Manchester Art Gallery (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The anti-arts establishment

Why do we accept such moralistic philistinism?

Artillery Row

I have always promised myself, whatever I write, I would try to never use the word “woke”.

“Woke” is such an infuriatingly handy word, though: the floating signifier du jour, a groupword for groupthink. This unchallenged cliche cutting a swath through the western world denotes in a neat, four-letter package the agglomeration of progressive utopianism, urbanite consensus, virtuous grandstanding and intimidating radicalism. Never tempted by moderation, by dignity or by restraint, the movement is the perpetual censor of the morals of the people, ably performing the role of enemies, judges and executioners to those who do not offer cultural fealty, its merit loudly celebrated by the doubtful evidence of its own applause.

Then the word itself became boomer bait, used by TV presenters in a frothing rage to condemn The Latest Thing You Should Be Outraged About. They expect the accusation enough to be proof of guilt. Being used and abused like this, the definition becomes obscure, a floating signifier for uninformed raging. Much like Ben Sixsmith, I find “one-note grumbling doesn’t motivate me to care about these issues”.

Even so, reading the artless drivel at the entrance to Manchester Art Gallery recently, I could feel a Mike Graham-like voice in my head, moaning about “WOKE NONSENSE”.

There are questions on here which, if you profess not to know the answer to, might make you unsuitable — even unqualified — to work at or be a Trustee of, Manchester Art Gallery. Nonetheless, I dismissed this initial thought. I think it’s important to go into every argument with good faith and a good heart; maybe the gallery board had been listening to Talking Heads

Perhaps it was the continuation of “the British tradition” A.N. Wilson wrote of, “of talentless ‘arty’ people convincing themselves that exhibitionism was a substitute for talent”. Same as it ever was.

Walking into the first gallery, I realised that the Mike Graham voice was probably going to win, that I was going to hell, and that I had already made it for myself. 

The scene was set. The artworks I was about to see were the spoils of vicious British Imperialism, which exploited the huge tracts of continental Europe under British dominion through tourism and by buying and commissioning art on the open market. 

One of those works selected was a small oil on canvas by Harry Kingsley, a born-and-bred Manchester painter and teacher who specialised in northern townscapes and industrial scenes. Was this isolated Manchester corner shop a figurative representation of the huge rate of redevelopment and change Manchester has undergone? Wrong! It wasn’t about Manchester at all; it was about Syrian immigration, actually. 

Next door, in the early 19th century gallery, a space I recalled once being occupied by “The Desert” by Edward Landseer, was now filled by an artwork called “Untitled” by Tentative Collective, which served, via the medium of two printed out visa rejections and some graph paper, to remind us that the UK’s borders are still, occasionally, enforced. 

Between that and the Pre-Raphaelites was the “Climate Justice” gallery, which the gallery uses “to explore how art and collections can help people learn from history, shape the future, scrutinise decision-making and encourage caring, collective action”. Usually in my dreams this is where I try to run and can’t. Here you can play a thoroughly unenjoyable game of unremarkable metrolefty opinion buzzword bingo. A particular highlight was “The Empty Space”, a literal empty space reserved for the “Black Women’s Art Works” that MAG doesn’t own. 

I am not a fan of Pre-Raphaelite art; I find the preposterous Victorian sentimentality it is imbued with overwhelming, the subjects needlessly twee and folksy, and the style itself excessively romantic. Perhaps that is why I didn’t enjoy the artwork at the end of the Pre-Raphaelites gallery, reminding me Priti Patel is a bad person for categorising immigrants who earn less than £25,000 a year “low-skilled”. 

This programme of artivism is funded by you and me, the taxpayer

By the time I came to “Six Acts”, I was ready for home. It turns out Eric Hoffer was wrong — you can get enough of what you don’t need. Thinking I’d been worn out by the intellectual battering the gallery had given me as a result of my possession of conservative opinions, I had to read and re-read the information board several times. Even as I left, I still didn’t understand what you would miss if you were “contemplating works of art solely for their aesthetic or narrative qualities”. Nor do I understand how removing art and replacing it with a video installation of drag queens helps a responsible art gallery address those concerns. I’ve thought about this at great length since, and I don’t even comprehend how one can contemplate art for anything other than its aesthetic or narrative qualities. 

You may, as I did, find MAG’s curatorial style absurd; a postmodern concoction of conceptual, ironic, worthless, designed by the artless for the artless. The real absurdity is that, through the kindness of our hearts and the softness of our brains, this programme of artivism is funded by you and me, the taxpayer. Thanks to Guido Fawkes, we know that MAG, along with The Whitworth and Manchester Museum, “will pocket a cool £4,881,168 over the next three years courtesy of Arts Council England”.

The Arts Council is the biggest arts funding source in the UK — by a long way. It will spend around £1.34 billion in grants in the three years to 2026, 80 per cent of which comes directly from taxpayers. The Arts Council is an expressly political organisation, one that has become captured by proponents of identity politics. It now seeks to implement the “system of diversity” Ben Cobley describes in his book The Tribe, by reallocating privileges for “in-groups” at the expense of “out-groups”. 

This has not just become institutionalised within the Arts Council; it has become an express goal. In an excellent article for The Critic two years ago, artist and writer Alexander Adams detailed just how the Arts Council wields its influence:

Museums and public galleries have grown dependent on Arts Council of England grants. Grants are now given on the understanding that there is a duty to promote “marginalised” creators (and serve “marginalised” audiences), judged by race, sexual orientation and so forth … Within our museums a massive campaign legitimising identity politics is taking place.

For MAG, replacing its artwork is a physical enactment of the same belief that guides the Arts Council: that art should be subservient to, and put in service of, the process of reallocating privileges towards in-groups. Their art collection is a vehicle, not to celebrate the heights of man’s achievements, but to illuminate the depths of his depravities.

The question is why government funding is being used to reinforce a deeply divisive strain of identity politics — and why a Conservative party that has been in government over a decade is continuing to do so. Do Conservative ministers consider an artwork attacking their own Home Secretary a good use of public funds?

The answer is that there are plenty of good reasons to keep funding the arts. Whilst I have catalogued my frustration with MAG, I haven’t written of the artworks on display that didn’t outrage me. MAG has a fantastic collection of Victorian art in particular with over 2,000 oils; 3,000 watercolours; 250 sculptures and 1,000 prints. It is home to Holman Hunts, Stubbs, Turners, Ettys, Lowrys, ten Constables and Elizabeth Butler’s haunting Balaclava. The occupation of the Arts Council means a tightening of funding for these national treasures too, and this comes with the social risk of being portrayed as philistines in polite society. 

Nonetheless, the political agenda of the Arts Council should be forcing Conservatives, of both capital and small cs, to make a choice. If conservatives are opposed to identity politics because of the damage it does to Britain’s social fabric, then why continue to fund organisations who prioritise the propagation of that agenda? We must force the decision back on the arts sector, as Alexander Adams and David Lee argue in the pamphlet Abolish the Arts Council, between political causes or public funding.

John Ruskin said, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.” What will the book of our art show? Those pages, presumably, will be blank too.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover