IN the ageing process which normally accompanies the reading of yet another arts policy document, I realised that it is now nearly twenty-one years since I first ventured into print on this contentious subject with my book, Theatre Outside London. It is a definitive milestone; but I wish I could tell from its carved and mossy letters how far we have come and how far, oh Lord, to go. One milestone is much the same as another in the arts policy journey; and in the intervening years, theatres have entranced and exited, and the unemployment rate among actors has stayed much the same, and nothing significantly has changed. For the past ten or eleven years, however, the conviction has hardened in (and with) my arteries that the chaos in the arts merely reflects what is wrong with our system of government. All administrations have been guilty of acts of philistinism and bad faith, not just towards artists, but towards Britain as a whole; and this rottenness extends downwards into the details of our everyday lives. That is why we keep having to write and commission arts reports. We know that something is wrong, but we lack the political courage to face the consequences of setting it right. The latest survey was commissioned by the current Arts Minister, Richard Luce MP, from the civil servant who until recently headed the Office of Arts and Libraries, Richard Wilding CB. Mr. Wilding delivered his report, Supporting the Arts, a review of the structure of arts funding, as befits a good civil servant, exactly on time, in September 1989; and my first impression, on reading the opening pages, was that he had done a good job.

Let me re-word that. It was not so much that he had done a good job, but that he was making several vital concessions to common sense and my point of view, the two being synonymous. This is very unlike arts research shemozzles in general, and much to be applauded. For example, my argument has always been that the effect of arts subsidies was not to enlarge the arts market but to marginalise it, to make it a small and decorative factor in a much larger field of endeavour which is not perceived to be artistic at all.

This is illustrated by the way in which the current Chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Palumbo, has revived an old idea that a certain percentage of the costs of a new building project should be spent on commissioning works of art. The architecture of the building itself is not perceived to be artistic, only the lumps of symbolic plaster which decorate its forecourt. The Barbican of ill-fame contains many such token gestures towards the arts. The wind-swept Sculpture Court, forever empty even of lovers, springs to mind. But this does not prevent it from being a monstrously ugly building.

Wilding, however, does acknowledge that the arts cover a much wider area of activity than has been hitherto recognised; and he also concedes that the subsidised sector of the arts is a mere fraction of the whole. This is another significant development, for in the past the Arts Council has behaved as if it is only the subsidised sector which really counts. Wilding proposes that the Arts Council should act as a forum for all the arts, subsidised and commercial, amateur, and professional, alike; and by bringing the Crafts Council, he has significantly enlarged the Arts Council's terms of reference.

In the dim pre-Thatcherite past, the competition between the subsidised and the commercial sectors of the theatre was unfairly biased against the commercial side. The subsidised theatres reduced their seat prices, with the help of grant-aid, to a point where the commercial theatres could no longer compete. The growth of the subsidised theatres therefore was more than matched by a decline in the commercial sector; and the net result was a shrinking of the theatre system. This reasoning is no longer quite so appropriate, for the subsidised theatres in a desperate search for more money, have jacked up their seat prices; but it is gratifying to observe that Mr. Wilding has acknowledged that this problem could exist. But what is the real size of the arts market? In the mid-1970s, when I was a spokesperson for the Liberal Party's Arts and Broadcasting Committee, I happened to mention in a three-party debate that I couldn't understand why subsidies to the car industry (which were then more than four times the size of the Arts Council's annual grant) should be regarded as investment, whereas subsidies to the arts should be regarded as charity. The arts employed more people than the car industry and, unlike the car industry, provided an overall profit to the country.

I deemed this to be a self-evident fact, but it provoked a heated response from my opposite numbers in the Labour and Tory parties, and a word of warning from the Liberal Party itself. Of course, the arts (they argued) were not as important as the car industry. Had I considered the knock-on effects of the car industry to all the suppliers and manufacturers of component parts? And the car industry was obviously useful, in a way that the arts were not. 'Well,' I replied, 'books seem to me as useful as cars and if you doubt my words, you should try to learn Russian by taking apart an internal combustion engine.'

Within a year, the statisticians had got to work, and the politicians had examined the results, and there were facts and figures to back up this silly analogy; and, lo and behold, they all agreed that many more people were employed by the arts than in the car industry and that, yes, the arts did show an overall profit to the country etc; at which point, every politician who ever sidled with an ingratiating smile on to an arts platform would announce that the arts employed more people than the car industry and showed a p. to the c. to boot, as if it were a startling new fact. Meanwhile, the car industry had shrunk and under Thatcher had lost its subsidies; and the whole point of the analogy was lost.

