Saturday 10 October 2020

Why do the Tories Hate the Arts?

Not all of the arts, obviously. Recalling the time when Sir George Young said "The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you came out of the opera?", the arts are consumed and enjoyed by Tories too. Indeed, it is a component of ruling class reproduction. Art helps cohere our social betters around cultural practices typically not open to nor easily accessible by the uncultured hoi polloi. Secondarily it offers a living to the offspring of bourgeois dynasties if the family business isn't their bag. Big names open doors as a matter of right, while the unconnected and anonymous are cut out. This exclusion has tightened up these last 20 years as living standards have stagnated and social mobility has slowed to a crawl. If anything, the Coronavirus crisis is exacerbating poor state of affairs.

Earlier in the year, dishy Rishi received criticism for leaving many cultural workers outside the scope of the furlough scheme because large numbers working in the arts are self-employed contractors living from gig to gig. With no employer or steady income, the system the Tories set up was blind to people in these positions. As the government initially refused to do anything, the Arts Council raided its reserves and stumped up £160m in emergency funding. They were able to distribute over £100m in grants before the government announced a £1.5bn package in July, but it was clear Arts council support was a drop in the ocean. In April, 42% of creative businesses had an income of zero, for instance. The later round of funding, which responded to some concerns, offered grants of up to £3m to arts organisations - though not before some went to the wall. Furthermore, of this package only £2m was set aside for freelancers. Some cracks were papered over as yawning chasms were eft unfilled.

And soon we come to the end of furlough. Those organisations able to avail themselves of the scheme are looking at a huge wave of lay offs at the end of the month, something Sunak's slimmed down successor scheme is primed to do little about. For instance, his announcement in late September to partially subsidise wages only counts if an employee can work at least a third of their hours, which are covered by the employer, and both they and the government will cover the unworked hours. At a stroke, live venues will be destroyed because workers can't work and firms can't cover their wages. Only if they're situated in a place where additional local Coronavirus restrictions are in force does something like the old system come into play. In short, the Tories are precipitating cultural desertification.

Why? As Tim Burgess points out, you would think the economic numbers the arts and creative industries do would have the Tories as their biggest cheerleaders. Almost 300,000 jobs in music, performance, and the visual arts and a turnover of £5bn. Creative industries themselves were worth £101.5bn in 2019, with export earnings of £13.2bn in 2016. Post-Brexit Britain needs those monies, no?

There's a rule of thumb when talking about Tory policymaking and statecraft. If one of their governments makes a poor decision but rectifies on the basis of evidence and representations by the people affected, then fair enough. But if they keep making harmful choices, or do/don't do something in defiance of the evidence, then something else is happening. We're talking about the interests the Tories represent. In recent days, we've seen how the chancellor's Covid strategy is guided by ideology, which coincidentally maps onto several overlapping and contradictory interests and stakes the Tories express. This is no less true with the arts.

For one thing, there's basic prejudice. As Dominic Cummings reminded us on a Zoom conference with Sam Mendes, he said "the fucking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue." We see it too with Gavin Williamson's preoccupation with "low quality courses" in universities, which always happen to be the arts and humanities. This animus comes from a suspicion art is idling and indolent, which is fine if mummy and daddy are picking up the tab, but not so if below stairs people are having a go. Why should they have the privilege of going from gig to gig, or from show to show when there are strawberries to be picked and potatoes to be plucked? The Tories have long wanted to shake down the labour market to force people into low paying but necessary jobs, and refusing adequate support is one way of doing it.

An economistic explanation is far from the totality of the matter. Old Adorno was onto something when he talked about the liberatory potentials of high art, but this is a property common to the creative process. Creating something, a piece of music, a poem, designing a game, abutts the possible and expands its horizon, transforming the author in the process. This taking place on a mass basis is utterly crucial for 21st century capitalism, but is corrosive of the political settlement the Tories defend. For them, artistic production is the preserve of the (preferably bourgeois) few, and are content for the many to be passive consumers of mass culture. The prospect of millions raising their cultural horizons can, and does, popularise an antipathy to the stultifying and boring character of work. It raises the prospect of mass critique and, as we're on a Frankfurt tip, the possibilty of mass refusal a la Marcuse. Furthermore, creativity on a mass scale is inherently collaborative and spurns the proprietory character and atomism of the governance forms the Tories have inculcated and interpellated for the last 40 years.

The Tories hate the arts because they fear the arts. It's a gut feeling, but their instincts are correct. The arts are critical and unpredictable, refuses the containment of boxes to be ticked, and can raise our collective gaze from what is to what might be. Art comments on and strains the disciplinary limits of their system, and offers a reflective means for perceiving ourselves and our societies. Sensibilities unsuited for a vision of Britain in which workers are drones, and endless wage labour is the best the many can ever hope for. Limiting art, cutting us off from it, reifying it is inseparable from a managerial problematic for the preservation of their settlement. This is why the Tories hate the arts, and why they're supremely relaxed to see the country's artistic and creative infrastructure die. It's never a matter of economics and numbers. It's always about the class politics.


Robert Dyson said...

Yes, although I have spent a long lifetime in math/science I treasure the humanities. They give us stories to better understand the range of human motivations and how societies work and can be changed. That's why Libaries were so important for the Labour movement. We can read biographies that show us how creating in the arts has transformed both the creator and appreciator (I will avoid 'consumer').

Anonymous said...

'Harmless' arts are OK – they don't rock any boats. An exhibition of, say, wallpaper patterns would be OK, provided in didn't stray into what people in squats decorated their walls with.

MiceElf said...

So true. Anything which liberates the spirit is anathema to them. Thank for articulating this so lucidly.

Paul Moriarty said...

The arts are humane and express empathy with society. They hold a mirror up to nature and Tories don't like what they see.Thatcher withdrew grants to many independent theatre groups. Bullies hate independent thought.

Dolphinkrishna said...

Superb, perceptive article

Unknown said...

Having spent quite a lot of time round graphic artists, I appreciate they feel under supported. But does the State have a part to play, to give those who wish to create, any more support than those who wish to angle?
To claim the arts as supporting all that is good in society, and to accuse the Tories any more than Labour or Bolshevism of ignoring the arts is the usual chorus of the liberated artists. Perhaps the levelling of society, has eliminated those who had the means and taste to support Art has been the greatest blow.
The State as Universal Provider?
Well you can supplicate, but don't expect freedom of expression. Bean-counters will demand value for money and we can expect the chorus to swell from those whom are left out.

Anonymous said...

Great article---I hope someone writes a contemporary panto-opera about Cummings (he makes the perfect villain) and there are ballet sequences in it!Come on Lord Weber!!!

Michael P Trevallion said...

Reminds me of a training day in the early nineties in Brum funded by the government. About eight of us English teachers from various secondary schools and colleges were asked to confer about the 'relevance' literature has for business. The guy running the workshop and setting the task was a young male mid-aged short back and sides business type. You can guess the next 40 minutes of head scratching after he left us to it. DH Lawrence? Naw. Upton Sinclair? Naw. Timon of Athens? Naw. Kate Chopin? Naw. Tolstoy? Naw. Chas Dickens? Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? George Eliot? The Waste Land? Pound 'An old bitch gone in the teeth...a heap of broken images?' ...When the guy popped back all expectant, we eyed up this specimen of an alien species. Mutual Untranslatability. Watched him depart totally baffled. The biccies were okay though.😎