Ken MacIntosh: Scrap public funding of the arts

The Arts Council of Wales’s Equality Guide is one of those documents that only a public body could create – well produced and glossy, seventy-six pages long, never to be read by any sane person anywhere ever. It must be strange to work on such a project, diligently shouting platitudes into the void (where only mad conservatives can hear it).

The guide essentially promotes the idea that diversity in theatre is good and that it should be engineered through concerted effort and public-funding. This illustrates the unbounded arrogance of the statist mind-set, where participation levels in the arts are to be ‘corrected’. It is also to suggest that there is a cultural dearth within ethnic-minority communities, requiring of remedial intervention by benevolent white-people, and it is to place certain cultural activities (western theatre) ahead of others. If consumption-of-artistic-culture could somehow be quantified, I am guessing that levels would be much-of-a-muchness across ethnic (and socioeconomic) groups. It’s just that groups often choose to consume and enjoy different artistic endeavours, the ones to which they are culturally attuned.

The writer and actor Meera Syal echoes the sentiments of the Equality Guide when she calls for theatre in Britain to make itself more attractive to Asian audiences. But why should it? There is absolutely nothing stopping people of Asian extraction from writing, producing, funding and staging any type of theatrical work. Culture/art is whatever people choose to make it.

There is a docility to all this, suggesting that Asian people are just lying about, helplessly waiting for the white-gatekeepers-of-theatre to permit them to express themselves through drama. The fact that this rise of British-Asian theatre has, heretofore, not happened surely demonstrates a lack of the relevant drive. And, anyway, what would it mean to make theatre ‘more attractive’ to British-Asian people? Casting the occasional Asian actor? Is this really all that is keeping Asian people from theatre-going? Or does it mean something more profound, in which case, is it for (mostly) white professionals to induce this?

Lyn Gardner, writing in The Guardian demands that “policy” be deployed to make theatre more reflective of the wider population. She approvingly quotes Brigid Larmour, artistic director of Watford Palace Theatre (WPT), who states, in reference to her policy of which scripts to accept, “It means you have to say no to good ideas from people who are already well represented elsewhere [i.e. whites]. Sometimes that’s difficult…[but we must] move on”. Does the theatre only apply this approach to playwrights? Perhaps Ms Larmour could replace herself with a melanin-rich artistic director. Because move on we must. WPT is funded by Arts Council England.

Apply the exact same thinking to other artistic arenas, and the ridiculousness becomes more apparent. For example, I can think of no indie-rock bands that have been formed by members of the British-Chinese community. Is this to be considered a dearth? Should David Cameron dispatch a taskforce to scour the Chinese takeaways of Britain so as to enlist the services of potential band-members to plug this glaring gap in our nation’s cultural output? Why not? Because there is an understanding that in popular music market-forces are at play when it comes to deciding what is and is not produced. It is understood that if British-Chinese people wanted to perform and consume this material, they could and would.

Are white people who are involved in the theatre to be berated for the fact that not that many people from certain other backgrounds are interested in doing the same stuff? To rail against British theatre for being too white is as reasonable as railing against Zulu choir music for being ‘too black’, or to bemoan the fact that Bollywood films aren’t more geared towards white audiences. That being said, if Bollywood movie-producers thought that putting a few white faces in their films would increase profit, they would surely do it. But they don’t think that.

The hardnosed business decisions made in the Indian entertainment industry find an at times bizarre and warped reflection in the ‘highbrow’, grant-dependent British arts. The Welsh Art Council’s Equality Guide makes a telling statement in its attempt to make the business case for greater diversity in theatre: “more often than not, [embracing diversity] can be economically advantageous...drawing in larger audiences…[and] will be the key to unlocking new resources or securing extra funding”.

We are being told that a given course of action by a theatre will lead to greater economic success (through increased ticket-sales), which will in turn unlock more financial support from the Government. So, the more money that the theatre company makes, the more it will cost the taxpayer. In what other walk-of-life would this logic stand-up? This scenario involves playing the correct politics, where the rustling up of some minority participants leads to payday with those who proffer public grants. This is The Art of Milking the State. It is hoop-jumping. It curtails the imagination as much as it frees it. With public money comes dismal process, seedy consideration, jockeying for position, expositions of worthiness.

Scrap public funding of the arts. Artistic expression is as much a part of the human condition as laughing or crying. It will always be with us irrespective of what those currently in receipt of those grants would have us believe.


(Image: Gabriel Saldana)

Ken MacIntosh

  • Little Black Censored

    Diversity is very evident on Radio 4 in their choice of drama and short stories. My random experience (listening while driving) suggests a disproportionate representation in plays and stories of people of the sort the authorities are trying to draw into the audience – with what success, I wonder?

    • Tricia

      I agree. Take The Archers story line – a young woman who decided she was going to have sperm donation and become a mother with no father for the child. She has suddenly fallen prey to a controlling man and is being manipulated by him. And this when she lives near her family and friends. A less believable story line and feminist inspired claptrap I have yet to hear. Refuse to listen to The Archers until they stop trying to indoctrinate us. And of course there is a wonderful gay couple in the village.

      • Phil R

        For the majority of the population, I am sad to note, subtle indoctrination like this, works only too well.

  • Colkitto03

    All good points. Not to mention that the bulk of spending on subsidised arts are in central London. Opera and ballet have not paid for themselves for over a century, and that is with their typically very expensive tickets. In the American model typically wealthy individuals and corporations make up the gap between box office revenues and operating costs.
    In Britain, the arts, the theatre and the media are dominated by the upper-middle classes and especially those who are privately or Oxbridge educated. There is plenty of money in that section of society to sponsor their own pastimes.

    • Stephen T

      Well said. It has always struck me as odd that opera and ballet have to be subsidised by the tax payer and lottery buyer, which often means the low paid. These arts weren’t subsided when they were created and will not disappear if the subsidy is taken away. I don’t think the interests of the London elite should be paid for by the rest of the country.

  • I recall seeing “Under Milk Wood” on stage in the West End in the 50’s. It only had a short run because there were only so many Welsh around who wanted to watch it, a lot did not seeing it as a travesty of their community. This was despite the BBC support given to it on radio and to Dylan Thomas. When “My Fair Lady” came along a little later it did a lot better. I also enjoyed it more.

  • Maximum Overdrive

    I was in overly enriched Reading on Sunday and the town was at a standstill because there was a half-marathon going on.
    Almost 20,000 runners, and at a rough estimate, 99.8% of them were white.
    Considering that central Reading is very much like the third world these days, what’s stopping all the new inhabitants from going out running?

    • Andy

      Ah yes, but you see. . . . . . . . . .

  • Bugle

    Funding the arts leads to mediocrity by definition: promoting work of little merit for the wrong reason. When I was at university, we were compelled to study five novels, two of which were endorsed by the Race Relations Board or whatever body was occupying that space at the time. They were both rubbish.

  • Phil R

    We need to stop funding a great many things. 90% of the Charities get 90% or more of their funding from the Gov.

    We should not be borrowing more money for indulgences like this, for our kids to pay back…….without it seems, any industry to do so. Their only option with be inflation or default.

    Or both.