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A government of philistines

Cutting the arts is the last thing the coalition should be doing.

Shortly before the general election, I was talking to the head of one of London's great cultural institutions about Jeremy Hunt. "I hope they keep him at the DCMS," he said. "But he's probably too good for that." It was a compliment to the Tory Culture Secretary, if a rather mournful observation about how low the arts are in the pecking order of government.

Hunt is still looking after the same portfolio that he was in opposition, but perhaps my conversational companion would have wished otherwise if he had known how keen the bushy-tailed cabinet minister, whose ascent has been so meteoric that less than two years ago the NS picture desk was hard pressed to find a photo of him to go with an interview, would be to impose austerity on his department. Up to 50 per cent of his own staff are to go, while arts organisations have to prepare for 30 per cent cuts in their budgets over the next four years.

The shortfall, it is hoped, will be made up by philanthropy. This is either a very bad joke indeed on the part of Hunt, or it suggests that he has not the slightest idea about the history of arts support in Britain (and Europe, to an extent) compared with that in America. Across the pond, it is true, wealthy individuals commonly donate huge sums to museums, opera houses, theatres and galleries. This practice is not entirely altruistic, mind: donors expect and get socially prestigious places on boards, have new halls and wings named after them and, crucially, receive highly lucrative tax breaks for doing so.

On that last point, so far, we have heard nothing from Hunt. Which means that he may as well have wished upon a star for all the likelihood of success his idea will enjoy. The likes of Sir John Ritblatt, Anthony d'Offay and Lord Stevenson, who have donated many millions between them, have already warned that further philanthropy cannot fill the gap, and that in the current economic climate, even those with big wallets are mindful that their contents have shrunk. The point is so obvious -- only a dunderhead could think otherwise.

That Hunt should be proposing this course now is doubly crazy, given that even before the economic crisis, money was tight. Five years ago, one of the greatest conductors of the late 20th century, Zubin Mehta, told me that, in his opinion: "England is a disaster as far as financial backing is concerned." He thought the US -- which is supposed to be the model that will save British arts funding -- was going the same way and Italy, that land of stereotypical southern song, too. "The government is cutting money all the time," he said. "We were told earlier this month to cut €4m from this season's budget at the Florence Opera. It's blasphemous. We are living in very dangerous times."

Blasphemous may seem like a strong word, far too strong for those who view the classical music of which Mehta has been such a worthy proponent as the preserve of a middle-class elite. But Mehta knows what art is, what its reach is: there can be few better examples of its power to inspire all, from world leaders to rank-and-file soldiers, than when he jumped on a plane to perform with the Israeli Philharmonic on the battlefield during the Six Day War.

The idea that this is an appropriate area to prune back barely makes much financial sense. As the actor and director Samuel West pointed out in the Evening Standard on Thursday: "The arts cost only 0.07 per cent of total public spending -- 7p in every £100. The Arts Council theatre budget for 2008 was £54 million; in return, the theatre paid back £76 million in VAT in London alone. That's a 40 per cent dividend."

It could also be enormously damaging to the UK's long-term standing in the arts internationally. Back to West: "Of the 187 Academy Award nominations given to Brits in the past 30 years, 145 went to people who started in the subsidised theatre. Today's fringe produces tomorrow's Oscar winners."

He makes a very important point. As I write this, I am thrilling to the sound of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony being performed via BBC4. The state-sponsored BBC Proms are featuring the work of another state-sponsored artist who, even when he had fallen out of favour ideologically (not a happy situation in the Soviet Union), still found his appearances advertised in the government supervised press, even if it was, as on one chilling occasion in the 1930s, thus: "Today there will be a concert by enemy of the people Shostakovich."

So it has always been. In Europe, it has historically been the role of the state to support the arts. Where, without the Vatican and the Medicis, would Michelangelo and Leonardo have been? Handel relied on the Elector of Hanover and ended up as one of our few great English composers only because his patron became George I. Haydn needed the Esterhazys (his Farewell Symphony, in which players dropped out of the score as a none-too-subtle hint to his employers that they could do with slightly longer holidays, can be seen as an early form of mitteleuropean trade unionism), just as we know of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer because he was supported by John of Gaunt and Richard II.

Only a philistine would deny that the arts are one of the hallmarks of a civilised society, and that when empires fall and their riches are dispersed, it is by their literature, paintings, monuments and music that we remember them. Hunt should be protecting his department and fighting its corner. He above all, should know its worth. But does he, I wonder?

A while ago, I talked to Alan Ryan, this country's foremost authority on John Stuart Mill, about the kind of liberal arts education he received and which he continued to be a part of, most recently as Warden of New College, Oxford. The bean counters, I said to him, the same kind of people who now want to savage the government's arts budget, find it impossible to attach value to these areas in their cost-benefit analyses. I asked him where it fits in. Ryan's reply was about education, but I would apply it to all those institutions and artists whose support is soon to be cut.

"Roughly speaking," he said, "it fits in on the bit that says: 'This is what makes life worth having.' And if they say, 'How much worth having?' one says: 'Worth having at all.'"

Remember those words, Jeremy Hunt.