We live, as a certain salmon-hued daily newspaper likes to remind us, in financial times. It is no secret that the austerity measures being implemented by more or less every major government around the world has put the squeeze on national arts budgets. Arts Council England (ACE), for instance, had its budget cut by £11.6m in December last year, on top of a 30% reduction announced in 2010. These would appear to be dark days for the arts.
On the Today Programme this morning, Sir Peter Bazalgette – who, as incoming chairman of the ACE, will need to make the case to the government against any future spending cuts – was defiant. The arts, he said, “inspire us, they enlighten us, they are a massive contribution to our eduction – but they are also a fantastic contributor to our economy. They are part of the offer of tourism, and regional regeneration, and employment and training.”
Echoing an interview in yesterday’s Observer, he pointed to the overwhelming success of “that marvellous celebration of the arts and culture of Britain,” the opening and closing ceremonies of last year’s London Olympics, whose overseers Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry both kicked off their careers in regional theatre. Meanwhile, the Bafta- and Oscar-winning film musical Les Misérables got its start, we were told, on stage at the RSC in 1985. (Actually, it got its start in a book in France in 1862, but let’s not split hairs.) In another profile in Saturday’s Daily Mail, Bazalgette cited yet another cultural success story in the form of Margate’s recently opened Turner Contemporary gallery, visited by “an incredible 500,000 people in its first year, resulting in an estimated £13.9 million in economic benefit.”
Bazalgette, by all accounts, is a shrewd and likeable operator, but he faces an uphill battle to overcome the scepticism that greeted his appointment – scepticism based largely on his notorious reputation as the man who inflicted Big Brother on British audiences during his time at Endemol Productions. For the moment, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his heart is in the right place – he has after all been a long time supporter, board member and (now) chairman of English National Opera.
Nevertheless, he continues a refrain spouted by many an arts bureaucrat, and one which I find concerning. By emphasising the financial achievements of the arts in this country, he is lending weight to the notion that, for arts investment to be considered a success, it should be able to demonstrate sound economic benefit.
Perhaps the arts really are a solid financial bet, as Sir Peter suggests. But making the case for them on that basis is foolhardy, for two reasons. Firstly, it is very easy to point to other areas of government spending that, in purely financial terms, offer a better return on investment. Spending on infrastructure, scientific research, or on healthcare will easily outperform spending on the arts in terms of measurable economic reward. And secondly, nobody who cares deeply about the arts – not those who create it, nor those who consume it, nor those who support it – care one jot about its financial benefits.
Art appeals to the emotional, creative side of our brains: the (somewhat misleadingly named) ‘right brain’. Economic concerns, meanwhile, are rooted in the logical, critical thinking side of our brains, known as the ‘left brain’. Our lives are made bearable only by the stimulation of both these parts of our brains, which we might equally call the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘rational’ sides.
Yet, despite the nourishment our brains undoubtedly receive from the arts, it is often difficult to rationalise their role in our lives. Art, after all, brings us no material comfort: it does not feed or clothe us or keep us warm during the winter. Nor does it offer us security, success or attractiveness to other members of our species. Its rewards are less tangible, and therefore less quantifiable.
So why then do the Bazalgettes of this world constantly seek to make appeals on behalf of the arts using purely rational arguments? Artistic expression, and the value generations to come will place on that expression, is not something that can be easily measured. If anything, attempts to measure the ‘success’ of art are likely to a stifle it. A composer friend of mine once mused that the surest way to kill creative work “so that it dies beyond all reach of light” is to fill in a funding application form for it. Is it coincidence, I wonder, that so many of the revered artists of the past lived in poverty and/or obscurity? Vincent van Gogh – whose work nowadays sells for upwards of £50m a pop – sold just a single painting during his lifetime for 400 francs. Would he ever have received Arts Council funding? How would he have justified the “benefits” of his art on a form, I wonder?
I find it telling that in Germany – where the arts have long been viewed as having their own intrinsic value, rather than being seen as just another means to attract tourists, or rebuild communities, or garner Academy Awards – the culture budget this year is being increased by 8%. That’s against an overall reduction in government spending of 3.1%. Announcing the increase, the German culture minister Bernd Neumann, described it as “an essential investment in the future of our society”.
And that, to me, is just it. When you invest in the arts, you are investing in riches you cannot begin to conceive of today. A mere handful of people might have seen Leonardo da Vinci’s unassuming portrait of Florentine housewife Lisa del Giocondo during his lifetime; but five hundred years later, 6 million people a year visit the Louvre to examine the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. That sense of permanence, of universal and timeless significance – that is the true value of art. And that is the point Peter Bazalgette should be making: with arts funding, you may not see a five year return on your investment – but you will enrich people’s lives for centuries to come.