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Artillery Row

What is culture anyway?

Protecting and renewing culture demands a fuller understanding of its nature and its purposes

The UK’s cultural institutions are the boy who cried wolf. Since the early days of the 2010 coalition government’s austerity programme, museums, theatres, and art schools have prophesied the collapse of not only the country’s cultural infrastructure but also the very civilisation it serves. Such hyperbole is what art is made of. But now that the crisis might finally be real, the dramatic overstatements could bring about a chance to rethink the role of institutionally supported culture in society at large.

The financial crisis is now so severe that it has prompted a rhetorical crisis to boot. The artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre David Byrne recently suggested that the arts need an urgent “rescue package” or that his art form may be lost to a generation. Opinion pieces hoping for the rise of private philanthropy yet warning of the perils of corporate sponsorship appear with tedious regularity. Some propose bold changes. The art world insider Ben Luke attacked the holy grail of Britain’s cultural policy and called on museums to reintroduce entry charges. The industry’s motto of “who pays?”, once muttered sotto voce, is now the arts’ favourite slogan.

This cliché rhymes the desperate “who pays?” with a more fundamental “what for?”

Each crisis brings an opportunity. This cliché rhymes the desperate “who pays?” with a more fundamental “what for?” If the arts have, indeed, reached a breaking point, this far more pertinent question needs a new answer. 

The raging culture wars have been of limited use in this debate. There are two alternative ways in which its questions might be addressed. One is to litigate the instrumental value of the arts. This is the sector’s favoured rhetorical strategy. Another far more challenging approach is to reconsider the definitions of culture and to construct a mission for a collective, institutionally promoted art following an agreed set of values. This might require a reprisal of the debates of European societies of the 18th and 19th centuries that gave rise to diverse understandings of the role of culture to its people. 

The progress-and-growth approach is to argue that the creative industries are too big to fail. That they employ 2.4 million people. Or bring £126 billion to the economy annually. And because the sector is now so buoyant and successful, the state would be mad not to bail it out each year from an imminent collapse. 

This is, of course, spurious and these numbers are wrong by an order of magnitude. The mindless deployment of such stats as diplomatic clenchers prevents cultural animators from differentiating between their own economic and cultural capitals and thus from reckoning with how they got here. The growth in the cultural sector has vastly outpaced the rest of society in the past decades. Artists who benefitted from this ride, however, even today look at the pre-Blair years with nostalgia for the opportunities afforded by a lax welfare state. The truth is that since the landmark opening of Tate Modern in 2000, the UK has funded countless new arts organisations and educates far greater numbers of artists than previously. Artists might be poorer on average, but there are now far more of them and their contribution to culture is more pronounced than ever.

This should be good news to the doom-mongers. The sector is now far more diverse and opportunities exist for no end of niche cultural positions. East London’s Hackney Council, for example, recently awarded cash to a project exploring cinematic productions by a group of “Mesopotamian and Anatolian Queers for Azadî”. The National Gallery is spending some £100,000 of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ money on drag queens, Bake Off contestants, and neurodiversity advocates making social media content. It’s hard to imagine that funding for such interests would have attracted the attention of heritage bureaucrats or philanthropists thirty years ago. If one took the pronouncements by bodies like Arts Council England at face value, on the other hand, Kurdish political interests and TikTok “art” are precisely what the UK’s cultural institutions wanted the country’s culture to look like.

The human resources with which the cultural sector did all this also warrant reflection. By some accounts, the arts in the UK punch far above their weight. The clout of British artists on the international contemporary art scene, for example, is considerable. Yet fewer than 400,000 people work in music, visual and performing arts, museums, galleries, and craft, those parts of the cultural industries that rely on state support the most. This is again impressive until one considers that in 2019, nearly 160,000 future workers enrolled in arts courses in the UK. This number will only begin to fall now that the redistribution of higher education funding announced in 2021 begins to drive the closures of art departments.

The recorded growth of the cultural field is at least in some part due to the overproduction of the creative class. For many years, enough students graduated each summer to expand the available workforce by a third. Questioning what all these students end up doing is taboo. Arts advocates insist on the transferability of creative and critical skills. The university admission administrator UCAS until recently listed retail as the most likely career outcome for arts graduates. 

If, as the lobby suggests, one were to ignore the economics of skills, such a long tail of arts grads has a profound bearing on the culture which they are not directly producing. Christopher Lasch outlined the flaws of filling a society with a mass of overeducated creative and critical agents in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism. Uncharitably, one could apply Lasch’s concerns to the neoliberal arts machine and chastise it for creating armies of new neoliberals who cosplay as cultural radicals. 

… the most perverse side-effect of these hordes’ critical redundancy is how reluctant they have been to question the institutions’ idea of culture

The state embraces the cultural operators because they are politically impotent. Yet the most perverse side-effect of these hordes’ critical redundancy is how reluctant they have been to question the institutions’ idea of culture. At this late stage of the game, one might need to be a conspiracy theorist to truly understand why the creative industries still receive such unthinking buy-in for their version of progress.

More helpful answers might lie in the deeper past. Lasch contended with culture in his 1991 magnum opus The True and Only Heaven which traces the historical emergence of progressive ideals and their seeming incontestability today. One of his targets is the formation of the social sciences and the development of the very idea of culture. If culture was a precursor to today’s cultural industries behemoth, we might do well to return to its origins. 

Lasch outlines the differences between formulations of culture promoted by European traditions. He credits 20th-century English historians Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson with the understanding of culture as not restricted to the arts but encompassing a society’s entire way of life. This notion emerged against a wholesale destruction of traditional patterns and customs promoted by the Industrial Revolution. English culture, thus, is a broad concept that can claim to include disruptive, non-artistic agents. The creative industries do this today when they count the economic output of telecoms and software as their own in those false statistics.

But this projection, Lasch proposes, is not entirely grounded in reality and is historically disconnected from its origins. The German Romantic tradition, in which culture and the progressive civilisation remain separate and sometimes opposing entities, had a great influence on the arts in England. The culture which Lasch observes in the writings of Coleridge or Ruskin often stands in opposition to the material progressivism of its time. Even more strikingly in France, the emerging idea of culture concerned itself with country life and crafts while the cosmopolitan milieu of Flaubert and Baudelaire became synonymous with “civilisation”.

These historical differences go some way to explaining why numerous German cities today still maintain a Staatsoper while Britain argues the fate of the English National Opera. They also motivate the “civilising mission” of French cultural policy of the past hundred years that manifested in generous bailouts for artists during the Covid pandemic. To Lasch and his historical witnesses, the question of a culture’s notional embrace or rejection of the bourgeoisie’s desire for material accumulation and progress is inextricably linked to the art it produces. 

This account, however, leaves an unsatisfying explanatory gap in the evolution of the UK’s cultural ethos. Narratives put forward by today’s cultural industries have the tint of Enlightenment notions associated with French materialism. Ben Luke’s proposal for reintroducing museum entry charges, for example, was in the first instance an opportunity to increase pay for museum curators. The creative focus of cultural institutions on parochial cultural forms, on the other hand, would be more Germanic, were it not for the fact that it’s often the traditions of other cultures that the UK’s institutions celebrate. At the same time, more counts as culture in the British Isles than ever before. Culture and civilisation have thus collapsed into each other and nobody remembers what they once were. 

Who, if anyone, should oversee culture after its current crisis? The UK’s panicked cultural institutions are not yet ready to face their future. It would be of little comfort to remind them that the phoenix emerges renewed from the ashes. In the meantime, however, plenty of ideas might come from a close examination of the context which gave rise to our muddled understanding of culture itself.

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