Luvvies, stop moaning

Middle-aged males who have done well out of subsidy want even more. But their apocalyptic imaginings

Art Matters

John Tusa Methuen, 168pp, £12.99

In 1948, T S Eliot wrote: "I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further and why we may not even anticipate a period of some duration of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture."

John Tusa, in the opening chapter of Art Matters, offers a robust drum roll of the arts institutions that have sprung into life since Eliot's barren prophesy. The Royal Opera and ENO, opera companies in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England, the Royal Court, RSC and the Royal National Theatre, the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, the Orchestra Hall in Glasgow, the Grand Opera House in Belfast, the Burrell, the Sainsbury Wing, the Tates in Liverpool and St Ives. He could go on - and does, even if he is sniffy about the more recent popular arts and indeed about much that is not fostered inside institutions. By the end of his drum roll - in his own terms - he has refuted T S Eliot.

And then? Well, blow me down if he does not attempt to exceed even Eliot in his own dreary cultural forecasts. "I have a dream, or is it a nightmare?" he asks, apocalyptically. "Of a world without arts and therefore without arts centres. It will come true in the next century. Probably within a few years of it starting." This is sad, inadequate and limited. Sad because Tusa is committed to the arts, even if he does proclaim their value in hugely inflated terms: "The arts matter because they are non-material"; "They make order out of disorder"; "They encourage the imagination".

But phrases such as these could apply equally well to scholarship, science, sport and gardening. It does the arts no favours to be given such generalised steroids. All the evidence shows that, under this government at least, the art centres so dear to Tusa are in better hands than ever before. For the first time, a government has committed itself to a long-term BBC licence fee, while establishing a committee specifically charged to increase BBC funding. I hope and forecast that this will happen. Central government funding for the arts is at its all-time highest level - £125 million extra a year for three years has already been guaranteed to the Arts Council of England. There is more money for music in schools, for libraries, and the total grant aid and National Lottery money for the regions has increased by 44 per cent this year. Sadler's Wells is rebuilt and the Tate on Bankside approaches its spectacular opening. The National Glass Centre in Middlesbrough, the Cambridge Arts Theatre, Tara Arts, the LSO - all these and many more have benefited from current policies; and there is not the slightest indication that this will stop or, to fulfil the melodramatic Tusa nightmare, spin into reverse.

Chris Smith, already the longest serving arts minister for many years, has achieved, in his steady and scrupulous way, the kind of results that are spreading benefits widely and will continue to do so. So why are those who are doing well out of Labour so pusillanimous about speaking out? Are they too cosy in the shell of the protected rebel?

John Tusa's arguments are limited in two damaging ways. The first is in his constant questionable assertions, many of which would be equally half true if reversed. "Art is about searching and sometimes finding . . . It is about sharing the private and listening for silence . . . It is lasting but not immediate . . . It is valuable but priceless." He over-eggs all his puddings. "For Keynes it was an article of belief that a university needed a theatre in exactly the same way as science needed a laboratory." Yes - let all universities have theatres - but exactly like laboratories? And there is more. "Do not believe anyone who says the arts are spendthrift." Never? Has he not seen certain sets of the Royal Opera House or the National Theatre - sets whose costs could float a small touring company for months? He talks, too, as if it is only nowadays that artists speak to one another of money. Has he not read his Mozart letters? And so it goes on; there is an over-precious nature about the arguments that too often carries them away from reality.

My second objection is that his argument is necessarily limited by his refusal to stray far from a narrow repertoire of arts. He concentrates on the arts of performance, which have always needed - and probably always will need - subsidy, have usually been confined to the rich and are only now opening up as the masses - often more informed than those rich old liggers - storm the stalls. But Tusa seems to think that you require a special education for Wagner. Nonsense. You need a pair of ears and a feeling for music.

I have written favourably in support of subsidy for the arts since the 1960s, and I continue to believe absolutely in subsidy, as I do in the BBC licence fee. I also believe that John Tusa's head and heart are in the right place. But his grandiose arguments - taking no account of current realities - are damaging to the arts lobby.

Nor can you discuss the arts seriously today without fully recognising the popular arts, which he skirts most sniffily - cinema, radio, television drama, photography, jazz and rock music and even his despised fashion and video arts. And you cannot talk of the arts fundamentally in terms of arts centres, although this has been Tusa's main experience. There was very little of the arts centre about Ted Hughes; even less about the Beatles; and none at all about several of our best novelists. There is a powerfully arrested development of thought here.

As we were right to complain about the arts being neglected in the past (even if we were a touch unfair to Lord Gowrie, for instance), so we are right to bang on about them now. But to do so in such rent-a-Jeremiah terms that take little if any note of steady work being done by the hundreds of thousands of decent, committed people across the country who would have had no place in the arts community 50 years ago; to act as if a relatively benevolent and willing government were mean and negligent - well, this is to speak false.

It is very difficult for middle-aged, institutionalised males who have done so well out of subsidy - and, fair play, given much back - to realise that there is a time to be a well-heeled revolutionary. But there is a time, too, to realise that a quiet reformation might actually be under way at this very moment and is certainly worth supporting.

Lord Bragg is a novelist, broadcaster and Labour peer

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning