The Big, Grey Patch

IN August 1979, a treasury official, Mr. M. J. T. Caff, presented a paper, Government Spending on the Arts, to a conference on cultural economics sponsored by an American University.

It was a grey document, grey in tone and outlook, with its numbered paragraphs and pages of statistics, but fascinating nevertheless, for it must reveal the thinking in many other grey documents, flickering from hand to hand, around Mrs. Thatcher's cabinet table.

The late Richard Crossman described in his Diaries how the influence of the Treasury percolates other branches of the civil service, providing the basis for a Whitehall collective opinion, formidable for any government to challenge, even if it were disposed to do so. Mr. Caff is careful not to step beyond the bounds of propriety by suggesting an arts policy. His aims are 'descriptive, rather than analytic'; and he leaves ‘wide-ranging issues' for others to discuss. But he does expect these issues to be discussed within the terms of the factual summary, provided by the Treasury; and my fear is that if this summary were accepted at its face value, and the inferences duly drawn, it would result in the most vigorous arts policy since the days of Cromwell.

Of what situation precisely is it a summary? The title, Government Spending on the Arts, seems clear enough, but the definitions blur as you read on. In Paragraph 3, for example, spending is defined either as 'direct expenditure' or as 'tax concessions, for 'in either case there is an impact on the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement'. My layman's quibble is that grants and tax cuts, giving and less aggressive taking, should not equally count as spending: but this kind of accountancy also makes no distinction between grants which are give-aways and those which are investments, or between profitable tax-levels and unprofitable ones. A profitable tax level is not necessarily a high one. If VAT at 15% on theatre tickets has had the damaging effect on trade that the past disastrous summer would suggest, to levy it is self-defeating: it simply kills the geese laying the golden eggs.

If the term 'spending' is a little vague, what can be said about Mr. Caff's 'fairly broad' coverage of the arts- so broad indeed that it ranges from 'the live arts' to 'heritage', 'museums", "libraries' and 'ancient monuments. This is book-keeping run wild, when Stonehenge, the latest David Hockney and a textbook on quantum mechanics can alike be listed under the same ledger heading.

Even if we break up these categories, as Mr. Caff does in his tables of statistics, the question arises as to why they were brought together in the first place, except to prove Mr. Caff's general point that government spending on the arts is greater than often believed". By lumping everything together, Mr. Caff can prove that public spend ing on the arts amounts to 0.67 of total public expenditure, having risen from 0.49 in 1968/69. If, however, the arts are supposed to mean anything which preserves the past or civilises the future, the growth in public expenditure is scarcely significant, for either percentage is scandalously small. Mr. Caff evidently doesn't consider it to be small: he sees the matter in Treasury terms, which is that the demand is too high.

In his opening paragraph, he asserts that 'the demand for spending on the arts is virtually limitless'. Again I would nit-pick, for while the possibilities for increased spending may be virtually limitless, as they are in other areas of public spending, such as health or education, the actual demands are rather low. No arts union is holding the country to ransom with exorbitant claims, nor could it do so.

Mr. Caff connects the "virtually limitless' demand with the activities of lobbyists in Parliament, the press and the mass media. ... the BBC, he points out, 'have a daily half-hour programme reporting on artistic activity, just before the main evening news. This growth in interest has made it easier for Ministers to agree to increase arts spending."

The idea that Kaleidoscope, a rather cautious arts magazine programme in which I sometimes take part, is helping to dig a bottomless pit of demand, is so amusing that one might suspect Mr. Caff of trying to liven a dull conference, were it not for his insertion, between Paragraphs 1 and 4, of a more substantial point-that 'expenditure by the government on the arts has increased faster than in most other areas of government spending. He points out that 'expenditure on the live arts, at constant prices, has more than doubled in real terms in the 10 years up to 1979/80', while 'expenditure on national museums and galleries has almost doubled, and expenditure on historic buildings and ancient monuments risen by half. Overall, the live art's share of spending has tended to increase and museums, galleries and heritage's share to decline."

