Issue 214
August/September/October 2020

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Sep 20, 2020

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A freedom to let go of the past?

Nick Jones considers the opportunities unexpectedly opened up by the chaos of the pandemic to re-think the way we look at support for the arts – especially if £1.5billion is on offer

THE GOVERNMENT'S announcement in July that it would inject around £1.5 billion into the arts economy was welcomed by the 'industry'. It recognised that Britain is an important player in the global cultural economy, worth supporting for the good of the country's image and bank balance. Cities like London and Edinburgh rely on foreign tourists coming to see, hear and experience some of the best contemporary culture, often at considerable cost.

Unfortunately it came too late to save the jobs of a great many employed by hapless orchestras, theatres, museums and galleries struggling to survive in straightened times. Nor did it offer much for the majority of creative people who are self-employed.

The relationship between artist and patron has always been edgy. Beethoven scratched out the dedication of his Eroica symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte in fury and despair when he realised the great champion of freedom was just another dictator.

Then he walked away from his chief benefactor, Liknowsky, famously saying: "Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labour. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven."

In our time, the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei left China to live in this country to retain his independence and freedom of expression. Both men reflect the value we give to individual artists, but it was not always thus, and perhaps now, as we face ongoing uncertainty and upheaval, it's time to review the significance of the lone artist to our culture, and reconsider the alternatives

Writing in The Death and Resurrection of the Arts, four decades ago, John Lane considered creative individualism to reflect a relatively short period since the Renaissance, coinciding wspitalist economy when art and artists embodied and expressed humanity's increasing isolation, alienation, and separation from each other, nature, and the spirit. Just like lock-down.

Lane goes on: "As the dominant paradigm of art in western culture loses its authority the symphony, the proscenium play, the domestic novel and gallery painting will inevitably lose their present hold on our imagination. The great western tradition of art has ceased to communicate anything to the majority of people. We should let it go."

He felt we were witnessing the death throes of art, quoting William Morris: "I do not want art, education or freedom for a few. Rather than art live a thin poor life among a few, despising those beneath them for an ignorance for which they themselves are responsible, I would the world should sweep away all art for a while."

Opportune words in a time of much sweeping, cleansing and sanitising. What if artists were anonymous, as in the Middle Ages, when there was little distinction between artist and craftsman? What if artistic creativity was integral to everyday life, rather than an optional extra for the few?

Shouldn't everyone have opportunities to be creative? Establishments don't like changes, especially ones that enable their subjects to think creatively, question, challenge even. Be it religious elite, state, royalty or dictatorship, they all want control of the arts, emasculating anything potentially dangerous, subversive or disruptive.

Hitler's repression of 'Degenerate Arts' and Stalin's 'Social Realism' did it in crude, blatant, and ultimately counter-productive ways.

The British are more subtle, linking cultural success and recognition to wealth and power.

Victorian theatres arranged division into private boxes for affluent culturati, uncomfortable seats for the upwardly mobile, and standing room or separate entrances for the hoi-poloi.

Until 2020 the arts 'experience' continued to be very successfully marketed to the world's upwardly mobile as a must-have cultural commodity, fuelling countless flights, bed-nights, and tickets to exhibitions, performances, festivals, 'iconic' buildings and heritage sites.

Carbon footprint considerations apart, this model looks so last year now. When Hamlet, that great individual, observed "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!", he articulated a deeper need.

The hunger to worship at the altar of past cultures suggests an emptiness that material well-being cannot fill, a desire to rediscover and re-define aspects of our humanity lost or suppressed when people are reduced to numbers at best, collateral damage at worst.

So, back to the drawing board, but where next? Crises breed opportunities, and creative solutions. The beauty of the current uncertainty is that, by definition, it embodies a freedom to let go of the past.

Accepting this creates the space and silence essential for the new and unexpected to be seen and heard. Noticing, speculating, imagining and creating – all qualities that both artists and scientists excel in. They're the ones to watch, support and invest in, encouraging joint collaborations for the good of people and planet.

A £1.5 billion short term fix for traditional culture rooted in the past is good, but at least the same for creative innovation and experiment for a better future would be so much better.

Over to you, Rishi!


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An extensive new preface by the Ross Herald of Arms, Charles Bunnett, Chamberlain of Duff House