The philistines are at the gates

Posted on April 17, 2012


written by Rob Pollard – an edited version originally appeared in New Statesman

Stewart Lee, Martin Parr and Hayden Thorpe discuss the coalition’s policy for the arts.

With growing opposition to the proposed NHS reforms, and increasing uncertainty  of the government’s economic policy, it is clear that David Cameron is floundering. As his health secretary is chased down hospital wards by angry doctors, and growth falters and unemployment rises; the calls for the prime minister to rethink get progressively louder. Across the political spectrum, these areas are being debated in detail.

The focus on these issues, however, means that Cameron’s mismanagement of other areas has gone relatively unnoticed. The arts are a prime example. The way the prime minister has framed the arts debate has left many disappointed, yet dissenting voices are largely confined to the sidelines.

The huge cuts to arts funding and trebling of tuition fees set alarms bells ringing. Applications for university arts courses have since plummeted, potentially stifling a generation of artists. Historically, very few people entering an arts degree were focused on financial renumeration in their working lives but the accumulative debt facing the next generation of university students may be changing that. Why consider a riskier career in the arts when one can study a more traditional subject and be more certain of securing a salaried job upon graduation?

Cameron’s view that The King’s Speech is the holy grail of film making is also deeply concerning. The implication that a film’s “commercial success” is the best way to judge its value is ignorant and narrow-minded. The King’s Speech was well executed and enjoyable but it failed to really enrich our culture, and yet its economic success means Cameron trumpets its achievements. We are still waiting for the prime minister to make the case for low-budget British films bereft of star names that make an impact culturally and stretch our view of the world. Like Hollywood has done for generations, Cameron appears to want blockbuster British films that export a certain view of British society.

Is Cameron’s clumsy rhetoric indicative of someone who simply doesn’t understand art? Or is this part of a broader attempt to stifle our free-thinking, liberal arts sector in order to reduce the amount of thought provoking work artists produce?

According to comedian Stewart Lee, only time will tell. “It’s too early to say. For your own sanity you have to believe he’s just a philistine. The alternative is that Cameron’s attacks on the arts are in fact ideologically driven, and that it’s an attempt to destroy and close down the spaces where free thinking and questioning happens. Life would certainly be a lot easier for politicians without troublesome thinkers, particularly educated and creative ones, but it’s too early to say if this is what’s really going on.”

Photojournalist and “natural anti-Tory” Martin Parr is not convinced that there is an anti-arts agenda being perpetrated. “I certainly don’t share that paranoia. Under Thatcher, photography became a celebrated cause and art flourished because we all hated what she was doing so much. It provided inspiration. I think Tory policies galvanising creativity is as likely as this argument that Conservatives are trying to strangle the arts.

“I was alarmed about what happened to the British Film Council but my view was that it was a flawed organisation. Some of the weaker arts organisations needed to be weeded out. The arts were cut as much as anything else – everything has been cut.

“Art is alive and well in the UK. Art, theatre, music – all of it is thriving in London and very little of it is publicly funded.”

However, Parr does think that funding is important and should continue. “Of course we know Cameron has little interest in the arts, and of course the state patronage of the arts should continue. It’s a very good investment, as many people visit the UK to partake in the wide choice of arts which can be enjoyed. I also believe that organistations like Multistory in West Bromwich, who I work with and brings arts to communities that have no particular interest in the arts, should continue to get the full state support.”

Lee believes the most important aspect of promoting vibrant and culturally diverse art is social mobility and fair access to good quality education. “It’s not just about arts funding, It’s also about education for all, so that people are literate enough to be able to appreciate books and films etc.

“The main thing is that we need social mobility to give new voices access and influence, to help us understand different views of the world to those held by the wealthy and privileged alone, and obviously we have gone into reverse gear in this respect. Culture doesn’t just look after itself. I’m worried that as a society we’ll just forget how to do the good stuff, and no-one will know anything.

“I don ‘t think David Cameron has any feeling or understanding for the value or purpose of arts, so it’s an obvious thing to cut. His comment about only making films that make profit shows he doesn’t understand anything.  By definition, arts are not an exact science and it isn’t their job to make money any way – we have business for that. Funding should go to films, for example, that can’t make a profit, but which should be funded because they appear to be artistically worthwhile. If he wants films to make a profit just make Top Gear the movie, and ten sequels. I’m sure his friends would let him be in it if he liked.”