He was, in effect, telling the conference that governments have been rather generous to artists in recent years and that artists must expect the rate of growth to slow down, or go into reverse, so that other areas can catch up. It sounds reasonable, but there are many omissions. Much spending has been organisational and institutional, and has had little impact on what Mr. Caff calls 'the live arts'. The spending on libraries, for example, may have risen from £166 million in 1968/69 to £249 million in 1978/79; but authors have still received no money from a Public Lending Rights levy.

Nor does Mr. Caff point out that these increases were calculated from low base levels. The Arts Council's annual grant may have risen from £27 million in 1968/69 to £62 million in 1978/79; but this is still a low figure compared with other areas of government spending, such as the £7.8 thousand million spent on education or the £13.2 thousand million on social security (1977 figures).

It is also low when compared with one item in the national income, to which the arts can be held to have contributed, tourism. In 1977, tourism (with transport, the movement of foreign goods by British vessels) brought in £6.8 thousand million to the exchequer, according to the summary provided by the Government Statistical Service, or roughly 5.49% of the GNP. Tourist surveys have revealed that the arts are a major attraction for visitors to Britain, ranking second only to general sightseeing. The arts are therefore not a drain on Britain's wealth. The evidence suggests otherwise.

If Mr. Caff's figures were accepted at their face value, and the implications carried to their logical conclusions, we would be left with the idea that because actors' salaries in subsidised theatres have roughly doubled in the past 10 years from about £30 a week to £60, they should wait while teachers' salaries also double, from about £5,000 a year to £10,000.

It is in such human terms that the fallacies of the Treasury's approach are best revealed; for if you approach almost any artist in Britain, armed with Mr. Caff's statistics, and state that artists are better off now than they were 10 years ago, you will be greeted with a stare of disbelief. Artists know that this is not so. There may be individuals who have done well; and in certain areas, there may have been improvements. But overall, there has not been an improvement. There has been a decline, and artists feel that they are losing out in many battles, of which only one is that against inflation.

My purpose, however, is not to throw down the gauntlet to Mr. Caff- nor to write sob-stories on behalf of artists; but to take issue with certain orthodoxies, of which Mr. Caff's paper is an illustration, and to express concern that Whitehall's statistical methods are so much at odds with reality. There is a gap between theory and fact, design and execution, analytical methods and practical results, which the Treasury covers up with a big, grey patch of statistics. At the risk of sounding unduly poetic, what alarms me most is not the faulty logic or misleading figures but the sheer greyness.

Other areas of government spending are, more or less, clearly defined. We know what we are buying when we pay for primary schools or nuclear submarines. But governments give the impression of not quite knowing why they spend money on the arts, and so their approach is grey, partly in the sense that it is muddled, cloudy, neutral and anonymous. These opaque confusions extend up and down the scale, from central government to local authorities who dither as to whether the arts should be placed with Parks and Leisure or with Education.They are formally enshrined in the archaic formulae of the Charities Act, promulgated in the reign of Elizabeth I for the relief and education of the poor.

Subsidised arts organisations are usually registered as charities, for this is the only legal way by which they can receive grants. I suspect that for most people in the street, as for most civil servants, this device is regarded as a bit of a dodge. How do theatres relieve poverty, except by employing out-of-work actors? Are plays really educational? Aren't they at best, just enjoyable?

The Charities Act brings practical complications: there is a shadowy area concerning the payment of directors. Directors of charities cannot be paid in their capacity as directors, although they can employ themselves in another capacity. It brings problems of categorising. Because subsidised theatres are registered as charities, the Treasury is compelled to see them as being a drain on public resources.

If they were not a drain, they could not receive grants. This is a very limited approach. The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example. needs its grant because in itself it is loss-making. But the grant paid from the public purse to the RSC is re-paid many times over by foreign visitors to Stratford. Was the new Stratford Hilton built so that tourists could pay their respects to Ann Hathaway's cottage? In Stratford, in London, in Edinburgh at the time of the festival, and in many other places, the arts are a link in a chain, whose overall effect is profitable. If you weaken this link, or try to take it away altogether, the consequences for the local economy can be catastrophic.

