The big art sell-off

The effect of David Cameron’s “big society” will be to drive artists and performers into the arms of

Apparently, we must all tighten our belts. That's easy for David Cameron to say, cycling and being all trim. I've put on two stone in the past three years of touring, but it's not only my waistline that needs squeezing.

If you read between the lines of the "big society" manifesto, Dave seems to be encouraging charity organisations to take on many of the social services currently provided by the government. There may be some logic in getting us to take responsibility for ourselves; Dave himself is a good example of someone who has made it to the top of society on his own initiative despite a difficult start in life.

But the problem with expecting charities, philanthropists and religious groups to pick up the slack is that they often have their own agenda. I remember a local London news moment in which an evangelical church coalition, encouraged by the mayor to help tackle gun crime, cited homosexuality as one of its causes. Those gays! Shooting everyone up. With their guns.

Obviously, compared to the Uzi-fuelled turf war raging outside my Hackney window, the future of the arts in the big society is not terribly important. But as arts budgets are slashed, it seems that we artists (and I use the word loosely, as I am a stand-up comedian) will have to get used to making Faustian pacts with private donors and big corporations.

This is not as simple as it seems. An arts charity of which I am a patron (have I mentioned that I do secret, behind-the-scenes work for charity?) recently asked me if I'd meet someone from a big supermarket about funding. But when the writs hit the fan over Jerry Springer: the Opera, a multi-award-winning live piece I co-wrote the words for at the National Theatre, the same supermarket withdrew DVDs and CDs of the show from its shelves. Right-wing religious groups had threatened a boycott. (As a result, I make a point of shoplifting one small item whenever I visit the store.)

How would this big backer react if the going got tough? Art can be a slippery thing, its meaning often opaque, its intent sometimes unclear. It's not necessarily compatible with shifting baked beans, even the low-fat ones that we all must now eat.

Artists are sensitive creatures who may feel compromised by sponsorship. At a Tate Britain party this summer, protesters celebrated the gallery's 20-year relationship with BP by sloshing around treacle (doubling for crude oil), as arts grandees politely applauded their right to do so and munched their globally warmed canapés. In the fallout, Grayson Perry said that corporate funding for the arts was vital. But Mark Ravenhill, the former enfant terrible and current homme terrible of British theatre, proposes a big-society-type audit solution to arts institutions' corporate development departments: slash them if it can't be proven that the money they raise outweighs their running costs. The Raven suggests that corporate arts culture means artists hear more feedback from bankers' spouses than from consumers of culture.

In stand-up, we have our own teacup-tempest version of this debate. For the past 30 years at the Edinburgh Fringe, there has been an annual award for comedy. This year, Foster's lager has picked up its sponsorship. Foster's also recently became the sponsor of Channel 4 comedy. In June, the beer's logo appeared before a Jack Whitehall routine in which the young comic questioned the point of paying for the surround-sound experience of the South African World Cup, making it feel like you were there - as it would just mean you got Aids and had your TV nicked. Technically, it's a neat enough joke. But I used to like Foster's. Now, it makes me think of babies with Aids.

Divine consternation

Attempting to link the Fringe comedy awards with the Foster's brand, the organisers have invited the public to vote online for a "Comedy God", drawn from nearly 200 past nominees, with little video evidence of the majority of them for the benefit of the conscientious voter who didn't attend the past 30 Fringes. Pre­sumably, no one was asked if they minded their name being used to drive traffic to a Foster's website.

It's just a bit of summer fun, said the organisers, after I sent them a rude 12.30am email in a fit of rage. But it isn't. The way public polls work, whoever is now the best-known comedian in Britain among internet users - Michael McIntyre, say, or Russell Howard - will probably win, and the sponsor will be happy to its profile raised by association, at the expense of hundreds of other artists who never agreed to be part of a Foster's marketing exercise. I suggested that Frank Chickens, a Japanese performance-art duo nominated in 1984, might be the best act on the list but would not get any votes because the public hadn't heard of them.

And yet, in the age of Twitter, Frank Chickens are now leading the field. It's not impossible, come 25 August, that corporate money might be used to highlight Kazuko Hohki's three-decade career of idiosyncratic multimedia live art, rather than an already wealthy, chat-show-friendly stand-up who might have been an easier fit with the Foster's brand. If state funding is to fall and the corporate money is out there, the question is: can we find some way to use it for our own ends?

Stewart Lee will perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 4-30 August. His new book, "How I Escaped My Certain Fate", is published by Faber & Faber.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy