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Artillery Row

No second coming for the arts

Labour will finish the Tories’ work of destroying the arts – only “better”

In the fervour over Rishi Sunak’s cabinet reshuffle, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport failed to make the headlines. That the twelfth Conservative culture secretary in thirteen years Lucy Frazer prevailed in her role is a sign that the Tories think all is just fine in culture. Indeed, while Braverman and Cameron were making waves, Frazer was celebrating that “the creative industries have grown 1.5x faster than the rest of the economy” and launching WeCreate, a bizarre arts job fair that promotes careers in… HR and hairdressing. 

But after a decade of funding cuts, nobody in the arts takes Frazer’s promise to grow the industry by £50 billion at all seriously. Artists don’t understand these figures anyhow and most couldn’t tell you what DCMS stands for. They’re sure of one thing, however: they all hate the Tories. Since 2010, the arts have been praying for a change in Government. Polling suggests their wish will be granted. But what would Labour do with the arts? Will it be good for them?

In September, Keir Starmer appointed the Bristol MP and former professional cellist Thangam Debbonaire as culture secretary in his shadow cabinet. Industry insiders welcomed her with a chant of “one of us, one of us” and drank in her enthusiasm for the importance of culture. One arts journalist compared Debbonaire to Chris Smith, the Blair government’s culture minister who tripled the budget of Arts Council England. This as yet underserved praise says plenty about the attitudes of the past decade’s DCMS ministers. The last holder of this office who had a vision for culture not entirely cribbed from civil service briefing notes was Nadine Dorries, and the pulp fiction writer could never compete with the graduate of the Royal College of Music Debbonaire who boasted about having never seen a football match.

At the party conference in Liverpool, Debbonaire vowed to put the creative industries “right at the heart of [Labour’s] plan for economic growth,” precisely where Frazer had left them at the Tory conference days earlier. But given that Labour shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves committed to exercising fiscal restraint when in power, this plan should strike fear into the hearts of artists and cultural managers. But the message hadn’t sunk in as Debbonaire promised to “fire up the engines of the creative economy”.

Put plainly: there will be no new money. Merely three decades ago, the arts were the worthy recipients of state subsidies. Today, they are expected to return state investment to UK PLC. As though to suggest that Labour had a plan to complete this fiscal transition, Debonnaire announced the National Culture Infrastructure Plan, a project of listing the country’s cultural and artistic organisations on a single website complete with a public transport journey planner. It is a blessing that the D in DCMS no longer stands for ‘digital’ because this future minister who insists that such a list does not yet exist has not heard of Google Maps.

Patrick Moore plays the xylophone, Thangam Debbonaire plays the cello: the sitcom writes itself. But as jovial as Debonnaire’s promises to the arts are, they betray the sector’s willing complicity in its present crisis. Worse, they suggest that the institutions — from Arts Council England to the community choir — are cheering for Labour as though they wished to hasten their own demise. The legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies is critical to understanding the rationale of this unofficial “Artists for Starmer” campaign. Under Blair, the arts became embroiled in an inflationary transactional spiral, promising politicians that they could solve problems like the training shortage in the software sector, youth offending, or NHS waiting lists. Hardly anybody in Westminster took these proposals seriously to begin but eventually, their format became a sure way to leverage Treasury support.

The post-2010 coalition government showed little interest in the arts’ instrumental potential, believing perhaps that budgetary austerity would help to undo some of the damage done by the previous decades’ instrumentalization drive. Yet, arts emissaries could muster no new arguments in their pleadings with successive culture secretaries. As though they were looking to have their bluff called out, arts leaders doubled down on their promises, backed this time by a body of instrumental research they themselves commissioned.

All this would make the arts today wary of any government promising another quid-pro-quo unless it left them quids-in. But in the background, a fundamental change had occurred in how the industry understands its own value. In the early 2000s, the American urban theorist Richard Florida proposed that the creative classes would be vital to development and economic regeneration. It would be arts graduates, he argued, and not investments in brick-and-mortar infrastructure that would sustain growth. The arts loved this narrative and memberships to the army of creative pioneers were sold to many thousands of art workers. Today, although even Florida admitted that his theory hinges on an inflationary spiral in which the demand for creative activity must be produced by artificially growing the cadres of what he calls “high bohemians”, the arts are convinced more than ever that they are the driver of Britain’s economic success. This is an ideological mess that leaves the arts with no coherent theory of value. This is why they are forever arguing that the creative industries are the fastest growing sector of the economy while arts venues everywhere are going bust.

The insidious idea that creativity must drive GVA is therefore the direct result of arts industry lobbying. Debbonaire seems to have taken it to heart, and she plans to embed DCMS civil servants across the country so that they can closely monitor and support the activities of arts organisations. This idea has the curious ring of “Levelling Up” to it and brings back memories of the revolt at Nadine Dorries’s instruction that Arts Council England divert some of its funding away from London. On its own initiative, the Council already deployed nearly forty watchdog ‘Investment Principle Support Organisations’ who produce no art but charge the taxpayer over £8 million a year to tell artists and their organisation what to do.

What might the economy make of these interventions? It either won’t notice or turn them into profit at art’s expense. There are precedents. For twenty years, London’s Frieze art fair has served as a barometer and driver of visual art’s cash worth. The enterprise took flight at the height of the arts’ exuberant faith in their future when public and private money mixed happily. In the mid-2000s, Arts Council England co-sponsored experimental projects in the fair on the understanding that a burgeoning art market would be good for everyone. Today, Frieze is owned by a multinational and this October’s edition of the fair was derided as an artless,  purely commercial affair which held no interest for the public. Its impact on Britain’s GVA, however, remains considerable.

The now entirely market-driven Frieze is a testament to the bittersweet success of the past twenty years of arts policy which enabled capital to co-create with the creative hopeful. This has been opportune for the enterprising minority, but less so for the myriad working-class and minority artists and cultural workers Debbonaire called to in her speech. Most of what we until recently knew as art is simply not viable under this logic. Yet, this is precisely what the creative classes wanted when they asked to be measured by the contents of their wallets. Frieze, for its part, was always a for-profit business and one can hardly accuse it of a breach of the social covenant of creativity. 

But between the lines of Labour’s half-written arts manifesto, Debonnaire suggested that more of the UK’s publicly owned cultural assets should follow Frieze in the pursuit of economic returns, only this time without the cumbersome pretence of the arts’ social relevance. That her Space to Create database will help “local leaders, businesses, and philanthropists to spot cultural spaces at risk and opportunities to invest” reads more like a line from the prospectus of an asset stripper than the words of a patron of the arts.

For the art world, however, the ballot is as good as cast. Not even the inadvertently amusing Dorries who would enlist the muses as characters in her romance novels won the sympathy of the creative classes for the Tories. Yet, in what would be the most pathetic endorsement of Rishi Sunak’s premiership, art itself may come to miss the years of Conservative neglect come the end of the next Parliamentary session. The Tories would ruin the arts by fiddling the figures. Labour will finish the job, only “better” while the art world cheers on.

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