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Thursday, June 3, 2004

Here's a useful thought

Tessa Jowell of the UK's Department for Culture, Media, and Sport has a bit of a radical thought for a government funder: perhaps our 'public purpose' approach to funding and fostering the arts for their instrumental benefits is missing the point entirely. In a bullet-point essay she published in May, she offers a thoughtful argument about how the discussion and direction of government support for the arts have gotten so far off track:

Too often politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas -- education, the reduction of crime, improvements in wellbeing -- explaining -- or in some instances almost apologising for -- our investment in culture only in terms of something else. In political and public discourse in this country we have avoided the more difficult approach of investigating, questioning and celebrating what culture actually does in and of itself. There is another story to tell on culture and itís up to politicians in my position to give a lead in changing the atmosphere, and changing the terms of debate.

In a supportive essay about Jowell's perspective, columnist James Fenton provides a parable on how instrumental arguments for the arts can distort and distract from their true nature:

Supposing you were a potter, and you went to your bin of clay and scooped out a lump, and threw it on a wheel, and took the result, and baked it, and glazed it, and baked it again, and at this point the minister [of culture] arrived and asked what you were up to, and you had the wit to say, 'I am attacking adult illiteracy' -- you would be a very savvy potter indeed. This is precisely the kind of potter the government has been on the look-out for. This is the kind of rhetoric they have wished to reward.

The other large target for Jowell's essay is the buzzword and public goal of 'access' to the arts. Access is a wonderful thing, she believes. But without an equally public emphasis on the quality of the work, access is an empty opportunity. Says Jowell:

Access to the substandard is access to disappointment which will translate into an unwillingness to keep paying. It will not inspire or raise levels of aspiration, and in the end is not worthwhile. That is why excellence has to be at the heart of cultural subsidy, and that is what we must insist on.

What a great debate to launch in such a public way. Let's hope others on all sides of the issues come out swinging.

posted on Thursday, June 3, 2004 | permalink