This fatuous exchange, however, provoked a new statistical game which consisted of trying to tot up the size of the 'arts industry'. It will come as no surprise that different definitions of the arts produced different national figures. If the arts are seen as part of the leisure industry (and include broadcasting, the press, arts-based tourism etc), the figures indicate an arts market of £14-to-£20 billion. If the arts are linked with industry and heritage, including commercial advertising, design and architecture, the figures indicate a market size of £36-to-£40 billion. But this is monopoly money. The real value of such statistics is, firstly, to prove the very small part which Arts Council subsidies play in these proceedings, less than 1% of whichever whole one chooses, and secondly, to expose the sloppy definition of the arts.

Wilding links the arts with 'leisure'; and takes a rather low national figure, nearly £14 billion, which represents 'total consumer expenditure in the UK on all forms of recreation and entertainment in 1987 (including football matches, theatres, newspapers, books, tapes and TV sets)'. In this, he is at odds with a former Treasury official, Mr. J. T. Caff, who in August 1979 brought 'heritage' into his definition of the arts (Contemporary Review, January 1980) and concluded that we spent 0.65% of our national income on the arts. Wilding ignores the whole field of art in industry (advertising, industrial design, architecture); but includes crafts. A pot made by hand should be regarded as artistic, whereas one made by a machine, such as a Wedgwood vase, is not.

He rightly stresses the link between the arts and broadcasting, and points out that the BBC spent £160 million on arts programmes, which in itself is more than the current grant to the Arts Council. But he does not follow up Lord Annan's telling point that broadcasting needs to be considered as an art in itself, not just as a supplier of arts programmes. Thus, David Attenborough's Life On Earth series is not art, whereas Arena or The South Bank Show would be. Arts are only the arts if they are clearly labelled the 'arts'. The writers, composers and photographers who contributed to Life On Earth must be artisans, which is not the same thing at all.

This specious distinction absolves Wilding from the necessity of looking at the government's White Paper on Broadcasting (Contemporary Review March 1989), which is such a horrible mixture of bad and indifferent news for the arts. One of the central problems which has afflicted the arts for generations has been that the government has controlled and determined the overall size of broadcasting. It has determined the license fee, the management structure, the nature of the franchises and even, to some extent, the mix of programmes within the various channels. The White Paper, which is about to become a government bill, apparently wants to enlarge the market, and to open it up, which sounds like good news; but unfortunately, it is also designed to restrict freedom of expression by establishing no less than five layers of censorship. It provides more opportunity for businessmen to make money, less for programme makers to make good programmes.

Although Wilding pays lip service to the idea that the arts and broadcasting should be more closely linked, he makes no reasonable proposition as to how this can be done, other than by suggesting that the Arts Council should take the lead in doing it. Indeed, his report nods in many similar directions without reaching any conclusions. It concentrates its attention, however, on a much narrower topic, the relation- ship between the Arts Council and the Regional Arts Associations (RAAS).

This is really a continuation of the theory, outlined in yet another arts policy farrago, The Glory of the Garden (1984), of devolving the power of detailed grant-giving to the regions and of reducing the size (in manpower) of the central Arts Council. Wilding subscribes to the view that the Arts Council should be a supreme guiding influence within the arts system, accountable to the Minister alone, while leaving the actual implementation of its policies to the RAAS. He notes that The Glory of the Garden hasn't produced better gardening or more flowers. There is still a lot of confusion and bitterness between the central agency and its 'client' regions; and he proposes a different structure, one which would incorporate the Regional Arts Associations into the deliberations of the Arts Council itself. He also proposes to call them Boards (pace Elsom, c.1977) which is a much more managerial word and to reduce their numbers from 12 to 7.

This is an old idea. The Liberal Arts Panel argued in 1981 that the Arts Council should consist primarily of elected representatives of the Regional Arts Associations, thus turning the Council from an appointed body to an elected one. Wilding does not want to go that far. The representatives of the RAAS should not have a majority on the Council, but merely a guaranteed and comparatively large minority, 7 out of 24 council members.

Well, there are many other possible constituencies, if this is considered desirable. The arts unions, the various management associations and even consumer associations spring to mind. But Wilding wants the Council to stay amateur, in line with the good old English amateur tradition, and a-political, in line with the good old English principle of autocracy by stealth. Wilding is frightened of any signs of genuine democracy, and so he invents a formula for co-operation between the regions and the metropolis, which stops short of significantly changing the system.

Nonetheless, Wilding has conceded the point that the Arts Council is an elitist body, in the polite sense of the word, namely a collection of prominent individuals who may not know much about the art but do know the Prime Minister. All he lacks is the courage to contemplate alternatives, except those which he can knock down; and he still does not understand the scale of the arts in Britain, despite his figure of £14 billion plucked from thin air for his introduction.

This is demonstrated by his embracing of another familiar Elsom-ite motif, circa 1980, which is to establish a data base for the arts in Britain. This is also an idea overtaken by events. When it was first put forward, computers were not on everybody's desk. They were large cumbersome affairs in universities and major companies. Therefore, a single data base seemed plausible, at least for certain art forms. It would prove a growing library of arts information and statistics to which all those who had a terminal, and a communications link, could have access.