Placing the arts among the charities labels them as loss-making; and they become vulnerable to governments who want to find ways to economize, particularly if it is felt that the Charities Act is being abused to gain easy access to public funds. Companies with a charitable status are also tied to Treasury methods of accounting, which means that they dare not show a profit at the end of a financial year, for fear of losing their grants. Money cannot be kept in reserve for a rainy day. Good years cannot be balanced out with bad ones which leads to poor housekeeping.

My main objection, however, to the Charities Act and indeed the Whitehall approach is that it tempts the government to view the arts in terms of artefacts, like Stonehenge, or institutions, like the National Theatre. The real contribution which the arts can make to society, however, lies in its process, which I would rather cumbersomely describe as the modification of culture.

If you regard the arts as being a beneficial process, rather than a set of institutional objects, you would go about subsidising or, at any rate, encouraging them in a very different way. You would seek to stimulate the artistic trade and to further the diversity and pluralism of the market. Such a policy, however, is effectively ruled out by the Whitehall approach, which also fails to take account of the way in which influxes of public money can distort and sometimes damage trade.

It may be idle to speculate on what might happen if the money spent on establishing the public library system had been devoted instead to a flat rate subsidy on the price of books. Such a measure would certainly have stimulated the trade of authors, publishers and booksellers, and encouraged the public to build up their own libraries. It would also have dispensed with the need for a lot of civic furniture and an army of librarians.

It is not quite so idle to wonder about what might have happened in the 1960s if the money spent on building expensive new theatres and maintaining them, had been used to provide flat rate subsidies on the sale of theatre tickets. Such a measure again would have stimulated trade and encouraged theatre managers to renovate existing theatres. It is still possible somewhat to redress the balance.

The question, however, as to whether public subsidies should be used as a general stimulus to trade or only in those specific areas where the public is likely to benefit is one which attracts an inevitable answer from politicians. Obviously' public money should only be given where the public are likely to benefit. In the case of the arts, however, it is not easy to say precisely where the public benefit lies.

If you start trying to define which arts are socially useful or not, encouraging or discouraging them accordingly, then, firstly, you are in danger of introducing censorship by the back door, and, secondly, you are starting to limit the purposes and content of art, with the consequent danger of turning artists into moralists and propagandists.

The merit of the Charities Act is that it nearly, but not quite, ducks this question. The arts can, for the sake of convenience, be held to lie in the field of education; and education is one of the general purposes for which the Act was instituted. The precise interpretation of these shadowy rules can be left to amateur boards, up and down the country, who with their professional advisers, run the charitable companies.

In a liberal climate of opinion, the boards are not likely to question whether a rock concert really counts as art or education. When the climate changes, and the boards come under political or economic pressure, they do start to niggle and demand positive social returns for the public money of which they are trustees. The muddle and anonymity of the Charities Act allows room for individual judgements about particular cases. Vague regulations are the better interpreted. There is virtue in greyness, but not perhaps much.

Something else is needed. I grew up in a world where a third of the atlas was coloured British Imperial Pink. By some benevolent miracle, our empire collapsed and transformed itself without the ferocity of other colonial struggles. The statesmen who steered us away from what might otherwise have been a savage inquisition by history, would have found their task more difficult, even perhaps impossible, if they had not been supported by a pluralistic culture able to adapt to, and express, and further, these changes.

If my reading as a child had been confined to what now seems the blinkered imperialism of Boy's Own or Biggles, it would have been hard psychologically to adjust from carrying the white man's burden to laying it down. Fortunately, I could read Shaw too, and Maugham, Bertrand Russell, and Graham Greene; and such combined, though diverse, influences helped to wean me from a bigotry which, if blown up to a national scale, could have blown up the nation.

Most social problems, from racism to war, have a cultural dimension: and it is sometimes only in the field of culture that these problems can be overcome. If post-imperial anxiety now seems too remote an example, we can take an illustration nearer to hand: unemployment. Not long ago, in the early 1960s, politicians were saying that a million unemployed was an unacceptably high level. Today they feel relieved when the level stays below 1 million, but fear the future which may bring levels of 5, 10 or even 20 million. In the past, it was assumed that if British industry were prosperous and cost-effective, it would be able to expand to absorb surplus labour. Nowadays, with silicon chips, microprocessors and all the other technological gains, we realise that one man's high productivity can mean that 500 men lose their jobs.

Both choices facing British industry may lead to unemployment. If it fails to modernise itself, there will be unemployment through the loss of markets and more advanced competition. If it modernises itself, however, only a fraction of the existing labour force will be needed.

No material solution is convincing. One might be that the range of consumer goods should increase to sop up the energies of surplus labour; but ecologists rightly warn us against wasting the world's resources on unnecessary luxuries. Another is that of the trade unions, who believe that unemployment should be evenly spread by reducing working hours all round; but high productivity cannot be achieved by a large, part-time, part-skilled labour force.

Yet another is that the surplus production from the West should be off-loaded on to the underproductive Third World, which certainly needs it-a solution infinitely tempting, but brimming with political complications.

Since these solutions raise as many difficulties as they solve, politicians have to learn how to cope with unemployment in itself; and some of them can be tempted to turn towards the arts as a way of keeping people off the streets. This is indeed a traditional justification for state patronage. As long ago as 1913, H. J. Mackinder, MP, argued in the House of Commons that 'we have... increased the leisure of vast masses of people. Moreover (we) have at the present time... an increasing monotony of employment."

His view was that the masses should be educated to use their leisure in the pursuit and appreciation of the arts. Mackinder's argument, and those based upon it, are quantitative rather than qualitative. It would be better, by this token, to have a thousand dedicated flautists than one inspired com- poser. It encourages art teachers, rather than artists themselves; and supports Lord Redcliffe-Maud's opinion that "we must not think of the artist as a special kind of person, but of every person as a special kind of artist.” This view misses the essential contribution which the arts can make, which is to alter the cultural climate in which unemployment looms as a threat.

Unemployment may not even be a problem. Fewer people need work. That's all. If unemployment is caused by high industrial productivity. the country need not be the poorer; and if the wealth is well spread, the individual person need not starve.

These may be big 'ifs'; but the difficult problems are psychological. We have been conditioned to believe that a person's worth is related to his or her earning capacity and productivity. To be declared redundant is like being made worthless. There are societies where not to work is regarded as sensible and desirable. In ours, it is considered shameful. An unemployed man is either as an object of pity or as a layabout; and the social pressures are such that he too is likely to accept the judgement of his peers and lose self-esteem.

The dread of being thought useless lies behind many restrictive practices in industry; while he who feels socially rejected, is liable to seek revenge by becoming anti-social. Nor should we underrate the mental flexibility required to change from a life structured by work to one which is, in that sense, unstructured. The real curse of unemployment is not the lengthening dole queue, but the surge of nervous breakdowns; not poverty, but crime; not unproductive days, but interminable nights, when would-be suicides think about the future and do not want it.

As a country we are hooked on employment, a drug grown among the poppies of the protestant work ethic, distilled in each slump and liberally dispensed around when business booms. It is a cultural drug, whose original medicinal value was lost when the sickness changed. But pluralistic cultures in the past have shown the ability to adjust to changing circumstances, when they are allowed to do so. This is largely because there are professions whose role includes the modification of culture. These include the arts. It is the artists who seek out the restrictive practices of the mind and lay the ghosts which cause them.

I am not suggesting, of course, that this is a self-conscious duty; or that writers get up in the morning and say, 'Now what area of our culture can I modify today?" But in the course of their work, they do seek the fresh thought or the illuminating phrase, the unexpected delight or the knot of tension under the skin which, if massaged gently away, releases a new flow of energy.

It is a process whose net result is the modification of culture, if only on a personal level. But the writers who are widely read, the musicians who are heard, the painters whose work is seen, extend this process to a public scale, not only for others, but with others. The public has to discover for itself which artists relate to its needs and which do not.

It is likely to be a slow discovery, starting with a few enthusiasts, swelling to a crowd, dwindling, or growing, until perhaps it embraces nations. It may be an Orwell who first notices in the pursuit of a modern utopia, the sties of an animal farm; but it was his public who took the myth to heart and used it as a mental tool, one among many, for interpreting the present.

If I were rhetorically asked, 'Who is more socially valuable. an artist or a doctor,' my reply would be that 'If you do not have artists, then you must have a lot of doctors, for you will need them all'.

