The philistines at the gates

Stewart Lee, Martin Parr and Hayden Thorpe discuss the coalition's policy for the arts.

While most of the focus has been on the coalition's handling of healthcare reform and the economy, the Cameron government's mismanagement of other areas has gone relatively unnoticed. The arts are a prime example.

The huge cuts to arts funding and trebling of tuition fees set alarms bells ringing. Applications for university arts courses have since plummeted, potentially stifling a generation of artists. Why consider a riskier career in the arts when one can study finance or business and be more certain of securing a salaried job upon graduation?

Cameron's view that The King's Speech is the holy grail of film making is also worrying. The implication that a film's "commercial success" is the best way to judge its value is ignorant and narrow-minded. We are still waiting for the prime minister to make the case for low-budget British films bereft of star names that make an impact culturally and enrich our view of the world around us. But Cameron appears to want blockbuster British films that export a certain view of British society. Is his clumsy rhetoric simply a sign of someone who doesn't understand art? Or is a more concerted assault on the arts (and on arts funding) being launched?

According to comedian Stewart Lee, only time will tell. "It's too early to say," he says. "For your own sanity you have to believe he's just a philistine. The alternative is that Cameron's attacks on the arts are in fact ideologically driven, and that it's an attempt to destroy and close down the spaces where free thinking and questioning happens. Life would certainly be a lot easier for politicians without troublesome thinkers, particularly educated and creative ones, but it's too early to say if this is what's really going on."

Photojournalist and "natural anti-Tory" Martin Parr is not convinced that an anti-arts agenda is being perpetrated:

I certainly don't share that paranoia. Under Thatcher, photography became a celebrated cause and art flourished because we all hated what she was doing so much. It provided inspiration. I think Tory policies galvanising creativity is as likely as this argument that Conservatives are trying to strangle the arts. I was alarmed about what happened to the British Film Council but my view was that it was a flawed organisation. Some of the weaker arts organisations needed to be weeded out. The arts were cut as much as anything else - everything has been cut. Art is alive and well in the UK. Art, theatre, music - all of it is thriving in London and very little of it is publicly funded.

Lee believes the fundamental condition of promoting vibrant and culturally diverse art is social mobility and fair access to good quality education.

It's not just about arts funding, It's also about education for all, so that people are literate enough to be able to appreciate books and films etc. The main thing is that we need social mobility to give new voices access and influence, to help us understand different views of the world to those held by the wealthy and privileged alone, and obviously we have gone into reverse gear in this respect. Culture doesn't just look after itself. I'm worried that as a society we'll just forget how to do the good stuff, and no-one will know anything. I don 't think David Cameron has any feeling or understanding for the value or purpose of arts, so it's an obvious thing to cut. His comment about only making films that make profit shows he doesn't understand anything. By definition, arts are not an exact science and it isn't their job to make money any way - we have business for that. Funding should go to films, for example, that can't make a profit, but which should be funded because they appear to be artistically worthwhile. If he wants films to make a profit just make Top Gear the movie, and ten sequels. I'm sure his friends would let him be in it if he liked.

Hayden Thorpe is a vocalist and guitarist in Wild Beasts, a brilliant young British band who have achieved critical acclaim despite their alternative sound. As a young, successful artist, what's his view on Cameron's handling of the arts? "Cameron's approach does not at all surprise me. He embodies the archetypal conservative principle towards art in that it is an indulgence for the wealthy if only to create more wealth. It saddens me."

He worries about art becoming exclusively for the rich and feels that British art must reflect the diversity ofn British society. But with tuition fees trebling he fears the worst:

Encouragement of daring and provocative thought nurtures those within our society who hold a valuable asset. Art school applications have dropped 27 per cent since the change in university fees. To put it bluntly we have lost a quarter of the next generation of those involved in the creative arts who came from lower income families. This is a tragedy. What I desperately fear we'll come to expect is art created by the rich, about the rich for consumption by the rich. What a monotone and starved output of creative work we would have. How many people will grow up never able to fully grasp and explore their talent? The personal tragedies are as sad as the collective ones. For me what is key is understanding that artistic ambition and financial ambition are two very different things. To be determined and focused on achieving great things in your work may sometimes result in financial gain but never without the work itself being the priority.

Parr agrees with those sentiments. "All filmmakers and artists want their work to be good and if it makes a profit then fine but if it doesn't it's not the end of the world. The great thing about being a photographer is that I can just do what I want to do. I don't need to wait for a grant."

Thorpe believes that, now more than ever, art has a crucial social role to play:

Introspective thinking is a rare thing at the moment, our media is set up to be immediately very reactive and responsive, speaking is no longer slave to thinking. Listening has become secondary to speaking. The art sector is essential in allowing people to tell their stories, to be listened to, to be understood and most importantly in order to be a forum for compassion. The ideals of a meritocratic democracy where individuals pay tax is that society runs on values beyond money making and people are connected not only for financial purposes but for mutual growth and enrichment. I hope those values still mean something when this period of economic crisis and political quick fixing passes.

So, if Cameron had been in power for longer, would certain artists that we love not exist? Thorpe believes art school opportunities are important but has faith in individuals' ability to make it in spite of government:

The vast majority of Britain's past and current artists and musicians went to university or art school. Furthermore, 8 per cent of our country's workforce is currently employed in creative sectors. So something must have been right and beneficial for the individual and residually the state as a whole for this to be the case. Whether certain individuals would not have gone onto greatness under this government is hard to say, I have absolute faith in the human's endeavor and capacity to imagine and create first and foremost regardless of unhelpful surroundings.

Lee is slightly more cynical:

Only Julian Fellowes, writer of the popular, but shit, Downtown Abbey, which he fails to appreciate most people only watched to see how bad it could get, and Genesis [would exist within Cameron's framework for the arts]. Almost nothing we value would have come through, if you include the fact that further education funding deters those game-changing plucky working-class and lower middle-class kids from pursuing their ambitions, and BBC cuts kneecap radio sessions and radio comedy, and even funded theatres have to pursue West End hits to subsidise themselves.

Thorpe's advice to young people with artistic aspirations, meanwhile, is simple: "Stick to your guns, through thick and thin. Art cannot exist without being a personally fulfilling pursuit, so protect the part of it you feel passionate for and care about and the rest will look after itself."

Stewart Lee (Photo: Getty Images)

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland