One of the founders of the Arts Council was Kenneth Clark who, when Director of the National Gallery during the war, established a series of acclaimed lunchtime concerts at the Gallery. After the war Clark, together with the renowned economist John Maynard Keynes, helped to set up the Arts Council. Their outlook on the arts was unashamedly supportive of high culture and Clark was later to achieve international fame with his memorable television series Civilisation, first broadcast in 1969. His high minded cultural vision was reflected in the work of the early Arts Council. However, by the mid-1970s, this ethos began to come under criticism for being too 'elitist', paternalistic and old-fashioned, and it began to be supplanted by an approach to culture that placed much more emphasis on social and political issues, as dictated by the liberal establishment.
The fruits of this approach on matters cultural are evident in such glossy brochures as The Cultural Cornerstone produced by the South East England Cultural Consortium a few years ago. Why a region as amorphous as the South East needed such a body still remains unclear. However, The Cultural Cornerstone is a revealing document as it demonstrates the sheer philistinism which underpins current official thinking on culture. The Consortium considers its main task is to 'lead and assist with the relevant analysis and understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the region and the sector, and to articulate and advocate a vision for the future, some main lines of development, and targets for their achievement at the regional level. It is anxious to add value to the work of those already involved in the field, rather than to duplicate, deflect or distract attention away from their own aspirations and achievements'. This convoluted and muddled verbiage is representative of present day bureaucratic jargon, which is forever tying itself in knots to justify its own existence, courtesy of the taxpayer. ,p> Bureaucracy always runs the risk of continual expansion through its own momentum. Whilst this unnecessary public sector waste needs to be eliminated, what is more objectionable is the underlying motivation of the Consortium which is not to improve cultural attainment and appreciation, but instead to promote 'Cultural investment and innovation as potentially the main engine of regeneration of both urban and rural communities within the South East.' More explicitly it believes that 'The economic growth and competitiveness of the region will rely on the success of the creative industries in particular'. This at least is clear; it is that culture is seen as merely one means of attaining the Government’s broader objectives of regeneration and economic growth, and not as a desirable end in itself. It would be tedious to list all the defiantly non-cultural aims of the Consortium but the following extracts give a flavour:
• 'The need to integrate the cultural strategy, not only with local and agency strategies, but also with key regional plans'.
• 'The scope for joining up not only marketing and promotion but also training and professional development across the cultural sectors'.
• 'The difficulties of identifying and promoting a regional brand'.
• 'The challenge of working across boundaries'.
• 'The need for sensitivity to the variety of communities and their interests throughout the region'.
Nowhere in The Cultural Cornerstone is there evidence of any understanding of cultural improvement, artistic achievement or the means to create an environment in which both can be fostered and appreciated. Instead the early objectives of the Arts Council have been turned on their head to be replaced by a debased agenda of economic growth and 'social inclusion'.
The Consortium is directly funded by the Treasury, and as explained above its main purpose seems to have been to assist the Government’s regeneration and regional economic development agenda, rather than to promote cultural improvement. As far as its work does impinge on artistic and cultural matters it appears to duplicate the responsibilities of the Arts Council of England, which has a more 'arms length' relationship with the Government. All self respecting bodies these days have a 'corporate plan' and the Arts Council is no exception. The days when the Arts Council operated on a shoestring are now over since it enjoys funding of hundredss of million a year. Some of the objectives are commendable such as the requirement 'To promote the arts at the heart of our national life', the belief that 'The arts have the power to transform lives and communities' and the need 'To increase the number of people who engage with the arts'. Others, predictably, are more modish, such as the inevitable 'The celebration of cultural diversity is a central value in our work, running through all our programmes and relationships' or 'Social inclusion initiatives are a clear priority'.
At the top of the public sector arts pyramid is the Department for Culture Media and Sport. Once again it employs the same dispiriting language to express its objectives. For example its 'Arts & Social Policy' declares, 'The arts, in all their rich variety, belong to everyone, regardless of race, class, culture, age, sex, disability or sexuality. The arts can offer innovative solutions, build bridges and express differences positively, not just for the individual but for whole communities. They can break boundaries. The Government believes that the arts in social contexts can demonstrate excellence and that these two need not be mutually exclusive.' This mangled wish-list of sociological gibberish seems a long way removed from Lord Clark’s noble early post war vision for the encouragement of the arts.
So what should the role of the state be in relation to the arts? To oversee the government’s policy on the arts and culture it would be logical to retain the Arts Council, but streamlined to concentrate on recognised artistic excellence. This will return it to a remit similar to that which it had when first established. The Council’s responsibilities should be largely confined to promoting serious music, opera, ballet, fine art, established works of literature and drama, traditional indigenous folk music, dance, culture and crafts. Everything else will be for the market to provide without public funding of any kind. So there would be no more subsidies for conceptual art, ethnic culture or rap music to give but a few examples. Additionally, the Council should also rid itself of all the impenetrable politically correct language in which it cloaks its pronouncements and objectives and return to fostering artistic excellence.