Arts funding – what it does, and why it matters

Will Gompertz raised vital issues in his "Today" programme coverage, but the reality is more complicated than it seems

It set the twittersphere alight – or at least that tiny corner of it concerned with the arts. Will Gompertz proposed on Tuesday’s Today programme that subsidising the arts doesn’t work because only 8 per cent of people in this country go to opera, ballet and classical concerts, and because they’re all sewn-up inside imposing London buildings. All nice and easy – a provocative headline and a stinging statistic in one fell swoop. But the truth is a little more complicated than that – and marginally more positive, too.

Two points to begin. If Gompertz’s interview subject speaking for London youth Fady Elsayed has "never seen one advert" for theatre or opera in the city, he either doesn’t use public transport or he should have gone to Specsavers. Adverts from Covent Garden, English National Opera, the Barbican et al might have varying degrees of communicative nous, but they exist –they’re commonplace and they’re big.

Secondly, the figures are skewed. Far more than 8 per cent of people in this country experience live opera, ballet and classical music. Many experience the arts as "a living element…[in] their upbringing" as John Maynard Keynes said they should when he founded the Arts Council. But their details don’t show up on box office receipts because they’re given free tickets or they are single, anonymous elements in large group bookings made by schools and colleges. After school, thousands of higher education students from varied backgrounds attend orchestral concerts; they’re contacted, welcomed, encouraged, talked-to and offered discounted tickets by marketing staff working for state-subsidised orchestras.

Theatre companies, opera companies and orchestras in this country present numerous performances for schools, families and community groups, some of them for free. That was consolidated in 2007 when the non-BBC symphony orchestras in the UK collectively promised to offer every schoolchild the chance to hear a live performance. However that bold promise is shaping up – it’s been dented but not extinguished by the most recent round of funding cuts – the very fact it was made underlines the single and most salient difference between subsidised and commercial art.

It’s interesting that Gompertz and Elsayed homed-in on buildings and the creatures who inhabit them as being the main sources of intimidation for people attending opera – I agree with the latter element wholeheartedly, as I’ve argued before. But it’s hard to play the architecture card when you consider that there are only three purpose-built opera houses in the United Kingdom operating as such, and one of them receives no subsidy. 

I spent the last week in Plymouth, watching operas and plays at the Theatre Royal where the concurrent visit from Glyndebourne On Tour and Flemish theatre collective Ontroerend Goed came between Marti Pellow in Blood Brothers and Christopher Biggins in the Christmas pantomime. The latter shows sold/will sell well; nobody can argue about architecture putting people off there. It’s not that the building isn’t beautiful – it is, and it’s about to get even more so (and more welcoming) thanks to an Arts Council redevelopment grant.  You might say it’s intimidating in its creative peacefulness, but that doesn’t stop people coming through the door to musicals, pantomime and comedy.

Opera North, English Touring Opera, Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne spend much of the year travelling to theatres (not opera houses) like these to deliver first-class performances of great works old and new. The Glyndebourne offerings are sometimes even more focused and slick than they are at the summer festival. Top-price tickets are only marginally more expensive than those for the blockbuster shows, but government subsidy means there are hundreds of seats available for less than twenty quid.

And who’s sat in them? On Thursday night’s Le nozze di Figaro in Plymouth there were dozens of schoolchildren, plenty of pensioners and a good deal who would fall in between – a far more diverse audience than your average pop gig attracts. We’d all like to see a broader cross section of our society watching plays, operas and concerts, and we’re making progress on that front. But I’m a Plymothian, and I felt as though my home city was probably better represented in those performances at the Theatre Royal than my "residing" city (London) is at Covent Garden. On Friday afternoon in Plymouth, the company performed Rusalka for an audience of schoolchildren and families.

Without arts subsidy Glyndebourne wouldn’t even have been in Plymouth. The schoolchildren – who mostly sat interested and surprised by Glyndebourne’s relevant, vivid and beautifully played Figaro – would probably have been engaging in something a good deal less wonderful and mind-expanding. That means nobody to develop an interest in the art form, grow up, earn a living, become a ticket-buyer and help increase that percentage figure Gompertz was touting. Which in turn means further exclusion, further intimidation and considerable embarrassment in the face of our European counterparts who are proving that increased subsidy of the arts aids society and contributes to the exchequer.

Figaro (Vito Priarte) and Susanna (Lydia Teuscher) star in Glyndebourne's 'Le Nozze di Figaro' (Photo credit: Alastair Muir)
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage