In the last week or two I have continually asked myself two questions: what is British culture, and who or what is it for?
I was moved to think about these abstracts after the price of a first class stamp rose to 60p.
Although most commentators asserted that a premium should be paid for an increasingly unused and loss-making service, I couldn't help feeling a little sad. In bold letters read: with the rise in cost comes the decline of the letter, the touch of the pen finally backspaced by the efficiency of the keyboard.
Amidst the frenzied hustle of business, and what feels like an inexorable 'click me quick' culture, letter writing is indeed helplessly, uselessly, non-instantaneous. Even licking an envelope is considered a drag. But the written letter, with its time, its affection, its individual beauty and thought, remains an art form. A creation. And as such it suddenly seemed to represent this coalition's attitude to culture: a cultural pursuit must be first financially viable, and optimally a wealth generator.
My thoughts have been bookended by two slices of Conservative rhetoric. First, David Cameron's 'We're all in it together' mantra; and second, Minister for Culture Ed Vaizey's recent Guardian article on the importance of the arts: 'We've secured the arts budget because we know how important the arts are, not just for ourselves as individuals, but for our economy and our image abroad.'
Now although Cameron's motif has attracted cynicism - for a millionaires' cabinet and the 45p rate - he is at least right in one aspect. When it comes to 'culture', we are indeed "all in it together". As individuals we are not only 'in' a wider collective culture but 'to' and 'of'. People of all wealth and background shape it, define it, maintain it. And Vaizey, in his words above, is clear on this. He understands that the arts - evocative expressions of and trending forces for culture - are 'important' for the individual and the collective.
Yet Vaizey also sees something else. Something his cabinet see every day, something that is as intrinsic to the attitude of the coalition as freedom of expression is to culture: pound signs. For, in Vaizey's piece, the emphasis was not on cultural expansion or cultural innovation, but on the importance of culture to the economy and to Britain's image. The latter is not, as you may at first think, a mere part of patriotic vanity; it also cries, 'investment'.
The most emphatic example of this is the doubled budget for the Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies, now standing at £81m (slightly more than the cuts to the Arts Council's annual budget). Secretary of State for COMS Jeremy Hunt justified these overpriced spectacles, celebrating the 'heritage, diversity, energy, inventiveness, wit and creativity that defines the British Isles', by citing 'an extraordinary business opportunity' and an opportunity to strengthen the national brand.
The issue of quantifying culture was explored in some persuasive articles and features on the Guardian website over the winter. Academic Dave O'Brien argued that 'when the cultural sector is straining to prove its worth with questionable narratives of economic impact, better decision-making informed by methods approved by the treasury can only be a good thing'. Tiffany Jenkins of the Institute of Ideas countered that focusing on financials would hinder a healthy, critical approach to the arts.
With the current fiscal restrictions it is neither surprising that arts funding has taken such a universal beating, nor reasonable to expect that arts funding would be held above social services, the disabled and the business sector. One also expects some sections of the arts world to counter economics with economics - to justify or argue for more funding in pragmatic, bottom line terms.
Vaizey's recent comments, however, reinvigorate concerns for the nature and climate of British culture, rather than just funding. First, with the financial focus of this government, 100% university arts funding cuts, and the rise of the 'iLife' - all chrome and screen and inescapable multi-platform - there has been a tangible shift in British society towards mechanization, materialism and monetization. We therefore need culture ministers who acknowledge economic restraints on the arts but also fight for artistic independence and triumph art's intrinsic and original value. In Hunt and Vaizey, we do not have them.
Second, by cloaking culture in the language of business and increasing pressure on arts organisations and projects to meet financial targets, this government is forcing them to choose the most likely methods to do so. The unfortunate irony of this policy is that the ambition and originality that made British culture so great will diminish and its desired economic vitality will decrease.
Without a change in attitude and language the coalition's cultural legacy is clear. 'Nations of the world, welcome to Britain 2012: a once great cultural nation, see! But to be soon a colourless economy.'
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