Soapbox theatre … the Young Vic

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” That’s what writer and critic Cyril Connolly reckoned in 1938. Back then of course he had yet to come across an Arts Council funding form. All these documents seem interested in is how you fit in with government social policy. Never mind the art, feel the diversity quotas.

So, is it time artists got together and elected their own parliament? That’s the issue under public debate at the Young Vic theatre tomorrow night.

Is there even anyone out there who still respects this 50-year-old funding body? Admittedly, it’s become hard to imagine art without the Arts Council. The nation’s high culture would surely collapse faster then banking system without government handouts. Where, for example, would the National Theatre find the £18m that makes up 38% of its revenue?

Amazingly, though, art did actually flourish before the Arts Council was founded in 1946. People acted, danced, painted and wrote. Some of that culture may have been clog dancing – but we shouldn’t be too judgemental. Today, however, the Arts Council looks more and more like a quaint, antiquated bureaucracy, blandly charged with “developing the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts”. Or, to put it another way, a salaried midwife to Westminster’s cultural largesse.

The Arts Council is of course supposed to have its blushing integrity guarded by a flimsy chastity belt known as the “arms length” doctrine. Funding decisions are supposed to be “taken by experts, not ministers”. But do they really believe they are safe from government molestation? The Arts Council’s chair, for example, is obliged to take “proper account of guidance provided by the secretary of state or the department”. Which translates as, “do as you’re told”.

I have no great problem with many of the covert political objectives with which the council is encumbered – accessibility, inclusivity and so on. I just don’t think the arts are the place to pursue them. It’s about time we got away from the Stalinist idea that art is a proper vehicle for social engineering. The best and probably only way to do this is an independent parliament of artists along the lines suggested by Mark Ravenhill on this blog back in May.

Obviously, any such parliament would have problems. How would it be constituted and voted for? Would it not lead to in-crowd cliques looking after number one? And, isn’t it far too easy to imagine a parliament of artists turning into a Tower of Babel – with all the delegates talking different languages and the whole edifice collapsing under the weight of its self-importance?

But let’s have a bit of faith. Maybe it would be good for artists to be responsible for how they use money taken from people with no interest in their work. It might even better represent the interests of those the government seeks to reach with its social policy. It could also be less patrician, with decisions made by minorities not for them.

The alternative is the continued dominion of grey, unaccountable bureaucrats.

Theatre Blog
Guardian

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