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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Banging the drum for art

By Norman Lebrecht / March 28, 2001

THE first term of New Labour will be remembered for three great constitutional changes: devolution, House of Lords reform and the politicisation of culture.

The first two were pre-planned and smartly executed. The third came about by stealth and default, but it can no more be reversed than King Canute could turn back the waves. We will just have to get used to living in a country where art is directed by the state.

Last week's Green Paper, Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years, was a milestone on the road to state control, the basis of a command economy for the arts in a one-party system. It ought to have provoked palpitations in the heart of every libertarian and drawn proclamations from Peter Hall and Simon Rattle that they would never work in Britain again until the arts are free.

But the Paper has aroused no more than token resistance - in part, because it contains some healthy ideas and, in part, because there is a growing recognition that political control has become a fact of life. After decades of Arts Council fudge, arts chiefs now go directly to the open-door Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, without yielding any of their gritty integrity. The arm's-length principle is no longer mentioned at such meetings, even in inverted commas; the Arts Council is inevitably, if not immediately, doomed. Smith has rewritten the rules of engagement.

What has made politicisation palatable is the absence of ideology. With New Labour, all is possible. In four years, Tony Blair has gone from hosting Cool Britannia parties to investing an extra £100 million in the traditional arts. "Creative industries" have replaced rock and schlock at the heart of what the Prime Minister risibly calls his "core script". Somewhere along the way, there has been a Damascene conversion, but its gospel has been written in invisible ink, never publicly acknowledged, infinitely deniable.

In retrospect, it appears that the awakening began three days after New Labour took office, when a national flagship surrendered itself into virgin political hands. Smith, still finding his way to the ministerial washroom, took a call from a constituency friend, Lord Gavron, asking him to see the Covent Garden chairman, Lord Chadlington, who was in the throes of an emergency.

The ROH chief executive, Genista McIntosh, had resigned after less than four months and Chadlington wanted to replace her with Mary Allen, the Arts Council secretary-general. To avoid having to re-advertise the job, Chadlington needed Government approval. Smith agreed to see him, without informing his permanent secretary, who might have advised against it. The meeting was subsequently scrutinised by two official inquiries and, though discrepancies arose in accounts of what was said, it was agreed that nothing improper had occurred.

What did transpire, however, was that the Royal Opera House revoked its independence and made itself accountable, though an unending run of crises, directly to the Secretary of State. Smith was involved, for better or worse, in attempted restructurings, senior appointments and the removal of Vivien Duffield from the board. The ROH saga has been personally and politically unrewarding; no light can yet be seen at the end of Floral Street.

Other calamities cascaded into Smith's lap. London's South Bank, long decaying, became a departmental concern - again, without much to show by way of progress. Regional theatres and national orchestras beat a path to Smith's door with what senior officials described as "balls-aching" difficulties. Eminent artists found the Culture Secretary infinitely approachable. When accused of trespassing on artistic autonomy, he was overheard to say: "I can't just sit back and let them sort it out."

The Arts Council of England, meanwhile, reinvented itself under the Granada chief Gerry Robinson as a policy studies centre, only to find the same ground being covered by Smith's team of political and professional advisers. A week ahead of Smith's Green Paper, a desperately role-seeking ACE declared that it was reversing four years of regional devolution and clawing back decision-making to London. Smith and his permanent secretary were given just three working days to consider this proposal before it was hurriedly announced. They have yet to endorse it and remain sensitive to regional objections.

Smith is too prudent by nature to rush ahead with Arts Council abolition. He also remains personally convinced of the need for an autonomous voice for the arts. But the engaging element of New Labour's approach to the arts is its unfussy agnosticism. Smith is prepared to be swayed by strong evidence, one way or the other, towards retaining or scrapping the ACE, nationalising or privatising the ROH, rebuilding or running down the South Bank.

The principles and practicalities of New Labour's art policy are to be found in the Green Paper, albeit whittled into verbal sawdust by civil servants whose object in life is to temper passion with apathy. There is much talk about pushing culture into classrooms, along with excellent proposals to awaken new teachers to cultural merits and engage under-employed musicians and arts graduates in alternative careers. About £150 million will be earmarked for putting culture online. An ailing library service will be linked to failing rural post offices. Museums and galleries will be free, and regionally improved.

Individual artists will be able to apply for personal grants, thereby rekindling the Keynesian dream of "the artist who walks where the breath of the spirit blows him; [who] leads the rest of us into fresh pastures and teaches us to love and enjoy what we often begin by rejecting". There is no lack of vision in Smith's manifesto, or of financial support. The only snag is that it comes attached to the apron strings of nanny government.

Nevertheless - and here is a paradox to ponder - the guiding light of Smith's arts proposals is an urge to reduce government's role in the running of the arts. Smith's eyes were opened to the pestilence of paperwork in the British funding system by the venerable director Peter Brook, who told him that he preferred to work in Paris, where he "didn't have bureaucrats crawling over the theatre all year round".

Smith's Green Paper instructs the Arts Council to select the best arts organisations and give them a six-year funding package, liberating them from constant checks and backlashings. It amounts to the boldest declaration of confidence in the arts since Keynes's founding statement. If it works, the arts bureaucracy should wither away, like Karl Marx's ideal state. By the same logic, the Culture Department should also vanish, into the Education Department, where its activities will ultimately bring the greatest benefit.

It all sounds a mite utopian, but the intentions are genuine enough. Politicisation has been thrust upon the arts by the back door, but no alternative has been articulated and there is no obvious danger in accepting the inevitable, so long as our rulers continue to blow with the wind.

22 March 2001: Art at click of a mouse [putting culture online]
21 March 2001: [UK News] Arts front-runners will head cash league table
11 March 2001: [UK News] Culture funding body faces axe over 'eccentric decisions'
9 March 2001: [UK News] £25m boost for regional theatres
7 June 2000: How Smith has crippled culture
2 May 1998: No Brook with conventional interview [interview with Peter Brook]

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999