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Artillery Row

Art does not exist to improve society

We should resist the cultural reductionism of the modern “creative industries”

English National Opera’s move to Manchester has finally been confirmed. The company had its funding cut by Arts Council England last year and was told to pack its bags and leave London if it wanted to receive future support, prompting an uproar from musicians, MPs and opera lovers. A number of potential new bases were considered, but ENO now follows in the footsteps of the BBC and the Civil Service in transplanting a large part of its operations to Greater Manchester, the place mooted by ACE in the first place. Mayor Andy Burnham, who initially told ENO “If you can’t come willingly, don’t come at all”, is now pleased about the news. So too, for what it’s worth, is agent-provocateur barrister Jolyon Maugham, who declared it “bananas” on Twitter/X that ENO and the Royal Opera are based at London theatres five minutes’ walk apart. (Don’t tell him about the UTTER INSANITY of six musicals currently being performed on the same short stretch of the Strand.) 

Of course, more opera in the regions is entirely to be welcomed — my own first encounter with the art form was on a school trip to see Opera North at the Bradford Alhambra. But the Manchester move isn’t necessarily the good-news story ENO would have us believe in its jargon-laden press release. (“Globally renowned cultural offer”: shudder.) It’s not clear whether the existing chorus and orchestra will be given the opportunity to relocate to Manchester, or indeed whether their services will be retained at all. Earlier this autumn the company announced plans to make nineteen orchestral players redundant, to cut the numbers in the chorus, and to put everyone who remained on part-time contracts with heavy pay cuts. There has been speculation that it intends to hire freelancers already based in the north.

The press release also sheds little light on precisely what the new-look ENO will perform and where. Talk of maintaining an ongoing base at the London Coliseum, which was bought for ENO by John Major’s government, is vague. No explanation has been given as to whether an existing theatre in Manchester will become the company’s home, or whether a new one might be built, or indeed whether a conventional theatre will come into the picture at all. 

For there is much talk of “new innovations”, and a heavy emphasis on “creating” operas with communities, all of which is well and good but surely not enough. We are given no categorical assurance that northern audiences will have the opportunity to watch regular, full-scale, fully-staged performances by composers of whom they have actually heard. My money’s on four singers and an accordion in a multi-storey car park. I hope I’m wrong.

What the new ENO will provide, the press release states, is “wellbeing”, and activities that contribute to “public health”, a somewhat ironic promise given the damage that has already been done to the mental state of highly skilled musicians who are fearing for their livelihoods. Of course, classical music undoubtedly has many benefits for people’s health and happiness. At the most basic level, attending a beautiful performance will probably lift the spirits of most audience members. Studies have shown that participating in music-making activities, particularly singing, can benefit participants psychologically, physiologically, socially, and behaviourally. We’ve all heard of music therapy. And of course, education and outreach departments do wonderful work with people who haven’t encountered opera before — schoolchildren, people in deprived areas, even prisoners. This can be life changing.

But, for all this, the prominence of the word “wellbeing” in the ENO press release rings alarm bells. For opera’s contribution to health and welfare, its ability to improve lives, is a happy by-product. It is not the point. It is not opera’s job to do social work. Yet unfortunately this is where we find ourselves. It all started in the 1990s. A government in thrall to pop culture and “Cool Britannia” showed itself to be extremely ambivalent, nervous even, about the so-called “high arts”. New Labour set about redefining culture in two ways: as a commodified economic phenomenon (“the creative industries”) and, with the launch of the so-called “access agenda”, as a means for combating social exclusion. Art was henceforth to be put to service in solving all manner of social ills, health problems and educational challenges. 

Though expanding arts outreach programmes seems like an unarguably good thing, there was something depressingly box-ticking about the access agenda, and with each successive government the relentless paperwork for arts organisations ballooned. A huge burden of expectation is now placed upon them, with the latest government even expecting the arts to do the heavy lifting in “levelling up” the regions. Politicians have effectively passed the buck, expecting arts organisations to do the work they should be doing in terms of improving people’s health or diverting them from criminal activity. As academic Eliane Glaser writes in her book Elitism: A Progressive Defence, “By making culture, education and journalism into public relations arenas for tackling inequality, politics has given up on trying to improve society in any kind of organised way”. 

Forced over the last few decades to subscribe to government agendas for fear of losing subsidy, arts organisations have increasingly bought into them.  What they don’t seem to realise, however, or be prepared to admit, is that turning themselves into a branch of social services works against their own interests. Yes, classical music does help mind, body, and soul. But if we make the point of opera its capacity to improve “wellbeing”, or if we sell classical music on its ability to make you better at maths, or indeed if we campaign for the arts on the basis of their contribution to GDP, we have succumbed to a utilitarian mentality. And the problem is that this makes it very much harder to advocate for the arts on their own merits. To speak up for the arts as something simply joyous or intellectually satisfying now seems old-fashioned, vaguely embarrassing, elitist even. How sad is that?

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