With six years of Tory austerity behind us, Brexit on the horizon and the left-wing reorientation of the Labour Party ongoing, Culture Matters is starting a debate about the possible arts and cultural policies of a future socialist government. As part of this initiative, we will be interviewing representatives of organizations on the left – political parties, trade unions, arts organisations etc. We want to gather their views on art and culture, their analysis of the way things are at the moment, and what the way forward might look like.
Andrew Warburton starts us off with an introduction to the topic and a brief description of the state of play at the moment.
After years of reduced funding to the Arts Council of Great Britain in the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, the last Labour government presided, comparatively, over a golden age for the arts. It was not without its failures (including the much-derided Millennium Dome), but Labour’s achievements during those 13 years included the ending of museum admission fees, the opening of the Tate Modern and a heavy increase in funding to the Arts Council from £179 million in 1998 to £453 million in 2009.
It should come as no surprise to people on the left that the situation facing the arts in these austere times is less promising than it was six years ago. Over the course of the last parliament, Arts Council England saw a 30% reduction in funds from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. By 2015, this had caused a 22% reduction in the number of arts organizations regularly receiving funds from the government. Thirteen local councils were even forced to allocate zero funds to cultural expenditure by 2015.
Despite the Arts Council’s claim that every £1 of public funds spent on the arts generates £1.06 in the national economy, the Labour Party refused at first to commit to reversing Tory cuts and failed to make the case for arts funding. Former Shadow Culture Secretary Ivan Lewis bemoaned the austerity budget’s effect on arts and culture in 2010, saying, ‘I fear a return to the 80s and 90s when the arts were for the few, not the many.’ But when election season came around, the party appeared unwilling to challenge the austerity agenda.
It was only with the election of Jeremy Corbyn that Labour fully committed itself to reversing cuts to arts funding made since 2010 (amounting to losses of £42 million). This would be paid for, Corbyn said, by a reversal of the Conservatives’ capital gains tax cut. He also promised to address ‘systemic exploitation within the creative sector’ by enforcing minimum standards of pay and conditions for artists, including the ending of unpaid creative work. Finally, he expressed an openness to explore the notion of a basic income, paid to all citizens. This would, of course, allow artists to devote more time to their art.
To gather a sense of how ordinary artists feel about the present state of play in the world of art policy, I asked the visual artist Chris Bird for his opinion on the effects of the cuts and the recent reorientation of Labour’s arts policy. ‘The Conservatives,’ he said, ‘have created a ruthless environment in which creativity is marginalized and undermined. Jeremy Corbyn has instilled hope and will develop a more meaningful relationship between artists and the wider community.’
With an art world dominated by wealthy investors and a government apparently unwilling to increase public investment in art, it’s understandable that an artist like Bird would want to work for non-commercial, community-based organizations. As the art theorist, Boris Groys, points out, the ‘art market is – at least formally – a sphere dominated by private taste.’ Like countless other artists who are either unwilling or unable to work with the dynamics of the market or simply won’t adapt to the tastes of private investors, Bird chooses to collaborate with charities such as Mind in Camden and publications like The Big Issue, as well as regularly publishing on Culture Matters.
‘The commercial galleries are money-making enterprises,’ he said. ‘I prefer to work with progressive organizations such as trade unions, The Morning Star, The Big Issue, refugee support groups, left-wing bookshops……Community centres, squatted places and trade union premises are the best places to exhibit.’
Nevertheless, the decision that many artists face – whether to produce for the private market or focus on community-based, often pro bono art – is a far cry from the vision of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, which oversaw large-scale public investment in the arts. ‘By the provision of concert halls, modern libraries, theaters and suitable civic centres, we desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this country,’ was the lofty claim of his Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto.
The importance of public funding and the historic role of the three arts councils – Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and the Arts Council of Wales – should now be clear. Labour’s arts policy has always been about investing in art for the public good, creating opportunities for artists and audiences, including working class, LGBT and ethnic minority groups, who might otherwise be marginalized by the market.
My own involvement with Chroma, an Arts Council-funded literary journal in the more optimistic days of the 2000s, has convinced me that a robust debate about arts policy in the age of austerity is long overdue. At the forefront of this debate should be the recognition that Labour has always played a role in democratizing the art world, whether under Attlee, Blair or a future Corbyn premiership.
Andrew Warburton is a writer and editor in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a member of Labour International (the international section of the British Labour Party) and Momentum.