Commentary - Nothing to Bragg about
John Tusa defends himself against charges of rent-a-Jeremiah pessimism
At the end of Melvyn Bragg's review of my book Art Matters (Books, 24 May), my personal reflections on the arts in Britain today, he is described as "novelist, broadcaster and Labour peer". In the interests of clarity, you might have put "Labour peer" first, since that is the unmistakable voice that resounds like an indignant clarion from his review. From a Labour peer and ultra-loyalist Blairite cheerleader, this shock that anyone should raise doubts about new Labour's arts policies and achievements is wonderful to behold. Viewed from the sheltered committee rooms and bars of the House of Lords, the arts are self-evidently in good health. Bragg looks out with deep personal satisfaction at the "steady work done by thousands of decent committed people across the country". How kind of him to notice. I had not realised so clearly before how much the Lords is the home of patronage.
But I do not think that your readers need to be diverted by a critical divide between author and reviewer, for the simple reason that the issues I raise in Art Matters go further than the government's own arts agenda and much further than the official policy line in which Bragg himself is so sadly stuck. Despite my critique of Chris Smith's own book, Creative Britain, Smith himself came to my launch and gave a warm and generous endorsement of it. He and I well understand where we agree and where we part company. The trouble with courtiers is that they are plus royaliste que le roi. This secretary of state can look after himself.
The truth is that, as anyone who "really" works in the arts world on a day-by-day basis knows, despite the substantial increase in arts funding from the government in last year's spending review, despite the Lottery and its increasing use for revenue support, much of the arts world remains precariously balanced between solvency and indebtedness. To hector as ingrates those arts institutions that are still funded, in real terms, at levels below those they had, say, four years ago, has a Marie Antoinette quality that is both comic and tragic. The 1998 funding settlement was a huge step forward (not something I question), but not to know what the real anxieties of the arts world are while pontificating about them is unpardonable.
So let us put the record straight. From my own direct experience of several arts bodies, arts practitioners, in institutions large and small, are deeply concerned at how arts funding comes increasingly in small boxes, each one defined for specific purposes and circumscribed with detailed objectives. These poorly staffed organisations are burdened with a mountain of bureaucracy - in the name of accountability - that contributes nothing to the achievement of an artistic outcome.
They would love to have more money to spend on marketing but are worried by the facile assumption that a marketing strategy should be the lead ingredient in the formulation of a successful arts policy. I believe that the artistic idea must come first.
Where I part company with Chris Smith is over the question, fundamental to new Labour arts policy, of the so-called creative industries. Where do the creative industries end and the arts begin? This needs answering, because if the arts are merely another creative industry - only one that costs a great deal of money rather than earning it - what is the justification for funding them? But if the arts are of their nature different in kind, then the case has to be made for their difference. Running away from admitting that they are different will not do.
What are the arts and why are they something worth defending and cherishing? I became weary of people evading the question so I attempted my own definitions - mocked by Bragg. Yet more than one senior arts administrator told me that they have my definitions pinned up in their offices. To those who do not like them, here is an invitation: produce your own definition of why the arts matter without using words such as "access", "outreach", "inclusiveness" or anything else drawn from a new Labour policy document.
There are big practical challenges for the arts world. How do you harness the power of the electronic media to bring the arts into the apparently all-embracing tent of multi-channel television? By a happy coincidence, the Barbican, the LSO and the BBC took part in a three-way experiment on 26 May which demonstrated that the technology now exists for bringing high-quality performance to television audiences at an affordable cost without the intrusion of television lighting.
And, talking of television, the arts as a whole should have a joint bone to pick with the major broadcasters, starting with the BBC, over the huge decline in arts coverage on the mainstream channels. If the arts are covered only when there is an "arts scandal", why should the potential audience ever bother to join in?
Finally, I have another invitation for sceptics and supporters. My book ends with a chapter searching for a new rhetoric for the arts, one that can underpin the case for continued public subsidy of them. It includes a call for a new dialogue with the audience and a necessary restatement of why the arts remain different from other mainly economic activities. This new rhetoric should eschew current government policy formulations. Any takers?
So at the end of all this I know where I stand - for the arts in all their diversity. I know, too, where Bragg sits - in the House of Lords and on new Labour arts policy. The two are not the same. I know where I would rather be.
John Tusa's "Art Matters" is published by Methuen, £12.99