‘Thou shalt worship the arts for what they are’

The director of the London Barbican Centre gives Ten Commandments for the arts.

John Tusa

Topics Politics

The state of the arts

In many ways, the arts have ‘never had it so good’.

Over the past six years, the array of major new arts buildings, or extensive, creative renovations of old ones has turned our heads with its brilliance and rapidity. In London alone, we have seen the transformation of the old Bankside power station into Tate Modern, by the Swiss architects, Herzog and De Meuron; the elegant extension of Tate Britain further along the river by the British architects, John Miller; the spectacular glassing over of the British Museum’s Great Court by Norman Foster and Spencer de Gray; the ingenious infill extension of the National Portrait Gallery by Dixon and Jones, architects too of the spectacular Royal Opera development and the reclamation of the classical courtyard of Somerset House from the clutches of the Inland Revenue, turning it into a winter skating rink.

And the schemes continue outside London too. Nicholas Grimshaw’s spectacular plastic set of biomorphic greenhouse domes at the Eden Project in a disused clay pit in Cornwall; Michael Wilford’s multi-purpose performance arts centre, the Lowry Centre in the north west, in Salford; just over the Manchester Ship Canal, Daniel Liebeskind’s Imperial War Museum of the North in Manchester; the creation of an entire arts centre on the banks of the Tyne in Newcastle.

Money from the national lottery has fuelled much of this cornucopia of building – this is independently allocated by free-standing, independent lottery boards, not by the government. Matching funding from private individuals, corporations and foundations has played a vital role too. Britain’s capital stock of arts institutions has not been better for a century since the last great flowering of municipally driven arts building.

In addition, levels of government direct funding for the arts will increase significantly in the financial year 2003/4. You would be justified in asking why there are any grounds for anxiety about the state of the arts in Britain at all.

Yes, but…

Sadly, there are real grounds for anxiety – and they reflect trends both in public and in private life. The language of government policy towards the arts does not recognise their special nature, but treats them as if they were no different from any other economic sector. It is no accident that museums, galleries and theatres are rolled up by government ministers into the one economic/industrial category – ‘the creative industries’.

At a single stroke, the one word, the single idea that might have given the arts a distinctive right to exist – ‘creativity’ – has been taken away, democratised (or popularised), generalised to the point of meaninglessness, and awarded to anyone who can string two words or two lines together. With another stroke, the arts have been put into a box where they are no different from any other industrial activity, and should therefore be treated in the same way. The implication is: never mind the quality, feel the width, or count the units.

Such inappropriate attitudes go much further. The arts are increasingly judged by whether they ‘deliver product’, not whether they offer programming – there is a difference! Theatres and galleries are examined to see if their programming policy contributes to the elimination of social exclusion. Orchestras’ concert schedules are scrutinised to see how much of the music they play would be recognised by ethnic minorities. Museums are questioned about whether they display the cultures of excluded groups.

All arts institutions are rated, and possibly funded, by their commitment to access, outreach and their contribution to economic regeneration and urban renewal and redevelopment.

All arts funding is now judged by the Treasury according to whether it delivers the predicted outcomes. From patient survival rates in hospital operations, to literacy rates in schools, to punctuality rates in railways, to attendance at museums, to seats sold in theatres, future public funding turns on the achievement of agreed performance indicators.

A farcical extension of this principle came in summer 2001, when the head of UK Sport – the organisation responsible for delivering international sporting success – conceded that Britain’s comparative failure to get gold medals in the European athletic championships, after targets for medal numbers had been agreed with the Treasury, could lead to less funding for training athletes in the future.

I am not arguing that such concerns do not have a place in the creation of arts policy. We can be legitimately criticised for having been dilatory in addressing them before. But according these issues a new primacy, shifting them closer to the very centre of arts policy-making, may not help us carry out our core activities more effectively – which is the creation of great art.

In one sense, of course, such challenges could be seen as flattering, a belated governmental recognition that the arts are not possessed by a privileged minority but are an integral part of life, with a potential to shape and improve society in special ways. Such an attitude would ascribe to the arts a power we may not have thought that they had; it acknowledges how great their influence can be; it recognises the arts are an under-utilised social asset whose full social and economic potential has yet to be released. On this view, imposing such economic and social demands on the arts gives them the opportunity to seize a place in the democratic sun, in a way they never had before.

But it is more complex and less beguiling than that. I believe that these socioeconomic demands are imposed on the arts not to expand their reach or to increase their inclusiveness, but rather to plant surreptitious doubts about what they do, by introducing considerations that are, strictly speaking, extraneous to the activity.

The arts probably are instruments for social improvement, agents for social change, for social equality, or for community harmony. Yet each of these demands singly, and all of them collectively, set a list of challenges which are not intrinsic to the arts, are distant from their true nature, and all of which could be antithetical to their basic functions and purposes.

In short, such instrumental ways of challenging arts policies are only elaborate ways of slithering around the question that governments try to avoid – can the arts be quantified or not; can the arts be justified only in their own terms; and are not these repeated attempts to tie them down through policies and indicators more likely to squeeze the life and purpose out of them than to nourish them?

Ten Commandments for the arts

In an attempt to clarify my own confusions, I drew up a list of ‘Ten Commandments for the Arts’ to see if some guiding principles might ease them. This what I imagined a present day Jehovah of the arts might inscribe in tablets of stone.