Hayden Thorpe is a vocalist and guitarist in Wild Beasts, a brilliant young British band who have achieved critical acclaim despite their alternative sound. As a young, successful artist, what’s his view on Cameron’s handling of the arts? “Cameron’s approach does not at all surprise me. He embodies the archetypal conservative principle towards art in that it is an indulgence for the wealthy if only to create more wealth. It saddens me.”

Thorpe worries about art becoming exclusively for the rich and feels that British art must represent the diversity within British society but with tuition fees trebling he fears the worst. “Encouragement of daring and provocative thought nurtures those within our society who hold a valuable asset. Art school applications have dropped 27 per cent since the change in university fees. To put it bluntly we have lost a quarter of the next generation of those involved in the creative arts who came from lower income families. This is a tragedy. What I desperately fear we’ll come to expect is art created by the rich, about the rich for consumption by the rich. What a monotone and starved output of creative work we would have. How many people will grow up never able to fully grasp and explore their talent? The personal tragedies are as sad as the collective ones.”

“For me what is key is understanding that artistic ambition and financial ambition are two very different things. To be determined and focused on achieving great things in your work may sometimes result in financial gain but never without the work itself being the priority.”

Parr agrees with those sentiments. “All filmmakers and artists want their work to be good and if it makes a profit then fine but if it doesn’t it’s not the end of the world. The great thing about being a photographer is that I can just do what I want to do. I don’t need to wait for a grant.”

Thorpe believes that, now more than ever, art has a crucial role to play in society. “Introspective thinking is a rare thing at the moment, our media is set up to be immediately very reactive and responsive, speaking is no longer slave to thinking. Listening has become secondary to speaking. The art sector is essential in allowing people to tell their stories, to be listened to, to be understood and most importantly in order to be a forum for compassion.

“The ideals of a meritocratic democracy where individuals pay tax is that society runs on values beyond money making and people are connected not only for financial purposes but for mutual growth and enrichment. I hope those values still mean something when this period of economic crisis and political quick fixing passes.”

So, if Cameron had been in power for longer, would certain artists that we love not exist? Thorpe believes art school opportunities are important but has faith in individuals’ ability to make it in spite of government. “The vast majority of Britain’s past and current artists and musicians went to university or art school. Furthermore, 8% of our country’s workforce is currently employed in creative sectors. So something must have been right and beneficial for the individual and residually the state as a whole for this to be the case. Whether certain individuals would not have gone onto greatness under this government is hard to say, I have absolute faith in the human’s endeavor and capacity to imagine and create first and foremost regardless of unhelpful surroundings.”

Lee is slightly more cynical. “Only Julian Fellowes, writer of the popular, but shit, Downtown Abbey, which he fails to appreciate most people only watched to see how bad it could get, and Genesis [would exist within Cameron’s framework for the arts]. Almost nothing we value would have come through, if you include the fact that further education funding deters those game-changing plucky working-class and lower middle-class kids from pursuing their ambitions, and BBC cuts kneecap radio sessions and radio comedy, and even funded theatres have to pursue West End hits to subsidise themselves.”

Thorpe’s advice to young people with artistic aspirations is simple: “Stick to your guns, through thick and thin. Art cannot exist without being a personally fulfilling pursuit, so protect the part of it you feel passionate for and care about and the rest will look after itself.”

Whether a deeper Tory agenda aimed at stifling left-wing artists and thinkers is being carried out is unclear but it seems Cameron may need to reassess his view on art if we are to promote a vibrant and diverse movement in Britain. Art is an act of expression that allows the most profound elements of the human mind to be communicated and remembered. History is told through great art, breeding an understanding and sensitivity of other cultures and periods in time. It serves to explain the world around us and offer people escapism into a world of deep contemplation. You can’t put a price on those things. For David Cameron to equate good filmmaking with economic benefits is concerning for many left-wing artists who value art and its role in society. A society where individuals are free to create is a free society and that is far more important than making money to boost the economy.