During the past few weeks the British art world has been marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps, a White Paper authored by Member of Parliament Jennie Lee, presented to Parliament on behalf of the Labour government of the time (on twitter, check #ArtsPolicy50 for a number of links to various commentaries). Unfortunately I know of no version of the paper online, which is a shame (readers – please share a link if you have one?). The paper is concise: 16 pages of text, no glossy pictures of dancers or children painting. Here are a few points that struck this North American reader:
- Some of the issues are familiar. A priority is decentralization and support of museums, festivals and performing arts outside of London, something which remains an issue. Arts education also plays an important role in the paper. And, of course, that levels of public funding are not adequate.
- Some priorities have changed. The paper sees a need for a substantial amount of construction of facilities (especially ones that are welcoming), something I imagine is much less important in the UK today, and is certainly not something that would be thought of as a current need in the US. If nothing else, we have lots of buildings.
- No discussion of diversity, whether in participation or presentation – the paper is written for a country that had at that time a much smaller share of the population as immigrants, or descendants of recent immigrants. There is a passing mention of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art:
No democratic government would seek to impose controls on all the things that contribute to our environment and affect our senses. But abuses can be spotted and tackled, high standards encouraged, and opportunities given for wide enjoyment. It is partly a question of bridging the gap between what have come to be called the “higher” forms of entertainment and the traditional sources – the brass band, the amateur concert party, the entertainer, the music hall and pop group – and to challenge the fact that a gap exists. In the world of jazz the process has already happened; highbrow and lowbrow have met. (para. 71).
- I appreciate the attention lent to design – that children ought to be taught principles of architecture and to appreciate fine craftsmanship.
But where I see the most significant difference between what was written 50 years ago in an official position paper and what we would find now is the stress on the cultivation of excellence and the appreciation of excellence. The White Paper is not about looking at figures and trends on ‘participation’. Rather, it looks to whether the state and its schools are fostering artistic talent and a wide-spread knowledge of what constitutes good art. Consider:
Nearly all children enjoy singing and dancing and most of them delight in poetry and in mime or dramatic exercises. There is no more excited audience at the right play. Many of them have a natural talent for painting and drawing, and for making things, that surprises their parents.
Many schools, particularly perhaps primary schools, have successfully fostered these abilities, and in some of the arts the schools have notable help from radio and television. But too often, as boys and girls grow up, the impetus seems to weaken, so that as adults we are more vulnerable than we should be to criticisms of our inadequate uses of literacy, of our failure to appreciate poetry, or our limited tastes in music and drama, of our ignorance of the visual arts and of our blindness to good design. (paras. 59-60).
I cannot imagine a prominent leader of an arts council making such a statement today.
Which brings me to a final observation. In my last post I returned to my least favourite product of the contemporary arts establishment, the ‘economic impact’ study. Jennie Lee’s White Paper makes no mention at all of ‘economic impact’ or ‘value added’ or aggregate employment in the arts. It is about the cultivation of taste (an approach, it must be said, that is not without its critics). The ‘economic impact’ approach is, I think, popular in part because it is so easy. Consultants tally up all the money spent on the arts, regardless of what specifically the money was spent on, and from there go on to say how much the arts matter. No messy topics like aesthetic taste and how it is lacking in too many people. For better or for worse, that’s a big change.
UPDATE: I put a copy on Scribd, here.