The people in power are the problem with arts advocacy

Trish, the broken aesthete in Willy Russell’s Education of Rita, says, “Wouldn’t you die without Mahler?” The line signifies Rita’s entrance into the worlds of bohemian culture and the emotional hysteria often associated with Mahler.

I have a confession to make. I used to believe I had a mild form of anhedonia – an alienation similar to Trish’s. A lack of aesthetics meant that I was unable to be held hostage by cultural works after reading heady reviews. The reviewer was often left breathless, overwhelmed, and confused after reading the novel in one sitting. I was often not all that impressed by works of art that were guaranteed to evoke strong emotional reactions. The fact that I’d been in the arts for almost 20 years made this issue even worse.

In the past few weeks, Trish’s exclamation echoed in my ears after a series of equally stupid pronouncements hit the headlines. It’s so bad that I’ve come to realize that the real problem is not anhedonia but the art establishment.

In an interview that was conducted recently about the cuts in arts funding by theatre director Michael Grandage, he said: “We are surrounded with philistines.” Everyone is letting everyone else dumb down without question.”

The Guardian had reported a few weeks ago that The National Gallery would be purchasing its first major American Painting. The National Gallery announced that it would be buying George Bellows’s 1912 masterpiece, Men of the Docks, for $25.5m. Bellows’ work is usually grouped with other American artists, but in London, it will be displayed alongside Manet and Monet.

Nicholas Penny said that it would be like seeing a Wilkie or Turner at the Louvre. Penny noted that Men of the Docks was a very European work, and visitors to the National Gallery would be able to see the debt Penny owed to Manet, Goya, and earlier Spanish artists. He said that the painting would have “a revolutionary effect on our collection and an electrifying impact on visitors.”

Michael Billington wrote about the National Theatre in 2013 as it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Although four of the five directors, Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, and Trevor Nunn are Cambridge English graduates, there is still a great deal of diversity in this group.

We have all heard these sounds in the arts and culture sector. The sound of privilege and its accompanying lack of awareness. The sound of people who are supposed to be the champions of culture democracy blaring like gatekeepers for the elite. The sound of guns firing in holsters.

The British Library hosted the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value’s inaugural event the day before Penny made her announcement. Vikki Heywood, CBE, will chair the Commission, a two-year “arts-led, academically informed and publicly engaged” project. The Commission will conduct a comprehensive, holistic investigation of the future value of culture.

The Warwick Commission advocates for the arts. It is about making a strong, evidence-based argument to the government about the importance of the skills with the hope that it will have a positive impact on funding. The commissioners assembled are gifted, intelligent, and passionate people. They are all inside the castle and looking out. They are not the audience but art. They are not the market but rather a product. They are not market, but supply. They must be clear about who they are speaking for and not just what they want to say.

John Holden, a cultural policy expert, has stated that the value you place on something, as well as the language and metrics you use to describe it, depend on who you are. A Valuing Culture conference was held in the National Theatre Studio more than ten years ago. Adrian Ellis said at the time that a new “mutually understandable language” was needed to resolve the cultural value debate. Charles Saumarez Smith argued, as a former Nicholas Penny, that the language of cultural values was based on a set of beliefs that were “innocently paternalistic.” Holden believed that the arts lacked the vocabulary necessary to advocate for their cause.

Nicholas Hytner of the hugely diverse variety spoke about how the arts had lost their confidence and belief in their advocacy argument, except as minor tools of economic and social policy. Without a reasoned and well-informed argument, funders, policymakers, and arts managers will only have a partial understanding of the work of arts organizations, while the latter will “chaff and sulk at the injustice.” What has changed since then?

It is important that the language used to promote arts be accessible and resonate with the vast majority. We’re not surrounded by philistines any more than we would die without Mahler. For Bellows to have an impact on visitors to the National Gallery, it will be necessary to run high voltage through the gallery floor.

As long as the arts sector believes that it has the best position to represent the public and those who are charged with leading the discussion remain unrepresentative, I am afraid I will stay at odds with them, out of date and out of place, like a Turner at the Louvre.

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