Tiffany Jenkins: Art is for art’s sake, not fuelling the economy

Maria Miller. Picture: Getty
Maria Miller. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

MARIA Miller was appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport last September.

When she finally said something substantial about the culture part of her brief, in a keynote speech on the subject this week, it became clear why she has taken so long. Miller doesn’t get the arts.

The speech began with the right noises – “culture educates, entertains and it enriches” – but quickly took a wrong turn, concentrating on what culture can “deliver”, specifically for the economy, using sentences such as: “It allows us to build international relationships, forging a foundation for the trade deals of tomorrow.”

Hers is a very different understanding of the role of culture from that of the exploration of truth and beauty or questioning that I believe to be central. It is an approach that is relevant to Scotland because although cultural policy is devolved, culture doesn’t respect borders; what happens in the arts in England has an impact here and vice versa.

Crucially, it matters because of what happened with the funding body, Creative Scotland, where there was a major negative reaction against the organisation, in part due to an agenda that instructed the arts to be about the economy, framing them and understanding them in the language of business.

To her credit Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet secretary for culture and external affairs for Scotland, was reported on Twitter responding to Miller’s speech stating: “The Scottish Government does not see arts and culture as a commodity.” But although major change to the cultural funding landscape is afoot here, it is far from fixed or final. It continues to be an evolving situation.

Miller forcefully argued that the arts sector must make the case for public funding in the age of austerity by focusing on the economic – not artistic – value of culture. She told arts executives that they need to “hammer home the value of culture to our economy”. And in case anyone missed the point, she underlined: “Culture does not simply have a role to play in bringing about a return to growth … rather, it should be central to these efforts.”

That the arts are central to the economy is not an isolated idea, or a new one. It’s one that has widespread support, refuses to go away and needs to be challenged by as many voices as possible, as often as is necessary; especially in these financially pressured times, when it is all too easy to give in to short-term thinking to please those handing out the paltry sums.

It is a philistine approach that misses the value and point of culture. It is true that the Edinburgh festivals, for example, bring a strong financial return. There is a significant influx of people who eat, drink and are merry in bars, restaurants and shops, as well as buying millions of tickets.

But even in this case, the financial return is not the best thing about the festivals – or why people come back every year to perform or to watch. They do it because they love it, enjoy it and are driven to participate in something meaningful.

If we were to nurture only that which contributed to the economy it is likely that the safe, the tried and the tested would be funded. It is likely that the new, the risky and experimental would be avoided because the question would not be is it interesting, or good, but what is the expected return?

All the wrong questions of a piece, a writer and a producer would be asked. Accountants would do the programming. The bottom line would dominate.

The Edinburgh festivals show how culture can contribute, if it is respected as culture. But this is not the only reason for supporting them, far from it. Indeed, there are many cases of culture that create no monetary value, for anyone, ever at all, and which instead brings heartache and raises problems for artists and audiences. There is a reason for the cliché of the starving artist: it’s no way to get rich quick.

All this creativity, however, could also be great work, and the worthwhile focus of arts funding, arguably more important than any other. A great deal of art work will never create funds, will be difficult and never popular, but will be tremendously valuable.

What really grates about the argument that arts must be put in the service of the economy is not just that it is no way to think about culture, or that it will do nothing to solve the desperate economic crisis we are in, but just how disingenuous and cynical it is. Miller suggests that it is just a funding game and that the arts sector should simply play along to get the money.

This blames the Treasury for the failure of the sector to win the case for arts for arts’ sake. It avoids having the argument. It takes no responsibility for shaping the debate and capitulates without protest. But the fight over the work of Creative Scotland, which has had considerable success, shows that it is possible to change the script.

Let us not forget the economic climate in which the Arts Council was established. This was a period in the 1940s, after a devastating war, when Britain was in a dire financial situation. The funding body was set up not to use the arts to get the country out of the economic crisis, in the blunt instrumental terms they are discussed today, but to stimulate “the best” work.

Economist John Maynard Keynes, the council’s first chairman, wanted to bring forth a “creative renaissance” that was artist led, and acted at “arm’s length” from the government, a vision that I would have no trouble with if it were realised today.

Mary Miller ended her speech arguing that “the government wants participants – not bystanders”. We should be neither. Let us be worthy opponents. Putting the arts to work for the economy will cost too much.