The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

Arts policy should return to Keynes’ vision

In setting up the Arts Council, Keynes conceived the artist as 'individual and free', but Arts Council England now takes the opposite view

By: Manick Govinda

During the Second World War, the British Government set up a remarkable organisation called The Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) to organise artistic and cultural activities for the population.

The economist John Maynard Keynes was CEMA’s first and only chairman – and played a major role in drafting the charter of the body that would continue as its peacetime equivalent: The Arts Council.

In an essay for The Listener magazine entitled The Arts Council: Its Policy and Hopes (now available as an appendix to The Arts Council of Great Britain’s first Annual Report, 1945), Keynes explained his approach:

The task of an official body is not to teach or to censor, but to give courage, confidence and opportunity. Artists depend on the world they live in and the spirit of the age. There is no reason to suppose that less native genius is born into the world in the ages empty of achievement than in those brief periods when nearly all we most value has been brought to birth. New work will spring up more abundantly in unexpected quarters and in unforeseen shapes when there is a universal opportunity for contact with traditional and contemporary arts in their noblest forms. But do not think of the Arts Council as a schoolmaster. Your enjoyment will be our first aim.

Compare this to Arts Council England’s 2020-2030 strategy document, Let’s Create:

By 2030, we want England to be a country in which the creativity of each of us is valued and given the chance to flourish, and where every one of us has access to a remarkable range of high-quality cultural experiences.

Setting aside the poetic loss of language that has been replaced by bland business plan-speak, we also have a downward spiral as modern day publicly funded bodies drop the words “art” and “artist” from their visions, prioritising ideas like how everyone is creative and culture should be accessible to everybody. The artist is placed into a banal, utilitarian role as ‘a creative’, a cultural provider or practitioner who gives administrators what they want.

Arts and culture policy has been going this way for decades now. The current strategy explicitly advocates that all creative expression should be nurtured and developed, irrespective of quality. This notion of embedding and empowering creativity with missionary zeal goes hand-in-hand with quantifiable outcomes that are meant to address historical imbalances, with promotion of “environmental responsibility, inclusivity and relevance” that represents “the diversity of this country”, while supporting leaders who will work in ways that are “valuable to, and valued by, their communities, creative practitioners and partners.”

The idea of the artist here is that of a sort of community leader-educator who is embedded within institutions and whose role is to pass on the cultural Establishment’s favoured messaging.

In Keynes’ terms, Arts Council England has become a ‘schoolmaster’, with school prefects running its funded institutions, able to censor critical voices that question or don’t fit into the current political activist zeitgeist.

In publicly-funded cultural institutions, censorship, self-censorship, pedantic messaging and what has become known as ‘cancel culture’ have become rife.

A recent example concerns the planned retrospective exhibition of American painter Philip Guston at Tate Modern for 2021, which has now been postponed until 2024 due to issues with a series of paintings depicting Klu Klux Klan hooded figures. The reason given by the exhibition’s American partner museum for the postponement is that the public is not properly able to read the work and will therefore have to wait “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted”.

In other words, the curators need to teach us how the works must be read, at a later date which they deem politically convenient.

Cancel Culture, spurred on by a small but vocal minority of identity-activists on social media and endorsed by cultural leaders of some funded arts organisations, has attempted to silence writers and artists who question issues relating to race or gender identity. Meanwhile other cultural institutions turn a blind eye to the unjust witch-hunt of critical voices.

In my view it is time for arts funding policy to get back to Keynes’ original purpose: not as a regression to the past, but as a series of practical actions with artistic freedom and autonomy at the centre.

I propose the following:

  • Review the respective national Arts Council funding policies to end divisive and exclusive race, gender, intersectional ‘diversity’ strategies and replace them with values and ideals that promote universalism, support the working class, celebrate and appreciate both traditional and contemporary British culture, while fostering international cooperation and experimentation.
  • Support artistic talent by offering bursaries and grants directly to individuals, small independent clubs, charities, community groups and societies.
  • Public funds to cultural, arts organisations and individuals will be conditional on agreeing to uphold free speech, freedom of expression and free association. Practices by cultural institutions and leaders of censoring artefacts, opinions or cancelling individuals for expressing other points of view are antithetical to British values of tolerance and open-mindedness and any censoring of artists and arts workers should not be tolerated and may lead to the withdrawal of funding.

As Keynes wrote, “the work of the artist in all its aspects is, of its nature, individual and free, undisciplined, unregimented, uncontrolled. The artist walks where the breath of the spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction; he does not know it himself. But he leads the rest of us into fresh pastures and teaches us to love and to enjoy what we often begin by rejecting, enlarging our sensibility and purifying our instincts.”

This is the sort of vision I think we should embrace.



Caption and courtesy information:

Philip Guston

Riding Around


Oil on canvas

137.2 x 200.7 cm / 54 x 79 in

© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

Private Collection

Photo: Genevieve Hanson



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All Comments (18)

  • Great piece and absolutely right Manick. Artistic freedom is paramount to creativity. While political interference will, ultimately, produce rotten art it’s also true that artists must be able to live. I’m sure Patrick O’Flynn would agree with the sentiment in The Jam’s All Mod Cons:

    “Artistic freedom, do what you want
    But just make sure that the money ain’t gone”

  • Excellent

    A fine basis for the formulation of an SDP Arts Policy.

    Tim Griffiths, Chairman of SDP West Midlands Region, and one time founding member of the Leamington Studio Artists organisation. (One of the original four, and original administrator.)

    I agree completely.

  • I do not know Timothy Griffiths, but as a practising visual artist for over sixty years, an SDP Member and, as it happens, a former Member of Leamington Studio Artists, I completely endorse his and William Clouston’s comments.

  • I tweeted recently that the arts, for so long the home of outsiders, iconoclasts and non-conformists devoted to truth, beauty and the search for meaning, is now a chapter of the establishment, a cornerstone of woke orthodoxy, and as predicable as lettuce.

    Its recovery starts here.

    However, I suspect the seeds of today’s problems were sown back in Keynes’ time, by a paternalistic elite different to today’s but not *that* different, and one turbo-charged by a democratising spirit that, for all its good intentions, led to the compromising of our critical faculties, toleration of lack of rigour, and rewards for charlatans.

    For as long as we are content to amuse and distract ourselves this way, it’s not easy to see how we row back from that.

  • Whilst what Manick Govinda has written is true of the arts, it should also be read as applicable to our whole society. We should have free and uncensored expression but subject to ‘light touch’ government supervision to ensure that we do not damage each other mentally or physically.
    If you want to see what censorship of any form of art does , you only need to look at what was produced under Hitler and Stalin to see how barren it was.

  • Three bold principles being advocated which signal a more confident and grown up approach to how culture might be supported and promoted…this insightful contribution is very welcome.

  • Agreed.

    This policy, and the example of what amounts to the officially prescribed ‘sole’ and ‘correct’ accompanying interpreration of Guston’s art by an apparently uniquely qualified intellectual elite before it can be fully revealed to and appreciated by the unwashed, ignorant masses, worryingly points to a far broader societal problem here.

    • Very much so.

      Art is about ideas, not about ideology, and should be free from any a priori obligation to to exist as art, per se.

      Art becomes compromised immediately it becomes a slave to, or a vehicle for propaganda or dogma.

  • Completely agree. What is the point of an artist if he/she is showing us something that we already know or believe? As Keynes says, the object of public support for the arts is to stimulate the “unexpected” and the “unforseen”.

  • Great article. I’m currently ploughing my way through an arts council application for a small grant, so much of this resonates, particualy the current need to tick the identity boxes. I’m quite sure this is off-putting to a large number of artists who’ve no interest in playing that game, or they do the total opposite and say /do whatever it takes to get the money. Either way, neither is a good outcome.

    However, as someone who works in the arts, I’m not adverse to being made accountable for public money being granted to me, though, it’s certainly debabtle about what and how that accountability is derermined.

  • This is an excellent opinion piece and should be taken up by those in the Arts Council. It’s wise simply wise.

  • I speak as an individual but have been Vice Chair of the National Theatre Development Council so I recognise the attitudes of many in the theatre world, which would be at odds with this view, since many of them are happy to support such causes.

    I fully support the views in this article and its philosophy is relevant not only to the arts but all fields, as one contributor to the comments points out. The Arts Council reflects the so-called liberal views of the vociferous which they believe is the majority. I do not believe these are the views of most citizens but they dare not voice their objections. I support the SDP because I believe it’s views do reflect the beliefs of this majority. I would go further in establishing the party as the one which believes above all in careful consideration of the facts before proposing solutions and stressing that we are a party of common sense, a feature that has been so lacking during this epidemic.

    As an example of such factual deliberation, let us take climate change. Our declaration states “We believe the UK must lead by example in being at the forefront of global action to combat climate change” No matter what one’s opinion is of the danger, it deserves more consideration of its imminence and the proposed actions to counter it. Being at the forefront is not a sensible action when China is building so many coal fired generating facilities. We should ask our supporters and others in general whether a statement like the following might be more reasonable and it would certainly distance us from the other parties. No-one who feels the situation is far too alarmist and the solutions proposed too damaging to the economy and particularly the poor, has anywhere to go politically. So, how about something like this.

    “We believe that solutions proposed to alleviate the potential damage by climate change must be examined having regard to both the validity, the urgency and the economic impact of such measures.”

    This does not state an absolute position as to the truth of the alarm generated by the likes of Greta Thumberg and Lord Attenborough but, if it is shown to appeal to the wider populace we would be the only party for them to support.

    he lumping together if all these

Family, Community, Nation.