That Old ACE in the Hole

In Dave’s Big Society there’s no room for dead wood and Cameron’s rightwing supporters have returned to an old dream: getting rid of the Arts Council. In this debate you have to admit that the devil has the best lines. Here’s Tim Worstall:

For that is what taxation comes down to in the end. If you don’t pay they will chase you, if they catch you they will jail you and if you run away from there then they will try and shoot you. So, as PJ O’Rourke didn’t quite point out, the acid test of whether something should be tax funded comes down to whether people should be shot for declining to fund it.

Which brings us to the Arts Council. Now I am a philistine, yes, but even I can see the value of an organisation which provides indoor work with no heavy lifting for the dimmer members of the upper middle classes. I just don’t see that people should be threatened with being shot for refusing to fund it. Therefore it should not be tax funded and that’s another half a billion quid off our collective backs.

Susan Hill goes into more detail:

There is absolutely no justification for using your tax money or mine to pay the small publishers of esoteric poetry or unreadable short stories to print books that sit in piles on warehouse shelves because nobody wants to buy them or to fork out for small arty magazines to which fifty people subscribe. There is none for subsidising ethnic minority street theatre, feminist rap, poets in pubs, political graffiti or any other so-called ‘Art’ in which only the participants and a few hangers-on are interested. The non-jobs in the Arts should all go too. Arts Advisers, Regional Arts Development Officers, Literature enablers, Political Correctness and Equal Rights in the arts enforcers.. get rid of them.

The threat of arts cuts has provoked a counterblast from bourgeois leftist writers arguing that the arts must be publicly funded because of their Improving Nature and Value that Cannot be Measured in Mere Gold. Conservatives may be right to suggest an unspoken additional motive of concern for the financial and professional interests of bourgeois leftists.

I have mixed feelings about the whole argument. The fact is, it’s not disputed by serious people that some art should be subsidised. Even Susan Hill is happy to fund the great orchestras. Free admission to museums and art galleries is undoubtedly a good thing and should also stay. And although Hill dismisses the ‘drop in the ocean’ argument, it remains true: why obsess over taking back £520 million from the arts when we could shut down the tax havens for an estimated £4 billion in revenue?

When it comes to Arts Council funding of the written word though, Hill is very persuasive:

Poets and writers in residence can go too, mainly because these  jobs invariably go to those who cannot make a proper living by selling their work in the marketplace. People in prison, psychiatric and other hospitals and children in schools deserve to have the very best practitioners visit them and teach them, the best musicians, painters, writers, poets, not the fourth rate, which is what they generally get because those are the people who cling onto the public sector arts jobs. With the money saved on dozens of ACE careerists we might be able to afford to send the best out there – the world class concert pianists, the best actors in the greatest plays, to have the greatest writers and painters both show their work and encourage and teach. Why not the Hockneys and the Heaneys?  How inspiring they would be to young people in inner cities and long-term prisoners. It is beyond patronising to assume they deserve only the fourth rate PC also-rans.

The campaign to save the UK film council was worth supporting because it has brought great British film to an international audience – think Bend It Like Beckham, In the Loop, Gosford Park. Now it’s been axed the UK industry is likely to return to its mean of shitty East End gangster films and Michael Winner productions. But I cannot point to a great British novel and say: ‘This would never have been published if it weren’t for Arts Council England’.

Here’s why. A sensible arts administration would operate on a grant policy that would give a certain amount of cash to a novelist who can prove that s/he has talent and is serious about writing. This could be assessed through the standard three chapters/synopsis submission policy that most agents use. A panel of writers and editors could approve or deny grants. ACE doesn’t do this. As far as I know it still has the market based policy of only funding novelists with professional buy-in.

In my experience ACE funding of poetry isn’t much better. I have been going to live arts events in Manchester for six years. I very quickly discovered that most of the ACE funded spoken word nights consisted of bland, dull and immature acts who had jumped the hoops and ticked the boxes to hold forth in sterile, smokeless venues. If you are a serious poetry fan in this city you go to the universities, or to the fantastic, vibrant spoken word nights elsewhere in the city. None of these have a hope in hell of getting an ACE grant but manage to put on excellent nights with little or no support. On rare occasions a pint glass will be passed around for donations towards venue hire and travel costs. I advise you to give generously.

For me it comes down to this. If the Arts Council can be reformed so that it actually funds and develops good art in this country then it should stay. Currently it doesn’t so it shouldn’t.

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