Abolish the DCMS

A cultural critic argues that arts funding should not be a matter for government.

Not for the first time it is being rumoured that the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is to be dismantled. The bloated ministry is in the firing line because the New Labour government wants to reduce public expenditure.

How things have changed. In 2001 the government was looking at proposals to subsume the DCMS into the Department of Trade and Industry. That was not because it was a failure. On the contrary, arts policy was so important to prime minister Tony Blair’s first term that it had become the model for his industry policy. Instead of moaning about the arts, Blair’s first culture secretary Chris Smith boasted of the contribution of the so-called creative industries to Britain’s balance of payments. Pop music earns us more than car-building does, said Smith - a comparison that said more about the state of industry than it did about record sales.

Nevertheless, back then everything the culture minister touched seemed to turn to gold. He introduced a star-struck prime minister to the Gallagher brothers from Oasis, and shock-artist Damien Hirst. More people went to museums, like the new Tate Modern, than went to see football on the weekend. Smith published figures that showed the ‘creative industries’ earning £112.5billion, or one pound in every 20 earned in the UK. Creative Britain was a flattering self-image that Blair embraced - no wonder a jealous trade and industry minister, Peter Mandelson, wanted to annex Smith’s empire into his own.

The great expectations that Britain had of the creative industries were bound to be disappointed. Chris Smith’s estimate of creative industry earnings was inflated by lumping in all kinds of things that were nothing to do with the arts, like computer software (nearly half the total). The DCMS was talking up high earning industries like design and advertising, which did not need government support. But the government finance these industries attracted was being spent elsewhere, on the subsidised arts, like ballet, classical music and museums. These were not a gain for the balance of payments, but a net loss to the exchequer of £4.5billion (1).

Of course, it is a good thing in its own right that a country supports the arts, and that should continue. But unfortunately the DCMS’s argument that subsidies were actually investments made it difficult to argue for the arts in their own right. Listening to the minister’s speeches it seemed that creativity was all about making money.

The DCMS oversaw a massive expansion of museums and arts centres across the country, using lottery money and the Millennium Fund. Local authorities, seeing the success that the Tate Modern had brought to London, wanted to reproduce it. But too many of these museums failed due to lack of interest, like the Museum of Popular Culture in Sheffield (now a student Union bar), or the Earth Centre at Denaby, whose home-grown lunches, manured with the visitors’ own excrement, failed to excite. Increasingly tawdry arts centres were beginning to look like a substitute for a regeneration policy.

With the economic case for the arts looking more threadbare, the DCMS’s new pitch was that the arts would resolve the problem of social inclusion. Now museums were called ‘centres for social change’ (2). The department was influenced by policy wonks like Charles Leadbeater and Kate Oakley who argued that ‘cultural entrepreneurs can play a critical role in promoting social cohesion and a sense of belonging’. Why? ‘Because art, culture and sport create meeting places for people in an increasingly diversified, fragmented and unequal society’ - meeting places that once were ‘provided by work, religion or trade unions’ (3).

‘The arts are held up as a means of social insight’, protested the filmmaker and former director of the National Theatre, Richard Eyre. For the government, the ‘point of art becomes education’ as well as the presumed ‘benefit of “community cohesion” and the economic virtues of the “creative industries”’. Under these exigencies, argues Eyre, the government ‘urge the need to purge elitism in the arts’ and ‘press for access with a Zhdanovite zeal’ (4).

There is something faintly absurd about the idea that the arts should help to smooth over social inequalities. There are few activities as exclusive as the fine arts. While nearly everyone watches television and 61 per cent of the population go to the cinema, only 24 per cent go to plays or exhibitions, 13 per cent to classical music and only seven per cent to the ballet or opera (5). If opera and classical music had mass audiences, they would not need public support.

Art administrators are endlessly defensive about the fact that they are catering to a minority, read privileged, audience. Indeed, it is that defensiveness that drives them to talk up increased access, and to argue that the arts are educational or socially inclusive. But it is an argument that is bound to fail. It is bound to fail because the exclusivity of the fine arts is not in the end a consequence of the nature of the arts themselves, but of the division in society between a leisured elite and a working mass. The DCMS has it the wrong way around. Transcending social divisions will enlarge the audience for the arts; enlarging the audience for the arts will not solve social divisions.

The DCMS’s defensive case for the arts is not just a poor argument for public funds. It is a bad influence on the arts. By trying to make them into something they are not - socially inclusive - the quality of the works themselves are threatened. As Josie Appleton has argued on spiked, the quest for social inclusion is damaging for the quality of the work exhibited (see Art for inclusion’s sake). If museums and galleries try to dumb down their displays in search of an imaginary popular audience, this has a chilling effect on the arts themselves. Discrimination against people is a bad thing, but discrimination between good and bad art is essential.

The arts should be subsidised - even though that is mostly a subsidy to the leisure pursuits of people who are already privileged. The reason has nothing to do with social inclusion, or with Britain’s balance of payments. It is because they are a good in themselves.

What we do not need is a government ministry to oversee culture. It would be better if the arts were not a matter of public policy, and were unburdened from policy goals that are alien to them. What we need is a political consensus that the arts should be nurtured, and funds administered to that end.

It would be wrong to abolish the DCMS on cost-cutting grounds, even if some of the recent spending has been misguided. Parsimony is a bad guide to policy. But it ought to be abolished on the grounds that we do not need a ministry of the arts. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted to make artists into ‘engineers of the human soul’. The arts should not be used to attain political ends.

The Creativity Gap: Why Less Hype Is More Innovation In The Culture Sector, by James Heartfield, was published as a Blueprint Broadside on 15 May 2005. Order a copy here.

(1) The UK Cultural Sector, Policy Studies Institute, 2001, 39, 41

(2) Museums, Galleries and Archives for All, DCMS 2000

(3) The Independents, Demos, 1999, p17

(4) Guardian 26 March 2005

(5) Office of National Statistics, Social Trends 34, 2005, p201

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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