Art? Stop worrying and enjoy it

Former controllers of BBC Radio 3 wishing to sell autobiographies about the good old days might be expected to address book festivals with strongly worded criticisms of government arts policies. Even so, Sir John Drummond's excoriating address in Edinburgh last weekend, in which he described the entire Cabinet as "professional philistines", can fairly be described as over the top.

Sir John made the predictable lament that the nation has irreversibly dumbed down, and that all public funding is directed towards art and culture that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Then there was the headline-grabbing personal abuse. Tony Blair ("you can tell what type of man the Prime Minister is by his choice on Desert Island Discs") hadn't "savoured" a book since reading Ivanhoe at school; other governments had included men of real culture such as Edward Heath and Michael Foot, while, for this government, culture was "instant gratification"; the BBC director of drama, Alan Yentob, was a "prat"; and arts policy pandered to "middle-aged men in baseball caps turned round the wrong way".

What haughtiness! No wonder Sir John earned the nickname Joan of Art at the BBC, where his stance of self-appointed avenging angel of high culture was viewed as somewhat comical. None the less, lurking beneath his desire to expel from the temple the bureaucrats, management consultants, think-tankers and, above all, politicians, there is a point.

Governments that try to make the arts serve their core beliefs are quite likely to get it disastrously wrong. Labour's laudable ambitions for social inclusion are no exception. Art is anarchic and unbiddable, following imperatives only of excellence. Policies for bringing the socially excluded into civil society follow, we hope, more predictable economic rules. Manipulating arts policy to respond to caricature notions of public taste results not in popular art, but in white elephants such as the Millennium Dome.

But, more importantly, the current mantra that government-funded art must shrug off elitism and reach out to "new" audiences is based on a serious misconception: namely, that the arts in Britain are currently exclusive, and appeal only to a rich minority. It is not so. The arts in Britain are healthy, some would say healthier than they have been for decades, and even undergoing a renaissance. Tate Modern on London's South Bank has been such a soaring success that it is still impossible to see the actual works of art in any degree of comfort. From its opening in May until the end of June, the new gallery had more than a million visitors, around three times the expected number. No problem of access there, then.

Outside London, the newly opened Lowry gallery in Salford, Greater Manchester, has attracted more than twice the predicted number of visitors. Nor does the public perceive the arts as something remote and out of reach. A MORI research poll carried out for the Arts Council of England revealed that 63 per cent of people believe that their lives are enriched by the arts. Even in the lower-income groups, half of all adults participate in the arts, more than take part in sport. More than 60 million people a year visit museums, more than attend football matches. And more people play musical instruments than play football.

Shouldn't the government actually be worrying about whether football is "accessible" enough? Consider the BBC's recent failed bid to bring Match of the Day to our screens. With very few second thoughts, it committed £40m of taxpayers' money for one hour of football a week. The justification, in BBC terms, was the need to serve the perceived "tribe" of football lovers. Compare this with the Arts Council's efforts to squeeze out of government a quite inadequate £100m additional arts spending a year. Gerry Robinson, the chairman of the Arts Council, had to argue a detailed case of how such a sum would transform the lives of every man, woman and child in the country.

Government is driven by two fears. Neither is helpful to the future of the arts. First, it genuinely appears to fear that it would be elitist to subsidise the rich to attend theatres and opera. Second, it feels the tabloids yapping at its heels if a pile of bricks or an unmade bed turns out ever to have come into contact with a penny of subsidy. It should be more laid-back. Sir John is an elitist, but he is right that trying to justify arts spending by purporting to bring it to the masses will not bring about social inclusion. Nor will it generate good art.

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - What are we doing to our children?