Paul Allin, the nice chap at the ONS (pictured on the right) who is in charge of Defining National Well-Being (quite a task you’ve been handed there Paul), says: “I am aware of the impact of the arts on wellbeing and social inclusion, and encourage those involved in the sector to make the case for this by responding to the consultation. This will give us the most comprehensive evidence possible on which we can base the further development of the Well-being programme.” He’s aware of the impact! He likes us! Just a bit more lobbying and maybe the arts can get into the definition of Well-Being. It’s like Paul is Noah and we’re all animals desperately scrambling to get on the Ark before it sets sail.
There’s a lot of other things left out of the Official National Definition of Well-Being, by the way. Like religion. Holy shit! They left out God! Quick, call the Archbishop. And sex. They left out sex! Call Jordan! And chocolate. Call Willy Wonka! (etc). But let’s focus on arts and culture this week. Because there is a more serious point behind these concerns about how to evaluate the impact of the arts.
We live in an age that has ever more faith in empirical evidence, an age of facts and non-fiction, of statistics, graphs, experiments and surveys. If you want to influence public policy, you need graphs, evidence and data in a pretty Power Point presentation. As the former head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’ Donnell, said: ‘If you treasure it, measure it.’ His successor, Sir Jeremy Heywood, this week suggested launching a body to scientifically evaluate social policy interventions, in the same way that NICE evaluates pharmaceutical interventions. Policy-makers want facts, bar charts, pie graphs. Otherwise they stumble in the darkness of ethical confusion. There’s a sort of Positivist revival happening at the moment, which poses a real challenge to the arts and humanities: how do we measure their impact, to prove to the bureaucrats we deserve our funding? What’s the point of the arts, and what sort of arts should receive public funding?
State funding of the arts goes back to Renaissance Florence, which had an official buildings fund that commissioned artists for major state works (it seems to have chosen pretty well). But in the UK, state funding of the arts only really began after World War II, with the launch in the late 1940s of the Arts Council, the RSC, the ‘Third Programme’ on BBC Radio, and so on.
The Arts Council was designed, in the words of one chairman of the Council, ‘as a protection of the best in our culture against the barbarians’. In other words, a protection of elitist art against the threat of populism, commercialism and philistinism. The first chairman of the Arts Council, the very elitist John Maynard Keynes (shown in a painting on the left by his lover Duncan Grant), launched it with a speech on BBC Radio which ended with the rallying war cry: ‘Death to Hollywood!’
But the Arts Council quickly turned into not just a protection of past culture, but a financier for new art and new organisations.This led to arguments. Should subsidies support artistic excellence, or mass popular engagement? How much independence should organisations like the Arts Council have from politicians? And what kind of arts should it support? What is the ‘value’ of the arts? Who should set the nation’s cultural agenda?
The consensus on what sorts of arts should get public financing has shifted over time. According to an interesting article by David Edgar in the Guardian this weekend, in the 1960s and 1970s, public funding of the arts often went to quite edgy, radical and political arts projects, but this changed under the Thatcher government. Some Tories didn’t think any arts should get public funding, while others thought public subsidies should protect our ‘cultural heritage’ and thereby promote tourism and foreign trade. Culture should be valued for its ability to make money from foreign viewers and foreign tourists (for ‘foreign’ read mainly ‘American’). Less John Osborne, more Jane Austen.
What this means is that the arts should sell a certain vision of Britain to foreigners – a Britain where all the men are posh and floppy-haired and say ‘um’ a lot, like Hugh Grant, and all the women look like Diana and say ‘gosh’ a lot, like Kirsten Scott Thomas, and all the houses are gorgeous country mansions. Downton Abbey, basically. In fact, Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, is the lead author of the report behind Cameron’s comments.
So much British film, it seems to me, is still stuck in this idea of selling an anachronistic version of England to foreigners – think of Richard Curtis’ films, from the enjoyable Four Weddings and a Funeral to the increasingly awful Notting Hill and Love Actually. I don’t feel those films were made for us. They’re a self-demeaning dance put on for Americans.
Anyway, during the years of New Labour, again to quote the David Edgar article, a new idea arose among policy-makers that you could measure the value of the arts through their impact on things like social exclusion, literacy, health and well-being. The idea of ‘evidence-based policy making’ began in medical policy in the 1990s, and then spread to other areas of policy, including the arts. In 2007, for example, the Arts Council published a report together with the Department of Health, called ‘The arts, health and well-being‘, promoting all the health benefits got from, say, seeing a nice painting in a hospital, or singing in a choir.
Likewise, New Labour’s minister of culture, Tessa Jowell, published a very interesting pamphlet in 2004, called ‘Government and the Value of Culture‘, in which she warned against over-instrumentalising the arts: “Too often politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas – education, the reduction of crime, improvements in wellbeing – explaining – or in some instances almost apologising for – our investment in culture only in terms of something else.”
So why, then, should government subsidise the arts? Jowell writes (and it’s a long quote, but worth reading in full):
We live in a complex world; the result is that we prize, and perhaps sometimes even suspect, those who understand its complexities. We not only celebrate the genius of great scientists or technological pioneers, but we make daily use of their inventions…But the internal world we all inhabit – the world of…love or pain, joy or misery, fear and relief, success and disappointment – that, too, has its genius discoverers and inventors, people who can show us things we could not see for ourselves, and experts who can help us to understand them. Their insights are no less accessible than the workings of the internal combustion engine. Society seems to take for granted that learning complex skills about the external world is within the range of far more people than developing an appreciation for the insights of great art. But there is no reason why that should be so.
Those who have had the transcendent thrill of feeling the power of great art in any medium, have gained the use of a sense to add to those of touch, taste, smell, sound and sight. And grappling with the complexity is almost always the necessary condition of access to that enriching sixth sense. I am not saying that culture has to be complicated, or that what is not complicated cannot have cultural value. But I do believe that the rewards of grappling with great art in any medium are enormous. The reluctance of so many to attempt that challenge is a terrible waste of human potential, with a concomitant loss of human realisation.
That is why, in a nutshell, subsidy for ‘high culture’ activities is a proper task for government: not to provide the “cultured” wealthy with a night out cheaper than it might be but because if great works of art are not exposed, the chance of acquiring that sixth sense may not be on offer at all. Complex cultural activity is not just a pleasurable hinterland for the public, a fall back after the important things – work and paying tax – are done. It is at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being.