Neil Rathmell

100+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 19 November 2014

Arts Council England has been criticised lately for spending most of its money in London and giving the rest, like Maundy money, to selected poor people in the English regions. However just the criticism, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Money obeys certain laws, one of which is that it must be shared unequally.

If it were shared according to the principle expounded by John Ruskin in Unto This Last, one of his most radical and controversial essays, exactly the same amount would be given to each publicly funded arts organisation, large or small, wherever in England it happened to be. But then Ruskin was, in the old fashioned sense of the word, a communist. He was one of those Victorian idealists who grew more and more unhappy as they came to see that the world they had been unlucky enough to have been born into was not likely to change, in their lifetime or after it.

The principle on which public funding of the arts in England is based is of course quite different. Perhaps it isn’t a principle, perhaps it’s just a habit, but whatever it is its aim is to keep everyone as far as possible in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The big national arts organisations, like the English aristocracy of olden days, need a lot of money to pay their staff and keep up appearances. Nearly half of what England spends on the arts goes to ten big theatres, opera houses, orchestras, ballet companies and galleries. This is the least they can manage on. The rest is shared, unequally, between nearly seven hundred other organisations. Annual grants start at £40,000 and go up to £25,000,000. The big organisations are safe, too big to fail. Small ones come and go, but never turn into big ones. The arts funding system in England, whatever anyone might say to the contrary, is designed to maintain the status quo.

There is a perfectly simple alternative of which, I believe, Ruskin would have approved. It is to fund all the arts in the way that libraries, those excellent examples of Victorian idealism, are funded. Writers have always been expected to pay their own way, but readers for at least a hundred years have been able to borrow whatever books they wish to read from a public library. Art galleries in the great industrial cities of the north grew up in the same way, a product of the same educational vision, an idealistic, even communistic, belief in an educated working class as a prerequisite for a modern, civilised, enlightened country. The money did not go to the writers or the artists, except through the purchase of their works (if they were still alive), but to the building and upkeep of the places where people could, without paying, look at the pictures on the walls or take the books home to read.

This is so much taken for granted now that the wonder of it, the generous spirit that made it possible and the infinite good that has come from it, are too easily forgotten. So why should the same principle not apply to the other arts?

For a while, in the middle of the last century, it did. J.B.Priestley’s Good Companions was one way, Hampstead and the other Little Theatres another. Between the two was a well-travelled road on which amateurs and professionals passed in both directions. The Little Theatres were amateur reps. The Hampstead Little Theatre specialised in new writing. The Bradford Civic Playhouse, which I joined when I was fifteen, put on a new production every three weeks. Each production ran for a week, followed by a fortnight in which the theatre became an art-house cinema. It was where I saw not only my first Shakespeares, Ibsens and Chekhovs, but also my first Godards, Fellinis and Bergmans. If I had been ten years older, I would have seen Robert Stephens and Billie Whitelaw when they were still amateurs. I did see Gorden Kaye, when he was still Gordon Kaye and a regular in comic roles for the Little Theatres in Bradford and Huddersfield, before he turned pro and became a few years later a café owner in occupied Paris, René in the BBC Television series ’Allo ’Allo.

Most of the good actors did not turn pro but went on performing as amateurs in Bradford, Huddersfield, Hampstead and elsewhere. Most writers write part-time while earning their living in some other way. If that is what amateur means, most writers are amateurs. Charles Causley taught at his local primary school and retired, not very early, as Deputy Head and famous poet. T.S.Eliot worked at a bank, then turned to publishing. Teaching and banking used to be the employment of choice for writers, offering long holidays in one case, short working hours in the other and job security in both.

Any kind of state patronage of the arts is pernicious in its effect and undemocratic in its operation. The law of money in this case works like the law of pocket money. Artists who are given too much behave like spoilt children. They spend it on the wrong things (costumes) and if it is taken away they stamp their feet. Governments are not supposed to have favourites, as monarchs did in the past, but an Arts Council that chooses which artists to favour with its grants does just that. It should not be the job of the government or any of its so-called arms-length agencies to decide, as Stalin did, which artists should rise and which should fall.

The government should wash its hands of public funding for the arts. Its job is to support readers not writers, audiences not performers, democratic communities not cultural hierarchies. The false distinction between amateur and professional which state funding has encouraged in the performing arts should be allowed to wither. Without it, people will go on making music and putting on plays in the ways that they have always done in the buildings that fair-minded parish, town and city councils have always provided and which, with £337,000,000 a year to share equally between them, they could afford to spruce up.

The law of money should not apply in the world of the imagination. It is after all a world made up of lunatics, lovers and poets, the very last people you would want to trust with your money.

ruskin 03

My next post, Late Poems, will appear on 26 November.

My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 3 December.

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This entry was posted on November 19, 2014 by in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , .
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