Jeremy Hunt gave his first major speech about arts and culture funding today, at the Roundhouse. Rather encouragingly, it doesn’t actually seem to contain much beyond what he and Ed Vaisey said repeatedly in recent months and during the election campaign: they love and value the arts, will put lottery funds back to something approaching their original proportions and purposes, want ‘efficiencies’, and will not allow the arts to be singled out as a soft touch for cuts, but there will be cuts. I say encouragingly, because the only news we were ever likely to get was about bigger than expected cuts. Looking at his speech it seems all one could realistically hope for – honest and straight-forward, reaching out to the sector, but not apologising for the tough decisions the government have committed themselves too, whether we like it or not.
And of course, I don’t like it, and think cutting the arts drastically would be a kind of myopia. There are lots of strong arguments for the value for money government investment in culture, economic, cultural and social, and I don’t need I hope to set them out here – you can see some on recent blogs and articles here, here, here, though I think they vary in strength. (And the comments all too often fall into the ‘with friends like these’ category.) For me the main one is the minuscule amount cuts would shave off the deficit. It’s like me expecting the savings I might make by not buying biscuits to balance the household budget now I’m no longer magnificently remunerated by the Arts Council. (Having been made redundant whilst delivering savings demanded by the previous government, as it happens.) And trust me, despite appearances, I spend very little on biscuits.
That said, I do think it worth us pausing for a second to think how the arguments for the arts budget might look from other perspectives. Compare the coverage of the speech by The Stage (‘tough times’) and by the BBC (‘more lottery funds’) and the Guardian (bit of both) for contrasting takes that illustrate typical positions. Perhaps imagining the relationship between two personifications, ‘Art Sector’ and ‘Jeremy Government’ would help us frame our conversation slightly differently, allowing for inevitable elements of stereotype and parody in what follows?
So, how does Art see Jeremy in the current situation?
‘Jeremy is out get us, though he’s talking nicely and politely and no doubt enjoys some arts stuff, probably mainly opera. He can be charming when he wants to – in fact he usually seems to be calming me down even when I’m not worked up. He’s doing the work of his government in looking for easy targets for cuts. He thinks education and hospitals and weapons are more important than the arts, and that no one will cause an outcry. But the arts are fantastic value for money for him, and he spends hardly anything on them and gets huge profile for the UK and a major part of our economy as a result. He doesn’t really listen to the evidence we give him of that, and always pokes holes in it – unless it suits him when arguing for the importance of his department. He doesn’t see that we are fantastically productive – far more so than most businesses – though I’m sure there’s some fat in the funding bodies still. He should not make any cuts at all, whatever George Osborne tells him. None. He doesn’t see how fragile things are. He’ll be on the move soon anyway, if he’s got anything about him, then he’ll forget all about us and we’ll have to work with some other upandcoming boy.’
And how might he relate to Art?
‘Art doesn’t listen to what I say, or really look at the problems we’re trying to fix. I keep telling him how important his health is, but he doesn’t believe and just argues back as if everything has to stay the same and as if the last lot were perfect. Occasionally I get the sense he thinks I might be less controlling than his previous relationship, but that doesn’t last long and he’s back to bombarding me with ever more desperate arguments and threatening to break my legs if I betray him. I sometimes think he doesn’t realise how great he actually is, and how distracting these arguments are. We’re in a tricky position and everyone has to play their part. Art doesn’t seem to realise its much worse in some other areas: we’re going to be closing schools and hospitals and cutting benefits and pensions. Osbourne’s not exactly rubbing his hands at what I can find him to put in the pot. But some of the things Art tells me just don’t bear scrutiny – he overclaims and cries wolf – but I suppose that’s the dramatic temperament. He can seem very twitchy when we meet, and I wish he’d just look me in the eye. I’d really like him to draw on his resourcefulness and drive more. I sometimes think he pays me too much attention.'
And finally what would a disinterested observer say about this relationship?
‘These two seem determined to not understand each other. Every time they seem about to agree they find something to have a heated debate about. Art wants it all his own way, and makes himself look a bit daft at times – all that hand-waving and pointing. For someone’s who supposed to be all about communication he seems to find it hard to listen – he always seems set to ‘broadcast’, and doesn’t see what the other’s giving. I can see how important this is to him, and I like that about him, but he doesn’t see the other’s point of view, and can come across a bit paranoid. He should see his message is actually being heard, but it's complicated – and he goes over the top sometimes. How can it be so fantastically brilliant and so fragile at the same time? That rubs Jeremy up the wrong way I think, though he seems to ride over it. He seems to be trying hard with Art, but getting knocked back, which must be hard, though that’s what he’s paid for. And the final decision doesn’t look like anything to do with their conversations – it’s all being done off stage, as they might say. They both seem to think they’re in charge of whether the rest of us go the theatre or whatever, and don’t really care what else has to go so they can avoid cuts. I’m not saying my state pension actually is more important, but why should either of them think they’re immune from getting by on a bit less in extraordinary times?’
That I suggest at least one possible answer to that last question above should make clear I’m not suggesting I personally agree with any of that imagining necessarily. (My other answer would be what you might characterise as the ‘arts as part of the training and development budget for the nation’ argument.) I do think that if the arts are to play their full role in what we now appear to be compelled to call ‘the national interest’ (who’ll be the first to call for ‘strong and stable arts’?) we need to be much more conscious of how things appear from other points of view when framing our arguments and our behaviour.