Artists need the benefit of a pluralist arts system; for if the market is deliberately restricted and if it is only open to certain kinds of artists, there is the real danger that the culture may be modified in the wrong way, by shrinking. The culture becomes a collective tunnel vision, narrow and intense, like a laser beam. By becoming obsessed with one problem instead of many, or even one cultural tradition, however honourable its origins, this thin overheated cultural spotlight can burn out the eyes.

The social value of artists is thus linked to the pluralism of the system; and in Britain, for the most part, we have been lucky in that our culture has stayed flexible and comparatively pluralistic. It has had its limitations: a certain chauvinism, some censorship, poor libel laws, some capitalistic monopolies; but its essential diversity has not been seriously threatened.

But our luck may not hold. There are too many ways in which the pluralism is being knowingly or unwittingly threatened. One such challenge is that of the mass media, where, for example, the power of scheduling television programmes is concentrated into a few people's hands.

Another is the way in which independent publishers band together into conglomerates for their economic protection. The commercial theatre producers are going through bad times and are lowering their sights accordingly. The subsidised arts receive their grants through one main body. the Arts Council, and by means of the Charities Act, which characterises their activity as educational; and a narrow interpretation of education implies an enforcement of the existing culture, rather than its change or modification.

Despite the 'arm's length principle', political influence does count in the dispensing of grants. Few people believe that on artistic merits alone, the RSC and the National combined are worth half the grant money given to 172 other theatres. In the recent cut backs, suggested by the Arts Council in response to the government's determination to reduce public spending, it was not the major theatres, the big money spenders, who were threatened but the smaller theatres, the struggling ones and the theatres of the future.

We have built ourselves a subsidised arts system and, in doing so, damaged the economy of the existing commercial one. We are now trying half-heartedly to reverse the process, but under-financing the subsidised sector, without providing financial help to the remains of the commercial market. In these expensive shifts of policy, artists have benefited very little; and their trade has suffered-not only in money terms, but pluralism too.

In the past, pluralism has always been associated with a pluralist economy, one where there are many small businesses, each producing small profits of which a fraction is spent on the arts. Nowadays, our economy is shrinking and becoming increasingly centralised. This may be because fewer people are needed to produce the country's wealth; and they have to work in larger units for the sake of mass production. These large units in turn need to be controlled or at least influenced by government.

In such a situation, there are no major sources of patronage, apart from government and a few large industries in search of publicity through the arts. There are few rich private patrons, no truly affluent middle classes; and the amount which private individuals can afford to spend on the arts amounts to little more than small change. In the 1900s, stalls seat for a straight play would have cost 15/- which in real terms today would be about £15. No theatre management todays would expect the public to pay £15 for a stalls seat. The market starts to flag at £5 and over.

The main hope for retaining a pluralist arts system is if the government positively decides to do so, by stimulating trade. If it resolves to take so dramatic a step, it must not only re-think previous policies but must look again at the kind of factual analysis which the Treasury is providing. It must try to penetrate the grey surrounding the Treasury's own cultural tunnel vision. I am not suggesting that the scope of my tunnel vision is wider than theirs or Mr. Caff's. It is merely angled differently; and the act of writing is itself undertaken in the hope that, by shifting these angles slightly while relating them together, we may collectively illumine the grey areas where individually we are blind.

That is the social justification for the arts, the widening of the collective vision. It is the only reason why grant money should be given at all. All the other motives are incidental-the boost to tourism, the solving of problems through the modification of culture. What actually matters is that we as a nation have clearer sight; and can learn to delight in the colours and shapes around us. The struggle against greyness, like the running battle with the philistines, is not one to be lightly undertaken.

It requires an imaginative faith to guess that in a November sky, there are many drops of rain, each perfectly formed, each different, each flashing forth the colours of the rainbow as the sun penetrates each prism. It needs an act of will simply to remember that nothing is grey but inattention makes it so, nothing coloured but boredom makes it grey.

[John Elsom is the author of the Liberal Party's discussion document on arts subsidy, The Arts: Change and Choice, and is a member of the Liberal Party's arts panel. He has written several books on the theatre, is theatre critic for The Listener and a regular broadcaster.]

November, 1979