Nowadays the theory of a few big computers has been replaced in practice by desk-top computers which can communicate with one another. It is therefore much more important and practical for arts companies to use specially designed arts software on their PCs to help them to converse. To centralise all this information is, at this stage, an unnecessary and expensive luxury; nor would it help with what Mr. Wilding sees as the main problem with arts funding, the defining of the arts.

Unfortunately, this can't be done, or at least not in a way which would help Mr. Wilding. The arts do not consist of various objects, institutions or even jobs. The arts are a process of perception, like science. If you were trying to define science, you would not start by asking, 'Is it a car? Is it a chemical compound? You would try to analyse the reasoning process which lies behind all scientific activity. It is the same problem with the arts. "Whereas scientists are concerned with the pursuit of factual knowledge, artists are preoccupied with the shaping of experience' (The Shaping of Experience, 1985). Through the arts, we discover and express the many kinds of values which affect our lives; and this explains (i) why it is impossible to estimate the total market for the arts, for they permeate our lives, and (ii) why governments handle them so badly. Governments are always trying to rig the value systems of society to help them win the next election.

The crowning impudence of this report comes in the way in which Wilding imputes 'chaos' to the arts themselves, not to government. Indeed, he even expresses the opinion that 'in the arts world...some degree of chaos is a good thing and inseparable from necessary freedoms". It needs to be said without any equivocation that the kind of chaos about which he is talking stems directly from government and restricts the freedom of the artist.

Why can Mr. Wilding not tackle the problem of relating the arts to broadcasting? Because he is responsible only to the Minister for the Arts and Libraries and not to the Home Office which deals with broadcasting. Why can he not talk about heritage or the commercial aspects of the arts? Because he is not writing for the Minister for the Environment or the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

The chaos comes from the top. Artists must cope with it. But let nobody believe that the chaos is unintentional. It is not a cheerful untidiness. It is deliberate. Governments talk about freedom of speech, but in practice, as the White Paper on Broadcasting demonstrates, they always try to restrict it. They talk about the 'arm's length principle", which certainly helps to protect individual companies from direct government interference. But in the larger structures which control the arts in Britain, government interference is everywhere. It operates through a network of boards of the great and the good, and the regional equivalents, on which artists are for the most part quite unrepresented. The chaos to which Wilding refers is a unholy congress of quangos.

But there is one fact which emerges unbidden from his report. The great absence-of-being, which has always bedevilled the government's handling of arts subsidy matters, is the lack of critical debate concerning the arts themselves. Into this void, all kinds of prejudices rush. Sir William Rees-Mogg and Mrs. Whitehouse want to defend the family. Local councils want to encourage community art, whatever that may mean. A certain proportion of funding must go to women's art, ethnic art and art for the disabled. These are not aesthetic criteria at all. It is a kind of social engineering with a propensity to backfire. Instead of, for example, guaranteeing a black artist the right to be heard, it limits his or her opportunities for advance. It is a very eighteenth-century approach, a place for everyone and everyone in place.

You can't attack the Arts Council for its lack of artistic taste because it has never pretended to have one. In effect, the government uses such cliches as "the best for the most' without having any idea as to what the best in art could mean. The national companies must represent the best in British art because we have paid the most for them. For credibility's sake, the Arts Council relies on part-time, unpaid, 'expert' advisers; but their deliberations never reach the light of day. What all these reports about the arts reveal is the lack of a coherent philosophy about the arts. It is bureaucracy feeding on bureaucracy, nothing more.

Again, typically, Wilding recognises that fact; but instead of meeting it directly, he once more tinkers around with the place mats on the top tables. You must feel very gratified,' a friend of mine said to me, 'that the Wilding Report has acknowledged so many of the points that you have made in the past'.

I feel nothing of the kind. On the contrary, I feel as if I have been stranded at a derelict country railway station, hungry and tired, waiting for a train which may or may not come. On the platform there is one chocolate vending machine, which should take twenty pence pieces. Only it doesn't. You can see the possibility of chocolate, but the slot resists the coin. After much banging, the slot accepts the coin; but the machine doesn't deliver anything. The coin simply slides through and lands on the ground.

There are many signs in the Wilding Report that the penny has at last dropped; but he has offered no solutions. I am curious to know how this could happen. Were his pension rights at stake? Mr. Wilding is, of course, an honourable man. So are they all, all honourable men. But honourable men can not only be trapped inside a dishonourable system. They can help to run it. I wish him an honourable retirement, and many sleepless nights writhing with guilt, and a garden in which nothing grows, and holidays on a Mediterranean island where the Greek government leaves its lunatics. It is only what the poor man deserves.

March, 1990