Jeremy Hunt, the new minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), chose to begin his first speech on the arts by comparing himself to Shakespeare’s incarnation of Henry IV. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” he chortled (although no one else did).
So what has the new king of culture got planned? Fortunately, as any Tory minister should, Hunt is going to share the pain of spending cuts. Over the summer he announced that, even before the autumn spending review, he was slashing his in-house departmental budget by between 35 and 50 percent. What better proof that “we’re all in it together”? After sacking swathes of his own staff, Jeremy will no doubt be forced to do some of his own filing.
Yet DCMS already has one of the smallest budgets of any government department – £2.1 billion. That compares with more than £36 billion lavished on defence.
The main funding body for arts and culture in England is Arts Council England (ACE). They’ve just had their funding cut by £19 million by Hunt’s department – and that’s just the first round. As many as 880 frontline arts organisations will be hit by this initial cut, although ACE has been able to mitigate the impact by dipping into its reserve funds. Further cuts – certainly anything approaching the Treasury’s required minimum of 25 percent – will undoubtedly spell doom for swathes of publicly funded galleries, theatre companies and the like.
But the government is confident that the private sector will take up the slack – so confident in fact that it is also cutting back the “Arts and Business” section of ACE, a body that encourages philanthropy.
ACE has published its own pitch in “Why the Arts Matter”. Many of the arguments it presents are clearly designed to appeal to the Tories’ bloodthirsty economic liberalism – there’s a lot of guff about entrepreneurialism, even a reference to the “Big Society”. Yet at the heart of all this is a rather different argument.
The Arts Council was preceded by the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), which began as a privately funded organisation aiming to support arts organisations during the Second World War. On its board sat one John Maynard Keynes. Under his influence, the CEMA soon developed into a publicly funded body and was renamed the Arts Council in 1946.
Since its inception, the Arts Council – and its funding – has been hotly contested, particularly in times of economic contraction. After all, why should the government bother to pay for art at a time when essential public services are being slashed?
Of course, Keynes was not an opponent of capitalism – he was primarily concerned with safeguarding the health of the system. It was obvious to the ruling class after the war that without decent healthcare and education, a healthy, competent workforce could not be maintained. But do people really need art and culture?
The truth is that there is plenty of money available to not only educate people and take care of them when they’re sick, but also enrich people’s lives through culture, art and music. But this only makes sense if we challenge the Tories’ fanatical devotion to profit and to privatising social provision.
To defend cultural spending means to reject the notion that we are just cogs in a profit-producing machine that only need to be well oiled by basic healthcare and benefits.
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