I enjoyed myself immensely yesterday watching George Osbourne deliver his humanity-free speech to the Conservative Party conference. ‘Twas the usual stuff about keeping investment appeal high and questing tirelessly for the almighty Grail of zero debt. There was, of course, the occasional heartfelt assurance that Boy George and the rest of his Eton chums are “all in this together” with us, which presumably means I can expect a government subsidy soon to enjoy the kind of modest holiday that Osbourne is wont to embark upon.
Osbourne delivered all of this with the smackable smirk of a spoiled child who just got away with stealing his little brother’s lollipop. Nonetheless, I must confess some guilty enjoyment at Osbourne’s lambasting of Ed Miliband’s weirdly Manichean plan to create a kind of moral Star Chamber for businesses. Miliband’s scheme would have Government loftily sifting the ‘good’ businesses from the ‘bad’ businesses; or as the Phlegmatic One put it, “separating the producers from the predators.” Osbourne painted a humourous picture of Miliband “with a copy of the Guardian in one hand and the FT in another,” his ample brow furrowed as he pondered which businesses to smite and which to reward.
The Good Business/Bad Business idea is ridiculous stuff, of course, precisely because its moral centre is so obviously correct as to render it entirely unworkable, even conceptually, in a world where politicians quake at the notion of applying any significant fetters to the global money machine, even as it continues to have its way with us. ‘Moral capitalism’ is an oxymoron: the market is the morality, and thus ever shall it be even as the entire system continues to shake itself apart. Marx must be laughing in his grave.
Ironically, one fall-out of all this happy capitalism is that the UK’s cultural industries are being scrutinised, assessed, rated and measured in a Good/Bad-ish manner that would send the average banker screaming for the door. Given this, I wonder how might we judge who, amongst arts and culture organisations, are the ‘predators’ and who are the ‘producers’? Is a ‘predator’ arts organisation one that hoovers up all the grants in sight by virtue of its popularity and/or well-established product, thereby starving smaller, more interesting art? Are ‘producers’ defined by quantity (as in, bums on seats), quality or efficiency? Is there a fourth standard, consistent with Red Ed’s scheme, wherein ‘producers’ are those who employ local talent?
Then there is the worrying likelihood that many organisations are both predator and producer, at least by Milibandian standards. Those organisations who prove best at attracting audiences and money might also be the ones who job in their ‘art’ (case in point: the National Gallery…all those foreign painters!) and thereby do relatively little to grow the local ‘cultural economy.’
This wide-swinging analogy exercise is just that, of course, but only to a point. In the brave new austerity universe–which looks to be with us for awhile–the organisations who make the most noise or attract the largest audiences are increasingly likely to be the same organisations who get the money and thus survive. The space for smaller organisations, or even for larger ones that toil at the avant-garde, will grow ever smaller. This isn’t government policy but it might well end up being just that: consider David Cameron’s Commons remarks last November when he lauded the Harry Potter films as sterling examples to the UK film industry, which he admonished to make more “films that people want to see.” In the PM’s mind, at least, Harry Potter is Good Art; one shudders to think what he considers to be bad.
The film and publishing industries are increasingly making these kind of draconian assessments, weeding out what is ‘good’–meaning, instantly popular and profit-returning–from what is ‘bad’. And what of theatre, visual art, music, and dance? Despite criticisms, I think the Arts Council surely did its best last year in determining who stayed and who went in the ranks of NPOs/RFOs. But if Government has its way, the Arts Council will be less and less influential in determining the future of the nation’s cultural landscape.
Instead, funding (and influence) will head into the marketplace, which doesn’t tend to have particular tolerance for ambiguity or risk, at least in the artistic sense. There will be Good Arts Organisations and Bad Arts Organisations, based not least on survival, which will prove harder year after year: private philanthropy likes winners and bets on unknowns far more rarely than does the Arts Council. Increasingly, ‘good’ art will be that which is funded and ‘bad’ art that which never sees the light of day.
It would be a stretch too far to say that exciting, dynamic, challenging art would cease to exist in such a scenario. But, sadly, it isn’t a stretch to say that it may well not happen here.