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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Propaganda Wars

By Norman Lebrecht / February 28, 2001

How the arts are being polluted by politics.

A BBC television researcher rang the other day, canvassing my views on the evils of corporate sponsorship. She drew a blank. Racking my memory over 20 years, I could not recall a serious instance of corporate money exerting a malign influence on the lively arts.

The worst I have ever seen is a deal between a desperate symphony orchestra, a major record label and a tobacco giant that resulted in one of the most erudite Beethoven cycles of modern times being released in red-liveried cigarette boxes. All parties to that transaction, however, were consenting adults and the filter-tipped sponsors sped off to stick their logos on Formula One racing cars.

Arts sponsorship, as a rule, is a model of enlightened laissez-faire. At Salzburg for the past decade, Nestle, Audi and Siemens - three ultra-conservative multinationals - have paid for a string of anti-capitalist operas. Many a big bank's Figaro pokes fun at the super-rich.

The danger to artistic freedom comes not from business sponsors and private donors but from the subsidising state, which is becoming more strident in its demands for political payback. In stark contrast to good business practice, a glossy manifesto descended last week from Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet, entitled In Step and In Tune with Social Justice.

Suspecting an election-year hoax, I handled the package gingerly until it became clear that this was nothing less than a new raison d'etre for opera and ballet in devolved Scotland - their defining purpose as part of something whimsically called "the national social inclusion agenda". The 26-page document is riddled with Blairite jargon. "Social justice is about ownership," it proclaims, and, a mite less catchingly, "working closely with Scotland's local authorities to help them achieve best value". Just what art is meant to do.

Never, to my knowledge, has a national ensemble anywhere in Britain sung so vigorously off an official hymnsheet. Every second paragraph could be inserted unaltered into New Labour's election leaflets. Only dire need could have induced the companies, in the throes of an enforced merger, to surrender their cultural priorities for a mess of political potage.

Both exist on the edge of indigence. Scottish Opera has been forced by a cash crisis to stop performing opera since December; Scottish Ballet trundles heavy overheads. The state pays two-thirds of their £9.9 million costs; corporate and private support has dried up. Art does not rank high on Scotland's "national social inclusion agenda".

The merging companies have been promised an extra million pounds by the hapless Scottish Arts Council, but the grant awaits approval from the Scottish Executive. Its decision is due any day now - hence the glossy brochure, emphasising all that the companies do by way of education, social work and highland reels, and downplaying their main function as cultivators and curators of high art.

"Social justice is a very important government agenda," explains chief executive Christopher Barron. "We are fighting for our lives. We need the Executive to help us. This is bang down the line of what the politicians are trying to define for themselves."

Barron insists that he was under no pressure to make the companies toe a political line. He was just doing his best to procure their survival. He admits, however, that a benchmark may have been set in the shifting relationship between arts and state.

For, knowing that the arts will accept cash for slogans, politicians are continually demanding bigger bangs for every subsidised buck.

The Royal Opera House has been made to renounce "elitism" (even though most of its funding comes from a social elite) and adopt a plan of "social inclusion" that involves such fancies as making a Bollywood-style opera in an inner London school. London orchestras are obliged to report the exact number of ethnic minorities in their staff and their audience - or face an implied threat of cut grants. Most Arts Council awards are now given not for excellence but for social worthiness.

Creeping across British art is a plague of political intervention that has not been equalled since Stalin ordered Soviet artists to adopt "social realism" or get sent to the Gulag. The state, once a benevolent paymaster, is becoming the taskmaster of the arts.

It's a lose-lose situation. People go to opera and ballet to be entertained, educated, uplifted and diverted from daily woes. They do not go, on the whole, to be harangued about social justice, or national agendas, or any other shibboleth of a transient regime. The public will never willingly pay to watch propaganda, and they eventually reward politicians who pollute their pleasures with electoral rejection. Scotland has sustained opera and ballet for less than 40 years. This may be its last chance to redeem the arts from state destruction.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999