instrumental and ineffable views, instead “accepting both the intrinsic value of the arts and also the social impact of an enlightened arts policy.” Yet the discussion hasn’t “moved on.” It has simply been abandoned, with the two kinds of artistic value stranded on either side of an unbridgeable divide.
The transforming social potential of music has perhaps been most famously demonstrated in recent years by Venezuela’s publicly financed music education programme El Sistema, which among other activities runs music schools for a quarter of a million children—some of whom go on to play in ensembles like its world-class Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, which sold out the Royal Festival Hall this October. Stories like El Sistema’s are an advert for how excellence and outreach can combine. Yet in most community work there remains a profound disjunction between the language of high art and social realities.
It’s a disjunction that’s firmly embedded in Britain’s cultural landscape. At spaces such as Tate…