Cultural Capital

Robert Hewison’s Cultural Capital tells a cautionary tale very well. As the blurb puts it, it describes ‘how politicians, money, and managerialism turned a golden age to lead’. The book is subtitled ‘the rise and fall of Creative Britain’ so Hewison’s conclusion is put right up front, and is presented as a classic myth of temptation, ‘success’ containing the seeds of its own ruin.

Hewison depicts the increased funding and political attention for culture between 1997 and 2010 as a kind of Faustian pact – with organisations swapping funding for compromised creativity as a result of targets and instrumentalism. Neither increased commerciality nor socially-targeted instrumentalism has led to great improvements in access to the arts, the argument runs. This has left the sector doubly vulnerable now the golden age has been replaced with the lead of cuts and illusory philanthropy. The villains of the piece are politicians, policy makers, interfering funders and the sinister Godfather pulling the strings, the Neoliberalism, or the Marketisation of Life. (If we had a grand for each mention of that ill-defined N word neoliberal in the early chapters, mind, we could fund a fairly substantial arts project…)

This is a fascinating and easy read. Hewison is a fine writer, as his previous arts histories of the post-war decades illustrate. I read the book quickly, coming to the last chapter wanting to know how it would end. For those not-that-few of us who had roles somewhere in the arts funding system in some way during the period covered – and I know there are plenty of regular readers here who did – it has a particular appeal. I’m not going to dissect or respond to the observations on the failings of ACE and others, for fear of defensiveness. But I suspect many people will find themselves going, ‘Yes, and…’, ‘No, but…’, ‘Nonsense…’, ‘Tell me about it…’, and ‘Did he never hear about….’ in fairly equal measure.

There is, I think, a great deal to commend Hewison’s analysis. We see clearly the recursion of the basic compromise at the heart of the New Labour project at many levels: the global economy’s demands for ‘freedom’, Blair’s analysis of what was needed to get the Tories out after 18 years in 1997, our own circumstances, and those of the sector. But there are other stories to be told from this material, some of which are only alluded to here.

The first relates an (I think) unintended irony in the book’s title. The book feels overly-shaped by the concerns of the metropolis, and the ‘major players’ in London Village. There is too little attention to developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Surely the Creative Scotland ‘stramash’ was worth looking at as an example of his thesis? Might a comparison of Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff ministerial directions not have been instructive? How does the rise and fall look from Warrington instead of Westminster? How well did the cultural sector spend the huge sums of regional funds from Europe that went into both capital and business development?

He also underplays the way in which the centralization of decision-making and policy-making at all different levels has intensified, and contributes very directly to the most significant present danger to the cultural sector, the potentially terminal decline of local democracy’s ability to invest in culture. This exacerbates the lack of trust Hewison rightly diagnoses as the underlying cause of much dysfunction. Building trust between a sharp-elbowed capital and the rest of the country will, I suspect, take more than the efforts of What Next. To put it crudely: we need to see the chairs and CEOs of the London ‘nationals’ taking the big picture into account and not swallowing up the (sometimes unadvertised) funding opportunities through their lobbying.

As I mentioned, Hewison has written a number of very fine books on the history of the actual arts in the UK. So it’s something of a shame that in focusing his attention on the suits, he plays down not just the artistic responses to the New Labour years – another book perhaps – but the artistic responsibility in the ‘golden age’, and the role arts organisations might have played in any dysfunction. How does, for instance, an analysis of public art commissioning back up or contradict Hewison’s argument? To what extent is the continuing lack of diversity with the arts workforce, and hence (I would argue) many audiences, not a failure of policy making and funding but a result of the resistance of those in positions of power in arts organisations? (Hewison comments ‘Few organisations would admit to being deliberately exclusive’ which is undoubtedly true but misses the point rather.)

To what extent can we as artists and arts organisations pass responsibility for our choices on to funder requirements – especially when we know that funding came to them with its own requirements? (This continues, of course. Have a look at the latest DCMS ‘settlement letter’ to ACE before you criticize the priorities expressed through new international funds too much, for instance. Government wants growth, export and support for ‘Great’ Britain. So you will be interested in India in 2017, not Bulgaria…)

My biggest criticism of Cultural Capital would be that it does not pay enough attention to what was achieved across the country during the high years, and what could be learned from it. The fundamental modernization of arts infrastructures that ACE and their regional and European partners were able to make in many towns and cities, the artists supported and developed, the organisations and sectors grown, all form part of the picture. It feels under threat, but I simply don’t see that all has having turned to lead.

When I think back to Teesside in 1993, for instance, for all that our ‘arts infrastructure’ is under strain now due to the government’s shrinking of the state and public services, and our economic situation, I can’t but conclude that it is stronger and more productive as a result of the work of the last 20 years. It’s also more useful to people – at artistic and instrumental levels if you must make the distinction. As David Edgar points out in his Guardian review, there are also arts institutions based in good buildings – or tools for making art as I like to think of them – which would not have existed without the cultural policies and funding mechanisms described so witheringly here.

There are hints that Hewison knows this. In an interesting section on the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, he says this: ‘Boyle, Daldry and Boyce are typical products of the cultural economy this book described. They are provincial-born graduates of state-funded education; they were adolescents when Thatcher came to power in 1979, and learned to duck and dive as they made their way into the arts… All three benefited from New Labour’s creation of the Lottery-funded Film Council.’ Although he follows with counter critiques of the ceremony as essentially putting a gloss on a socially damaging – neoliberal – spectacle, this illustrates the paradox at the heart of the book. Isn’t that success? Isn’t that better than a culture of posh interns? Dealing with the neoliberal world we currently live in may get messy and compromising, but it is not unproductive. Neither does it mean you must adopt all of its values or stop trying to bring it to an end.

Hewison’s conclusion – a cliffhanger to do with the upcoming election rather than a denouement – feels a little hedged and tautological at times, but puts a healthy emphasis on the public: ‘The role of government is not to occupy or dominate the public realm… but to act as the guarantor of its integrity. This should be a place for the circulation of ideas, for creative expressing and political argument.’ He goes on: ‘To recover the value of the public realm, it is necessary first to recover the idea of the public. … Above all, the state must revive a public, as opposed to private, property right – the right freely to access the co-created culture that is held as common property in the public realm.’

The morals of the earlier tale – do look gift horses in the mouth, or be careful what you wish for, perhaps, or long spoons are good for supping with devils but bad for your posture – may be a start in equipping us for the challenges within that aspiration, but they are only a start.