This piece appeared on Dilettante on 21 May

Interesting to read Arts Council Chief Alan Davey’s comments in Wednesday’s The Stage about the need for the arts to make a rational argument in defence of their funding. And Davey’s right: in these straitened times – with ‘tough choices’ being made all around – every penny of government spending is under the microscope, so the arts need to show what they’re giving back besides a jolly good time. (By the way, a sloppy kiss and a bottle of wine – the good kind – goes to anyone who can find a politician who’s ever referred to ‘easy choices’.) In fact, Davey’s remarks echo those made by Simon Jenkins at January’s State of the Arts debate, which we mentioned in our pre-election rant about the cultural sector’s contribution to the UK economy.

Enough said on that front, then. What’s more interesting about the current debate is how much the terms of reference differ from those underlying the rationale for arts funding under the Labour government. Admittedly, just a few short years ago, the sight of all of those Maybachs cruising the streets of London persuaded some of us that money truly was in plentiful supply; we just had to figure out how to get our hands on it. Here’s how it worked: under Tony Blair, the government was happy to fund culture as long as they could de-fang the philistines by illustrating that art has an instrumental purpose: tackling knife crime, for instance, or better still curing cancer.

In other words, not art for art’s sake – or for the sake of the economy, even – but art to fix things that are broken. And you can see the appeal of this approach to a Prime Minister who went on to exhibit missionary zeal when it came to fixing other countries’ problems without waiting to be asked. Consequently, virtually every subsidised arts organisation in the land was required to justify their existence by undertaking community outreach programmes, educational initiatives and the like, aimed at helping young offenders, psychiatric patients, the chronically unemployed and anyone else perceived to be ‘marginal’, ‘at risk’, or otherwise in need.

Now that it turns out we were ‘living beyond our means’ and the only people with money were investment bankers gambling with our grandparents’ pensions, this prosaic instrumentalism has been cast aside as a rather fanciful social experiment. In its place comes Scrooge hunched over his abacus, reincarnated in the form of the boyish Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his cheeky sidekick Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister with special responsibility for broadband and giving us a laugh. And instead of declining recidivism rates and proof that drop-outs are heading back to school, this brave new world is set to a score marked with pianissimo inputs and fortissimo outputs.

As luck would have it, many on the music side of the arts world are old hands at sight reading, a skill that will clearly come in very handy over the next 18 months. After that, of course, all bets are off as we once again blow with the economic and political wind hoping to discern the ‘right’ answer to the question, ‘what good are the arts today?’

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