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22 September 2010

Cuts won’t do the arts any good

Don’t fall for the romance of the “struggling artist”.

By Sholto Byrnes

I know Nick Kenyon. I like Nick Kenyon — indeed, have done so right from the moment years ago when I was first introduced to the director of the Proms (as he then was) and said, “Oh, you’re Nicholas Drummond,” thus completely mixing his name up with that of his predecessor, John Drummond, a gaffe which might have provoked pursed lips in other quarters (not least because Drummond’s reputation was mixed, to say the least), but which Nick had the good grace to treat as a shared joke.

So I was rather alarmed to read the headline above the masthead in today’s Independent: “Nicholas Kenyon: Cuts will do the arts good”. Nick is now managing director of the Barbican, and as well as having run the Proms he is a former controller of Radio 3. His opinion carries weight. Fortunately, in the article in question, he argues no such thing.

The headline was in the historic newspaper tradition by which an article is reduced to the snappiest of soundbites, regardless of how well its content can support said reduction.

Nevertheless, the very idea that he might put forward such an argument has its root in the feeling that times of hardship produce great art. That somehow we might actually be encouraging a new Orwell to pen a Down and Out in Paris in London de nos jours if we forced writers to subsist on the rations of a contemporary plongeur, and that the only true artist is one who has suffered.

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At a time when every budget is under threat and when we appear to have a Culture Secretary (Jeremy Hunt, pictured above) who will not fight his corner as he ought, this is a very dangerous notion indeed. It is not one, however, that I have ever heard entertained by those who are deemed likely to benefit from this hardship. “A good spell of grinding poverty, that’s what I need to inspire me,” is not a sentiment common among the many artists I have met.

It may well be that many people feel that those who have chosen to pursue an artistic career have made their own bed, and now they must lie in it, without any further cushioning by the state. The Tory MP Terry Dicks was renowned for arguing against subsidising the arts in the 1980s and 1990s, though he was widely considered a philistine for doing so. I would merely point out that those beds are hard enough as it is, and have been for a long time.

There are internationally acclaimed jazz musicians in this country, for instance, who will be remembered long after they are dead, and whose work will continue to be taught in conservatoires around the world. However, many of them will have done very well if they’ve managed to average £25,000 a year over their lifetime.

The pianist Stan Tracey, for example, was house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s in its early years and was rated so highly by the jazz great Sonny Rollins that the saxophonist once asked, “Does anyone here realise just how good he is?” But Tracey found music so difficult and unremunerative that he almost retrained as a postman in the 1970s.

Another musician I know had toured with Peter Gabriel in the early 1990s, but by the summer the year after the gigs had ended still had no new work. Although he needed the money, he declared himself too depressed to sign on for the dole.

A couple of years ago I was a judge on an arts panel that awarded three successful applicants £15,000 a year each for three years. One of those we recognised had had national acclaim in the 1980s, but had since fallen on hard times. There was no diminution in the quality of his work. It had simply fallen out of favour as the fashions changed in the subsequent decades.

Whenever I hear anyone suggest that struggle is crucial to an artist’s output, I think of this clever, talented man, who had been reduced, when we met him, to living in the back of a white van.

So slash the budget for the arts if you have to, if the argument cannot be made that this is an area of our national life that should be spared the axe.

But please don’t let us hear any of this dangerous nonsense about it being for their benefit. Only those who don’t have to live in one think there’s any romance in the garret.