Beck's beer has sponsored "unsponsorable" artists for years. So why can't Tony Blair do the same?

Art in Britain is getting a terrific injection of energy at the moment. Tate Britain opened on 23 March (partying and dancing till late - well, midnight!), the Lowry Centre opens at Salford Quays, and the biggest of all, Tate Modern, is set to dazzle all visitors in May. I had a tiny part in choosing the architect for Tate Modern - appraising plans with an untutored eye, I kept insisting that there should be a creche and asking where it might be - so I feel slightly proprietorial about it all. The views are magnificent, the galleries full of the right kind of light (the light that artists like) and the huge spaces opening into the Turbine Hall have a scale and grandeur to match St Paul's. But sadly, for visitors with toddlers or even for staff with children, there is, after all, no creche.

Buildings, however grand, don't generate great art. Only artists can do that. But, the artistic life being so hazardous, they need more than routine support. Angela Flowers - the earth mother of modern art - has been nurturing her artists for 30 years. Flowers East in London Fields, now run by her son Matthew, is a place of warmth and good friendship as well as fine pictures. Its welcome makes the trek across London, the traffic jams on the Holloway Road and Dalston Junction just bearable. We bundle in to see the latest paintings by John Keane. Called Making a Killing, they are sequenced portraits of Rupert Murdoch, Charles Saatchi and Princess Diana. Keane is a political painter saying strong things with the fluency and dash of his loaded brush. He painted the Gulf War for the Imperial War Museum, paintings of such savage brilliance they prompted a tabloid frenzy of disapproval. But his trilogy of burned bodies from the Basra Road carnage are as powerful and disturbing as Goya's Disasters of War.

And so to the ICA, where the performance artist Hayley Newman is pouring water from one jar into another, the two being set on electronic weighing scales to trigger a sound sequence. I was around in the sixties when the ICA was up to the same sort of thing. Much of it is baffling, but art needs a bit of bafflement to stop the mind or the eye getting lazy. The show is called "Beck's Futures", a new arts prize whose existence owes much to the wily persuasiveness of Anthony Fawcett, a sponsorship consultant, who has kept Beck's beer sponsoring the unsponsorable for 15 years.

So if Beck's can support artists, why can't Tony Blair? For months, this government has come down resolutely against the interests of working artists by opposing the European directive that allows them to benefit each time their work is resold . . . a simple royalty bringing them into line with writers. For the artists, the sums would be tiny each time, a mere 4 per cent on sales. But the people who organised to oppose it were the very people who make millions from the art market: the auction houses. Their lobby, the British Art Market Federation, made a song and dance about Britain losing out . . . not quite so many millions in their pockets, you see. Artists - who actually have the inspiration, put up with early struggle and find it hard to sustain their commitment through difficult years - don't get anything. The Europeans feel that that isn't fair and are changing it. Tony fell instead for the smooth-talking auction salesmen. Now artists in Britain must wait 15 years before they are rewarded on a par with Europe.

I take the regular morning train to Manchester for the last time. Heart of the Matter comes from Manchester's BBC North - despite being recorded in Bushey, Herts - and I am travelling there for my last planning meeting. As usual, the train stops at Stockport and I have time to gaze down into Mersey Square, so familiar in my youth, so unfamiliar to me now. But not everything has changed. There stands the huge edifice of the Plaza Cinema, gem of art deco, now sadly closed, its white stone grey and dingy. When I was growing up there, Stockport had at least 15 cinemas and I knew each one. The Plaza was the grandest, built in 1932, with a magnificent organ. It fell to bingo in the 1960s, but behind the bingo trappings, all the original decor is still there. Now various heritage bodies are trying to save it. The same is true for the Rex Cinema in Berkhamsted, where a trust is busy raising local sympathy and funds. You really feel your age when the playgrounds of your youth become heritage sites.

Who would ever have thought, in the drab sixties collapse, that cinema would boom once again? Somehow, though, it's happened. There's a boom in film-making, too. Alarmingly so. British film production in 1997 included 59 films that earned less than £100,000 at the UK box office and 36 films that were never released. The suspicion is strong that the films simply weren't good enough.

This is the dilemma for the newly created British Film Council. In my new role as its chair, I meet fellow council members on Tuesday to grapple with the enormous problems confronting the industry. How can state funding underpin a viable industry in which personal judgement and public taste are such volatile elements.

To steady my nerve, I have been to Camden Parkway's Odeon to see Michael Mann's The Insider, and to the National Film Theatre for Raul Ruiz's Time Regained. Both are flawed, but so blazingly full of creative purpose and dedication that my spirits are restored.

Yes, films are more than passing entertainment. They influence how we see the world and how we think about ourselves.

I emerge from the darkened halls, with a singing heart.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - How we have lost the joy of sex