Peer Pressure

Art for All?  Their Policies and Our Culture

In the vocabulary of New Labour cultural newspeak, the last four years of change in state cultural policy has, to say the least, been 'innovative' and 'challenging'. New Labour's enthusiasm for all things creative has had its ups and downs- from Liam and Tony in at number 10 to John Prescott's soaking at the Brit Awards, from great Tate to Dome disaster- yet its success in pushing through substantial changes to the Arts Council, its redefinition of the arts as but one component of the greater 'creative industries' and its installation of social policy objectives into the criteria for arts funding have met little resistance. Critics of New Labour's apparent taste for the populist 'dumbing down' of the arts have been stung by counter-accusations of old-fashioned elitism, of refusing to make the arts more 'accessible' to the people who, after all, come up with the cash to pay for it.

It's perhaps little surprise that the visual arts have been slowest to criticise government policy. Of all the state funded artforms, visual art has best integrated itself to the cultural atmosphere of New Britain; lacking as it does the strong allegiance to tradition manifest in the other arts, visual art has been quickest to compromise with the mass media and the lifestyle industry, whilst more critical art practice has found much mutual ground with the government, particularly with regards to audience and context-specific practice, and in the realm of public art. 

As the first substantial response from the visual arts it's to PEER's credit that 'Art for All?' succeeds in drawing such a vivid picture of the current debate.  With over fifty contributions from an eclectic crowd of artists, critics and policy-makers, 'Art for All?' is an noisy and untidy collection, but this proves to be it main strength; as a rough survey compiled from an open submission, rather than a more conventional essay collection, it affords the reader a sense both of the points of clear conflict, as well as those areas of confusion, compromise and grudging consensus.

Many of the contributors accuse the government of that great crime, instrumentalism.  Comparisons with Nazi art, but particularly Stalinist cultural policy are frequent.  As Andrew Brighton suggests, 'what seems to be implied and enacted by the present government's cultural policy is that certain social goals and political aims are so self-evidently good that subordinating much of publicly supported arts culture to them is justified.  It seems we are seeing the tragedy of Soviet Socialist Realism replayed as a social democratic farce.'[1]  But the trouble with the accusation of instrumentalism is that New Labour's own brand is unarguably more pleasant; access, diversity, relevance, social inclusion, all concepts which on the surface, even erstwhile critics tend to support.  As Mark Ryan points out, whilst these buzzwords have an intangibly affirmative aura and vague sense of righteousness they 'nevertheless manages to create a Manichean world of good and bad, railroading us into a fixed pattern of thought.'  'Who', he asks, 'could be for exclusion, or against diversity?'[2] Or against access, and for irrelevance, for that matter? The problem for many of the critics is that in refusing to engage the debate on any question of what culture should be worth supporting, and preferring to focus on issues which on the surface appear to be about technical questions of broadening access, New Labour effectively side-steps the charge of direct manipulation.  Like all good relativists, New Labour refutes the old hierarchical ideas of high and low culture;  Popular culture and the traditional arts, are neither better nor worse than the other, only 'different'. And who can doubt New Labour's commitment to the meaning and value of art?  As Chris Smith says, in a litany of flattery echoed by other government mouthpieces throughout ‘Art for All?’, ‘the arts matter simply because of what they do for our feelings, our moods, our imaginations, our understanding, our enjoyment, our inner selves.’

But if New Labour values all of culture regardless of its origin, and wishfully declares its belief in the Power of Art, this is because at a deeper level, and unlike its predecessors, it has no intention of affirming what might be culturally good or bad.  François Matarasso, of New Labourite cultural think-tank Comedia, declares that 'there is no cultural gold standard, though there are many who would elevate their personal standards to that position.'  By ‘the many’ Matarasso really means ‘the elite’ which, as ex-Demos director Geoff Mulgan declares, ‘views the world of the arts as its own private playground.’[3] More broadly, New Labour’s hostility to ‘elitism’ represents its installation of post-modern cultural politics in place of its former deference to the traditional elevation of ‘High Culture’, and the old arms-length model of state subsidy.  With the relativist assault on the ‘the Canon’, it’s not difficult to argue, as Ken Worpole does, that the subsidy of high culture is nothing more than a transfer of ‘money from poorer and more disadvantaged communities…to fund the interests and enjoyment of metropolitan economic and cultural elites.’[4]  From such a standpoint, any discussion of artistic quality and value can only be subordinated to the more worthy goals of cultural diversity and social inclusion.

 For all their protestations to the contrary, it’s in these goals that New Labour finds its true standard of cultural value.  Abstaining from the messy business of evaluating art and culture, state policy fills the resulting vacuum with the benchmarks of diversity and inclusion, indicators which result in a wholly new and unprecedented state-subsidised ‘cultural market’, in which diverse cultures can be celebrated, and the culturally excluded given a slice of Gordon Brown’s burgeoning pie.

This concept of the state-subsidised cultural market, lacking any other guiding principle than the gratification of ‘The People’, is what allows New Labour to slide arts policy so seamlessly into the ‘creative industries’.  This would be relatively benign if it were simply the rolling-out of subsidy from ‘high culture’ to the more popular cultural grass roots.  But the real danger of New Labour’s cultural policy lies in its crusade against social exclusion. Paradoxically, it’s New Labour’s vacuously fervent celebration of the arts that is the biggest problem, for its reinterpretation of cultural experience as a kind of psycho-therapeutic social balm, in effect turns the relationship between cultural value and the achievement of a good society on its head. New Labour’s new age mantra chants that exposure to the arts improves health, education, crime and employment.  That the provision of culture now replaces what used to be the realm of social and economic policy, shows just how little New Labour believe in their capacity to influence social change.  This foisting of the responsibility for social progress on culture is bad enough, but such an inversion serves to mask the real dynamic that exists between a culture and its society; every moment of cultural flourishing, from classical Greece to renaissance Florence, and from enlightenment Europe to post-revolutionary Russia, occur at moments of significant social upheaval and change.  Great art, whether ‘high’ or ‘low’, is the product of the good society, not its nursemaid.  But for New Labour, reconciled to the ‘good enough’ society of the market-friendly Third Way, yet terrified of its corrosive social impact, culture offers it an artificial realm in which to play out its delusion of a progressive society.  It is not a delusion artists should willingly indulge.

[1] Andrew Brighton, p40

[2] Mark Ryan, p17

[3] Geoff Mulgan, p159

[4] Ken Worpole, p66


Published in Art Monthly no238, July / August 2000 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated