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Setting aside the poetic loss of language that has been replaced by bland business plan-speak, we also have a downward spiral as modern day publicly funded bodies drop the words “art” and “artist” from their visions,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:
Oil on canvas
137.2 x 200.7 cm / 54 x 79 in
© The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson