Over lunch, Tessa Jowell and I had a friendly spat about her government wasting zillions on the Olympics while it’s set to squeeze arts funding. Britain excels at the arts, while our current standing in sport, notably cricket, football, rugby and athletics, where cash now sloshes around, is abysmal. Naturally, Jowell defended the money for the games. But here’s the killer. The arts sector, which includes everything from live theatre and music to heritage, has been told to plan for annual financial cuts of 7% from 2008. The culture department does not deny these figures.
I'm guessing here, but I would have thought it likely that the Culture Department would refrain from commenting on any financial prognostication that hasn't already been indicated by the Chancellor. (In the Budget in March, the Chancellor announced a freeze in spending in real terms for the Home Office from 2008 to 2011, and a five per cent real cut in spending in HM Revenue and Customs, the Treasury, the Department of Work and Pensions, and the Cabinet Office. So these are known.) It appears to me likely, moreover, that Brooks is confusing spending in real and nominal terms.
My interest, however, is in Stephen's comment:
I read that and thought 'hurrah'. To me, the 7 per cent 'cut' (I doubt they are real cuts rather than a reduction in the increase) in the arts budget is a small but welcome development. The complaint should be that it is too small.
I've commented before - with reference to an article in The New Statesman that mistakenly likened our ideological positions - that Stephen and I hold divergent views on many aspects of social and economic policy. One of those is arts subsidy. He's against it.
I know Stephen well. Unlike some opponents of arts subsidy - say, the former MP Terry Dicks, whom even other right-wing Tories described as a bonehead (I recall Teddy Taylor, europhobe and hanger, saying this) - Stephen has a great enthusiasm for and knowledge of the arts. His position is philosophical rather than philistine; and there is a cultural argument against subsidy. The late Kingsley Amis was in this camp as well. In a letter to The Mail on Sunday in 1985 (reproduced in The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction, 1954-1990, 1991, p. 254), Amis wrote:
The moment artists are paid in advance (which is what a subsidy means) they are tempted to become wasteful and self-indulgent, showing off to their cronies instead of having to appeal to the public. What the public wants may not be the perfect guide but it's better than what administrators and bureaucrats decide we should have.
The difficulty with this argument that some of the worst offences against taste are productions commissioned by administrators with the explicit intention of creating popular appeal. (I wrote about one lamentable case, and the reasoning behind it, here.) Moreover, the alternative to arts subsidy is business sponsorship. Vapid populism would be a recurring temptation for the very good reason identified as long ago as 1976 by Lord Redcliffe-Maud in his Gulbenkian report on "Support for the Arts" (quoted in Roy Shaw, The Arts and the People, 1986, p. 68): "The firms have no responsibility towards arts organisations, and the latter could find themselves overnight in grave embarrassment if they became dependent to any great extent on business patronage."
There seems to me a defensible case for arts subsidy out of general taxation that ought to be palatable to free-market advocates such as Stephen. There are areas of the arts that I can't appreciate. Unlike Stephen, I have a blind spot about ballet, and never attend it (though I admire the ballet music of Stravinsky and many others). But I believe I should contribute to the public provision of ballet if other taxpayers do, because the alternative is a system of sponsorship that on average would militate against aesthetic quality. State intervention in this context may be seen, as Samuel Brittan has put it (The Role and Limits of Government: Essays in Political Economy, 1983, p. 56), as "a network of implicit contracts, which it would be prohibitively expensive to negotiate explicitly, both because of transaction costs and because of the incentive to act as a free rider and leave others to finance the activities of which one privately approves".
There are obvious costs to arts subsidy. There are opportunity costs as well; as populists are wont to point out, what we spend on the arts is not spent on kidney machines. I strongly argue that those costs are worthwhile and make for a more civilised society.