Pictures in the Cave

I am more than usually angry with our British Government today, and had to walk out of my house and sit somewhere calming (pictured) for a while.

There’s a proud philistinism common in England, whose adherents proclaim that they never read fiction or poetry, only watch the news or sport on television, and have no interest in theatre. Many of the richer sort will pretend an interest in opera, but that’s largely for social reasons – that is, they’re not interested in the music, but go to see and be seen. Most philistines of any income level condemn opera in particular, and the arts in general, as elitist luvvie rubbish – and see all art as inessential and irrelevant.

At the beginning of July 2020, the British government announced a package of £1.57 billion to support the arts and culture in the time of Covid. Sounds great, and not at all like a government of philistines. But (surprise!) there are major problems with it.

Firstly, at the end of October as I write (four months since the big announcement), although we’ve had announcements, no payments have actually yet been made;

secondly, as you’d expect from a Conservative government, it’s all top-down. Support is for companies, rather than for the individual workers who actually do the work (and create the value in the company), and so specifically for organisations and venues. Now, the creative industries are unusual in that nearly everyone working in them is freelance – not permanently employed by anyone. As a result (and thirdly) this policy further undermines the position of the majority of people actually creating our world-class art, most of whom have not qualified for any support and have been unable to work since March; many of whom now have nothing to keep them from destitution.

This package reinforces the view that the arts are unimportant. And it’s fiscally illiterate, too. The creative industries (management-speak for the arts) contribute around £10 billion a year to the British economy – nearly ten times more than agriculture, and a quarter as much as all of Britain’s manufacturing industry.

The Conservatives can’t see that – whatever you think of the arts – live sports coverage, Netflix, the BBC, Fleabag, Killing Eve, Strictly Come Dancing, James Bond films, the Royal Opera House and small rural touring theatre companies all draw from the same pool of largely freelance and self-employed artistic workers.

Politicians remain embarrassed to be seen supporting the arts, because of their previously-mentioned belief that artistic work is self-indulgent frippery, rather than not only literally of economic value to the country, but also fundamental to any society.

After all, we know that for the last tens of thousands of years, once people had food and shelter, they sat around the fire telling stories and creating works of art.