Sunday, 13 January 2008

The McMaster Report

So, Sir Brian McMaster's report Securing Excellence in the Arts has finally been published, and the intelligentsia have fallen over themselves to praise its "brilliance and boldness" (with a few notable exceptions).

I'm afraid I can't join in with the general peon. McMaster for me is a retrograde step that, if it actually informs public policy, could endanger access to the excellence he seeks to foster in Britain's cultural life.

For start, I think he, and most of the cultural elite, miss the point when they set up this false dichotomy between "excellence", and the hated "targets culture" of the last decade or so - where public subsidy goes hand in hand with a requirement to cultural institutions and artists to widen access or their appeal to particular groups and communities.

Who wouldn't be in favour of excellence? If the state is going to fund art and culture, then it should aspire to be funding the best, and raising the aspirations of the rest. But, at the same time, if galleries, museums, theatres and the rest of our cultural infrastructure is to exist at the behest of public subsidy, then it must contribute to the public good. The guardian of just what this should be is, like it or not, the government of the day. Excellence is about the quality of the product. Its end is that determined by its creator. Its funding should be about securing its positive impact for an audience and for the wellbeing of society.

I'm not sure anyone would argue with this, yet, we have got ourselves in a position where Sam West can speak for those, in line with McMaster, who say, "Art for Art’s sake is always more likely to produce good work than art that sets out to be useful or improving" as if the two are somehow in conflict.

Of course the values which are brought to judge art and culture should be aesthetic, but the values which are brought to determine where public money comes into fund the arts should rely on far more than a view of what is or isn't 'excellent'.

Government has a duty to secure the public good, and part of this, in any society which claims to be civilised, is access to the best art and culture possible for the greatest number. The reason for this is because, like it or not, Sam, art is "useful" and "improving".

This is not to enter the tired old debate about the intrinsic versus the instrumental (although, if art can promote mental health, that does seem a damn good reason to fund it to me). Even the "art for art's sake" brigade make the case for a flourishing cultural life in terms of its beneficial social (McMaster: "Excellent culture . . . gives us new insights and understandings of the world around us") and economic (West: "we must remind ourselves that the tourists who come to see those Shaftesbury Avenue shows make an enormous contribution to the national purse") impacts.

It is these impacts which DCMS have been trying for the best part of ten years to capture and to encourage the cultural sector to deliver. Of course, the rhetoric has gone too far, and needs redressing, but McMaster's emphasis on excellence and excellence alone as the aim of public policy and investment in culture is the other end of the spectrum - and could be just as damaging to the cultural life of the nation.

Matthew Taylor of the RSA is also concerned about the false dichotomy between views of culture's intrinsic and instrumental and makes the connected point that you have to have a system that allocates that the cash that as well as being effective is also democratic and responsible: "Public funding means public accountability: it is that simple."

McMaster wants excellence to be the only standard against which allocation decisions can be made. How do you ensure that this is the case? Well, he wants artists and cultural creators put in the driving seat. He wants funding bodies to make decisions based upon self assessment and peer review where the opinions of practitioners are dominant.

This would be all well and good if excellence were only one, rather than the primary basis for decision making, but it's not. Thus, you create the potential for cultural funding decisions that run counter to the public good, and thus threaten the legitimacy of arts subsidy. We've been here before - witness the 1990s controversy over lottery funding for the supposed elitist and aloof Royal Opera House. Putting artists in charge and making decisions on the basis of 'excellence' risks charges of elitism that could see a popular backlash against the whole system of funding for the arts.

How so? Well, much public funding for culture is about creating cultural opportunities where they don't exist or where particular groups are excluded (as measured by the hated diversity targets). By definition, this investment often is where there is a poor cultural infrastructure. Here, there can be no excellence. Investment fosters opportunity. Excellence may follow, but this may not necessarily be the case. If future investment decisions are made on the basis of excellence, then they may come into conflict with the public good. We may find ourselves funding institutions and artists that are indeed world class, but whose detachment from the society which funds them calls into question the legitimacy of their subsidy.

McMaster recognises this. He tells us that a commitment to excellence doesn't mean a decline in opportunity. "Excellent art", he tells us, "is by definition for, and relevant to, absolutely everyone." Well, quite.

The way to square this particularly difficult circle is, quite rightly, to ensure opportunity for access. Sadly, though, Sir Brian has spent so long thinking about excellence that his suggestions on how to improve access are threadbare. He is probably correct to identify a "not for me syndrome", but to fully understand this and frame solutions is a complex task best left to those with research capacity and a national remit for the public good like DCMS and the much maligned Arts Council. Trite solutions such as the week of free admission are mere gimmicks. Worst of all is the patronising suggestion that increased touring is the best way to bring the benefits of excellence to the poor benighted masses. This betrays McMaster's, and sadly James Purnell's, London-centric view of the cultural sector.

This arises because McMaster hasn't spent very much time looking at how people in this country actually access culture. Perhaps he had a flawed brief, but he's only really interested in what happens when they engage with big nationally funded activities and institutions, and arts ones at that (the report's occasional references to museums read as an ill-thought out add on to keep someone somewhere happy - but they don't really work). Of course people visit galleries and go to the theatre, but they also go to the library. They might never visit a national museum in London, but they might well go to their local museum or a National Trust property. McMaster is hot on how cultural practitioners need to engage internationally so that they can be world class, but beyond the gimmicks he's got nothing to say about how the rest of the country can join the party. Cultural life is indigenous to the communities that foster, create and consume it. How best to support this is as much a concern of government as the future excellence and international standing of our world class institutions.

It's sad that he focuses on the gimmicks when there is so much interesting stuff going on at the moment to explore how communities can have improved access to cultural opportunities. The thing is, though, it's not about excellence. It's about filling gaps in provision, raising aspirations, and beginning from the needs of communities.

Which is where I want to end this rather long rant. We fund the arts because they are valuable to our society, and we should fund particular projects, insitutions and practitioners because they are helping to improve the lives of individuals and communities. Of course we want our arts and culture to be excellent, but making excellence the touchstone of cultural policy and subsidy has big risks. It perpetuates the fallacy that the intrinsic value of art is always up against the instrumental. Fundamentally, though, it means that an aesthetic judgement on art will determine where the money goes, not assessments made on the basis of the public good.

McMaster could have written a very good report on how publicly funded art can be excellent. Instead, he has allowed excellence to become a totem obscuring all other values that should guide decisions on public subsidy. This will make for bad public policy, threatening access to cultural opportunity and limiting the benefit that art brings to our communities. It could even threaten the legitimacy of public subsidy for culture itself.

No comments: