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The not-so-great art debate

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Will Gompertz | 09:29 UK time, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Last night the three political big guns in arts came face-to-face for a pre-election showdown. In front of a packed audience of arts grandees, the three strode to the stage to deliver their party-defining rhetoric.

Man walks past Henry Moore exhibition at the Tate BritainBen Bradshaw, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, spoke first. He told the audience of his belief in maintaining arts funding at its current levels.

He confirmed his commitment to "arms length" state funding. He talked about the importance of the arts to the health and wealth of the country. He received gentle applause.

Then it was the turn of his Conservative shadow, Jeremy Hunt, to have his say. The audience sat forward. Let the argument begin. But he said pretty much the same as Bradshaw.

Oh, well, maybe Don Foster, the charismatic Liberal Democrat would stoke things up a bit.

Nope. He agreed too. In fact if you were to create a tag cloud of what was said last night, the words "agree" and "consensus" would feature large.

There were some points of difference. Bradshaw and Hunt said they hoped that their parties will maintain funding at its present level, while Foster confirmed the Lib Dems would.

Hunt spoke about the idea that arts institutions should create endowments as a source of funding. Bradshaw was sceptical.

There was a small spat when Hunt said that the Conservatives would return lottery funding of the arts to its previous level. Bradshaw admitted that they had reduced the amount the lottery gives to the arts, but pointed out the Labour has significantly increased arts funding in general.

Europe was mentioned, but by then the room was so over-heated the audience could only think of the cool white wine waiting to be served next door.

Afterwards, as the arts grandees sipped their wine and nibbled at their nibbles, there was almost universal disappointment. They had come for a heated debate but only got lukewarm platitudes.

Another, thought they had their heads in the sand, unwilling to talk about contingency plans and priorities should arts funding be cut. An outcome that everybody to whom I spoke felt was inevitable.

All agreed that the real players in the arts field are those that will hold the purse strings, Messrs Darling, Osborne and Cable.

Sir Andrew Motion was asked to sum-up the evening up and did so with the intelligent brevity you'd expect from an ex -poet laureate. He said "You'd have to have the mind of a goldfish if you if you need [what we've just heard] summarised".

There's another arts hustings planned for next Tuesday at Tate Britain, chaired by Joan Bakewell. She is also the chair of the National Campaign for the Arts and therefore very close to all the important issues.

If she can't generate some proper debate and help identify some real policy differences then nobody can. As one of last night's attendees asked afterwards, "Where's their vision?" Perhaps on Tuesday we'll find out.

PS: I discussed the arts debate on Thursday 4 March on the Today programme:

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Any support for current levels of funding may be something that other sectors will not receive. Sometimes silence is best when support is in hand.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sorry but on this occasion I disagree with what you said on returning my post. Its absolutely on topic and factual based on my own experience.

  • Comment number 4.

    Where's the artistic vision?" That's the question!
    Not only is interest in the arts unfocused so is art itself. Where are the Vincent Van Goghs, Henri Matisses, Pablo Picassos of our generation?
    Where are the young, starving artists generating exciting, provocative poieces? Where is the avant-garde that can capture our generation on canvas or clay, or whatever...whose art we look upon and it speaks to our senses and we say, "Ah, this is so excellent!"
    Is our day and age so confused, lost that it marks the time that we must lower our expectations. The lack of truly outstanding work seems strange. What does it say about our society, our civiliazation? Is it that artists feel so bewildered that they cannot form a vision, never mind a new and vibrant vision? Is this why we get more work of shock value (meant to lure in the money) than work of true merit?

  • Comment number 5.

    Not only is interest in the arts unfocused so is art itself. Where are the Vincent Van Goghs, Henri Matisses, Pablo Picassos of our generation?



    In their day you only had to have talent and commitment.

    Nowadays you have to go through art college and, ideally, for that art college to be one of the few that the elite pay attention to. You then need to make the necessary connections. And talk the talk. Go to and get into all the necessary shows.

    In other words, nowadays, you really need to be rich or well-connected before you start out - and pretentious to boot.

    The Van Goghs and so on are still out there, but the art world is no longer looking in their direction!

  • Comment number 6.

    I believe (actually, I know) that "the artistic vision" is still there but over the years it has been hampered by funding institutions (e.g the arts council - pressured by governments ) who want to turn artists into "community based artist". To get funding, work has to be reduced to the level of therapeutic basket weaving - artists are not left to their own devices and, to make even a meagre living they (we), have to baby sit those in the community who wake up one morning with an artistic whim and look through local newspapers for useless workshops (workshop - the new buzz word) and classes that provide nothing but a basic introduction.
    Trying to get work directly funded is almost impossible. Money set aside by governments for "Art and Culture" is first given to the Arts Council - who then give it to those funding bodies who have managed to write applications using all the right buzz words and tick all the right boxes - they in turn fund projects with applications that use all the right buzz words and tick all the right boxes. Imagine you are an artist who just wants to get on with their work but then has to rethink an idea to make it - "directly related to the community", "ethnically inclusive", "disability inclusive", "relevant to building new audiences" blah blah blah.
    Before anyone comments on the last sentence - I am a disabled person and I really don't expect (or even want) work to be related to my lack of mobility - not even my own work.
    Another waste of money - "lets build new audiences" - How much money has been wasted on building new audiences conventions - attended by regional arts council delegates (who, in the main, have no idea of what it is like to be a working artist and have come up through the ranks of local government institutions - first - rent office assistant - social worker with a penchant for pretty water colors and attending drum workshops - to regional arts board executives responsible for distributing government funding to the humble artist practitioners. This idea that "Art" must appeal to the wider community and, the Thatcherite legacy, that it must also make an immediate profit is a thorn in the side of creativity. New work that is challenging will never appeal to a wider audiences - it may take years before it is seen as "valid" or make money. However, having said that, work that is challenging does make money indirectly - it filters through to the mainstream - all be it, in a watered down fashion but it does influence. e.g how many ideas do we see in mainstream cinema or theatre that originated from independently funded fringe film and theatre. How many images do we see in advertising that originated from underground art movements.
    Work is being produced which is original and inspired - but you want find it in Cork Street, - definitely not in Community Art - and probably not on the BBC websites or the Culture Show. It is "Underground". It is produced by artist practitioners who have given up filling in funding forms and are "just getting on with it" - we help each other by forming our own communities, by providing what we do well for free or for exchange. Because we a relatively poor and totally undervalued we don't present a very good image to the next generation of would be artists. Perhaps communities should support their local artists rather than expect local artists to support the community - which they do just by being there. James

  • Comment number 7.

    C'mon chaps, it's not about creativity anymore - it's about dosh. Same as everything else.


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