The lack of state support for people working in the arts without independent wealth has had predictable results. As studies, including the 2018 report by Arts Emergency have established, we are witnessing a crisis of class representation. Some of its origins are longstanding, like networking based on family, school and university, but the collapse in funding has eliminated one of the few alternatives to nepotism and unpaid internships. Could a change in how the arts are funded reverse this decline?
The concept of state and public funding for the arts has a long history, from royal patronage of Shakespeare to Victorian cultural philanthropy. But the modern system of arts funding is a product of the post-war era, with the establishment of the Arts Council demonstrating that arts and culture were regarded as a worthwhile investment in public life from which all would benefit. Beyond official state funding, with its implicit anointing of recipients as acceptable and respectable, amateur and experimental artists, writers and musicians were given a lifeline in the 1960s and 1970s by the availability of the dole and of places to cheaply live, create and perform.
The Thatcher government made a deliberate shift from state to private and corporate funding of culture, with an unsurprising reduction in funding for experimental art or productions which challenged the status quo. But the Thatcher era was also notable for the Enterprise Allowance, a weekly payment scheme offered in the cynical hope of cutting the country’s unemployment figures through seeing the young unemployed claim it rather than the dole. In fact, the scheme was widely subverted for economic sustenance by musicians, community artists, stand-up comics and the founders of independent record labels. This repurposing of state support by creative individuals is a clue to what could be done in future.
New Labour, though far more committed than Thatcher to public spending on the arts, still tended to justify this by measuring culture through its accompanying socio-economic benefits, such as the capacity of regional cultural productions to assist the regeneration of deprived areas. While more money was undoubtedly useful, their instrumental approach fell short of advocating arts and culture as public goods in themselves, and — crucially — continued New Labour’s tendency to make cultural boosterism do the work of economic redistribution.
This lack of attention to material and structural inequality meant that the imposition of austerity under the coalition and Cameron governments had a drastic impact on culture, especially locally, where it struggled in the absence of top-down funding. Along with decades of gentrification of former creative centres and closures of live music venues in deference to property developers, the conditions which encouraged cross-class artistic innovation, and gave working-class artists a path to mainstream cultural platforms, have given way to an arid and sterile creative landscape dominated by the art of an elite.
Labour’s Minister for Culture is currently Tom Watson, who seems, curiously, to have an opinion on every subject other than this one. Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion that ‘too few of us fulfil our artistic potential’, meanwhile, is a useful starting point for any future culture policy: it is one job of a Labour government to ensure that creativity can flourish regardless of financial means. This should not mean a continuation of officially-designated ‘worthy’ cultural productions, but rather making provision for creative autonomy for all. This could be achieved through establishing affordable local recording, performance and exhibition spaces, and putting creative potential and resources in the hands of local communities by supporting more initiatives like Merseyside’s Collective Encounters Theatre, DIY Space for London and Bradford’s 1 in 12 Club.
Labour’s cultural manifesto, A Creative Future for All, already commits to increasing working-class access to the arts by tackling the sector’s culture of low pay and investing in arts facilities for state schools. Adding to this a system of financial support for creative workers, based on values more earnest than Thatcherite cynicism, would allow individuals the time and security to focus on creative work, without the constant anxiety, insecurity and time-consumption of job seeking or precarious labour. Such a step would demonstrate both the intrinsic worth of arts and culture, and the recognition that contributing to them should not be the preserve of the rich.