Austerity is Killing British Culture and Creativity

We asked Robert Hewison, author of <i>Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain</i> about the value of the arts and how cuts to funding are threatening the UK's cultural life.

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Jan 16 2015, 12:18pm

From Paul Weller saying that David Cameron isn't allowed to enjoy "Eton Rifles", to Irvine Welsh telling VICE that George Osborne is a "fucking twat" for ripping off Trainspotting in a speech, to John Prescott getting bodied by Chumbawumba's bucket of water at the Brit awards, art and politics have always had an awkward relationship.

But like it or not, the arts have been in a relationship with the British government since 1946 when a Royal Charter established the committee that would become The Arts Council of Great Britain. During the 1990s, under John Major and Tony Blair, they went official and the arts became a mainstream concern of the government with their own department. It was the era of Cool Britannia, Damien Hirst filleting sharks and Noel Gallagher snorting chang in the Queen's personal Downing Street toilet (something David Cameron probably isn't as worried about surrounded by Gary Barlow and Kirstie Allsopp). It was an era of increased investment, physically manifested in the opening of the Tate Modern. But with that came the taint of target setting and commercialisation. As relationships go, it was complicated.

And now, the thing that built art up is taking it back down. The headline of course, is the £83 million worth of funding cuts that the current government have committed to which Labour have matched. Beyond this, however, there are more corrosive shifts in principles, many set in motion by the New Labour government. Working class talent is being priced out, our education secretary thinks arts subjects hold students back, and creativity is increasingly being viewed as an individualistic, profiteering endeavour. And D:Ream told us things would only better.

So, the current generation of artists and creative is struggling to operate with little time and resources, under a government seemingly bent on stripping culture of any civil significance. Robert Hewison, academic and author of Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain, has called our era "The Age of Lead" – the crappy follow up to a golden era. A passage of time defined by the abandonment of functioning interaction between politics and culture. I read his book and asked him some questions about this cultural mess, both how we got here and how best we can climb out.

VICE: Arts are not seen by all as a legitimate focus of public spending. How would you justify its importance?
Robert Hewison: Since public spending on the arts in the UK has never been even as a much as one per cent of total government expenditure, it is hard to argue that they have ever been a "focus" of public spending. That said, without such public support for the arts and heritage as we do get, we would be in a far worse state than we already are. There is cultural health, just as there is a physical health, and both are public responsibilities. The arts and heritage tell us who we are, they are a way of celebrating what we are, but they also create a space where we can challenge the way we are, or are expected to be. I have absolutely nothing against commercial culture, but there has to be a free space that isn't governed by the bottom line. It is that shared space that I call in the book the public realm. Public funding for the arts is one of the ways to guarantee its continued existence, and of giving everyone the opportunity to explore and contribute to it.

Your book casts an image of Tony Blair that is pretty complicated, shallowly engaging with art he didn't really care about, and you also impress his Thatcherite tendencies: backing the "arts that pay" not the "arts that cost"? Given that his government spear-headed what we now know as arts funding, how harmful do you think New Labour's approach was?
The book explores the paradox that while Blair's government did indeed substantially increase funding for culture – albeit from a low base – it did so not because it thought that the arts and heritage were especially important in themselves, but rather because it thought culture would serve the government's social and economic agenda. This was what I call the "Faustian bargain" that tied culture into a regime of measures and targets that destroyed the trust on which creativity depends. Culture does bring social and economic benefits, but it does so on its own terms.

You describe the golden era of Cool Britannia and the years that followed it as making art a pretty exclusive affair. Is this class-divide still a problem in how we view the arts?
Cool Britannia was an attempt to say that all forms of culture, both popular and "high" culture, were "cool". As you will know, to claim to be cool is the uncoolest thing you can do, and the pop world was the first to claim betrayal by the New Labour government. The problem is that to enjoy most forms of culture – including pop music – you need some kind of knowledge and experience. Education is the portal to cultural enjoyment, and in Britain cultural education tends to be a matter of class education. Everyone should have access to culture and they don't. But to offer people cultural experiences you also have to offer them the means to enjoy those experiences, and our class-ridden culture doesn't do that. That is why I have a rather nerdy chapter devoted to showing that the [class] make-up of the audience for the arts, as defined by the government, has hardly changed.

You've talk about the problem with centralised government, how important are local authorities in creating culture?
They are absolutely vital. They maintain the cultural infrastructure of the country – libraries, museums, theatres, concert halls, arts centres – and until the recession they spent as much or more than the Arts Council on supporting cultural activity. Regional differences are essential if you are going to have a fruitful and diverse cultural ecology. Everyone pays a tiny fraction of their taxes to support the arts and heritage, and everyone should have access to culture, wherever they live. The Coalition is in the process of destroying the capacity of local authorities to support local culture. It is cutting culture at the roots.

Do you see London's role changing?
London is becoming, not just a world city, but a City State. That is great for Londoners, and for London's creativity, but I think we are reaching a tipping point after which few creatives will actually be able to live in the city. London will become a giant international restaurant – great for cultural consumption, but production will dry up or be imported.

Broadly speaking, how harmful has this coalition government been for arts and culture in this country?
It has been as damaging for the arts as it has been for every aspect of civil society. And it hasn't even achieved what it set out to do in economic terms. That's why I call this the Age of Lead.

Robert Hewison debates future care of our nation's heritage (Photo by Kirsty Pitkin)

Could it be said that art benefits from individualism and lack of state involvement? While you don't celebrate Thatcherism, your book does seem to acknowledge that a reliance on the state does not foster ideal conditions for art.
There is very little to celebrate about Thatcher, in fact nothing at all, since her regime brought in the neoliberal free-for-all that we are now having to pay for. She began the privatisation of the public realm. It is true that under Thatcher and Major a new generation of artists – notably Saatchi's Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst – learned to duck and dive, but it was the increase in state funding and facilities [that came later] – think of Tate Modern – that gave them the platform and the possibilities to profit.

In his talk for BAFTA a couple of years ago, Armando Iannucci tackled James Murdoch's statement that "the only reliable, durable, guarantor of independence is profit", and suggested that this is completely counter-intuitive to both art and business. Iannucci instead proposed that we should perceive the only reliable, durable, guarantee of profit as independence. This idea returned to me throughout your book. Is it possible to create culture without a bottom line?
It would be nice to think we could have a non-capitalist culture in a capitalist society, but don't hold your breath. What I do believe is that culture and commerce are separate, but overlapping, spheres. Neoliberalism treats us as solitary, mutually competitive, profit-seeking individuals. While it is true that art is often made by exceptional, and competitive individuals, culture is a collective, and essentially non-competitive experience. Economic value is individual, cultural value is collective. Yes, culture has economic value, but the mistake of both New Labour and the Coalition has been to see it in only economic terms – and setting targets for some theoretical bottom line. The economic benefits will come – look at the way the Creative Industries have been growing – but not if you put profit first. Iannucci is right, creativity needs independence, and it also needs trust.

What needs to change to enable people to afford to produce culture? How can people who aren't being bankrolled by a trust-fund become artists?
We could start by putting the arts back into public education, especially in schools. We should stop our universities – and especially art schools – behaving like corporations. We should stop internships being branches of the Bank of Mum and Dad. Above all, we should realise that this country depends on its creativity, and that the way we are treating the rising generation is putting our creative future at risk.

Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain by Robert Hewison is published by Verso

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