  • The First Commandment: Thou shalt worship the arts for what they are, what they were and what you will make them be in the future. Thou shalt not betray the arts by pretending they are what they are not.

  • The Second Commandment: Thou shalt not seek false profits – these can only be made by selling the arts short, in the search for quick and easy money.

  • The Third Commandment: Neither shall you worship false prophets, in particular the kind who say you should feel guilty about what you are doing because it does not get a mass audience.

  • The Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt not make graven images of Performance Indicators nor bow down before them – these are false gods who almost always point you in the wrong direction.

  • The Fifth Commandment: Honour the masters who laboured through the centuries to make the arts what they are today; thou shalt turn thy back on those who say the past is another country and besides, today is more fun.

  • The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not covet the riches, fame and glamour of the commercial world – you’re just as good as they are, even if poorer. But trying to ape them will get you nowhere.

  • The Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt make the arts as accessible as you can, because you want everyone to enjoy them; but if becoming accessible means dumbing down, thou shalt forget it.

  • The Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not rebrand thyself without just cause – it costs a lot of money, it doesn’t fool the audience, and it is no substitute for decent programming.

  • The Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s glossy new capital project – it has taken years off his life to build and he probably doesn’t have the money to run it properly.

  • The Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not take delight in thy neighbour’s downfall. The friendship of critics is a fickle thing – saith the Lord – like unto the wind in the desert, which bloweth where it listeth; and surely, what goeth around, cometh around.
  • The real doubts

    But these newly dispensed tablets do not really answer any of the deeper doubts and anxieties that I have about the state of the arts.

    The first concerns the role of education in creating new generations with real knowledge and understanding of the arts. And I use the term ‘art’ to mean a knowledge and awareness of the great continuum of Western arts achievement from the Renaissance onwards – this usefully folds in the classical world too. I take it for granted that natural, educated curiosity will broaden out into other cultures. But if you can’t value your own culture to start with, why should you do any better with other people’s?

    Many colleagues say four things to me on the subject of education. First, it is very important that theatres, orchestras, galleries and museums should work in schools and universities with active educational projects. Second, even with sharply increased funding for such arts-based education, it is impossible for multitudes of projects to be a substitute for solid, systematic formal teaching about the arts within the schools. Third, such formal instruction has been badly hit in recent years. But lastly, the creation of a generation – or two – of the young, wholly or largely ignorant of the arts, does not matter because as they grow older, they will also grow into an appreciation of the arts.

    I do not believe this. There is no reason why lifestyle-obsessed thirtysomethings should miraculously transform into fortysomething devotees of the arts. There is just too much to learn, too much to discover, too much ground lost to permit such a change. We cannot take refuge in such a cosy fantasy.

    My second anxiety is related to the first. It takes the form of what I call the ‘Great Caesura of 1968′. The proposition here is that the social, political and cultural events of the 1960s created a new world, a new sensibility where the present was more important than the past; where the instant was valued more highly than the considered; where the sheer immediacy of new creation was more satisfying than any connection with the achievements of the past; and where awareness of the potential of the future was valued more than the accumulated sense of past knowledge.

    It was a world, too, where the availability of information became separated from understanding of that information, and a historical perspective was rejected as prescriptive and authoritarian.

    Such attitudes, if I have characterised them fairly, spilled over into the arts in a particularly damaging way. Knowledge of the historical canon of achievement is becoming more and more distant. For example, in 2001 the UK television station Channel Four conducted a poll of the world’s best 100 films. None of those ranked in this survey was made further back than the 1960s, most rather more recently. Twenty years ago, the 100 best list of its time would undoubtedly have included some or all of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. These classics are no longer rated because they are no longer shown or seen.

    Similarly, a representative from the UK easy listening classic radio station, Classic FM, recently explained its policy towards choosing whose performers’ CDs should be played. They would, he offered, ‘Always go for a living performer such as Renee Fleming or Thomas Hampson, rather than someone dead and gone and unknown’.

    I have absolutely nothing against two of America’s greatest living performers; but an approach that consigns Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lotte Lehmann, Birgit Nilsson, Tito Gobbi, and scores of others to oblivion does give me pause. At the very least, both attitudes reveal a cavalier abandonment of the treasures of the past that is taking a huge risk with the intellectual inheritance. To adapt: ‘What do they know of the future who only the present know?’

    As a result of such attitudes, the past has come to be undervalued, even rejected, as a ball and chain on creativity rather than as a necessary part of going forward. Contemporary creativity has been democratised so that knowledge of rules, skills and traditions is rejected as elitist, restricting, authoritarian and irrelevant. In taking this path, the ‘now’ generation looses itself off from a strong rope of connections and references and rejects any awareness of an order of experience as having any value or relevance.

    A culture of immediate expression and instant understanding, took precedence over the painful, learned, accumulated disciplines of the arts of pre-1968.

    If this is half as true as I think it is – and what else can explain the mass disaffection of the young from the arts as they once existed – then we may have witnessed a huge cultural shift, as vast in its own way, though in a wholly different direction, as the Renaissance. If this were to be true, then we would be drawing to a close half a millennium of cultural and intellectual understanding.

    My third anxiety springs from the contrast between the attitude of the arts philanthropists of old and that of the public funders of today. A century ago, the great patrons of the arts certainly included in their reasons for founding great museums or concert halls the belief, the certainty that these would benefit ‘the people’. What’s more, the people wanted to be benefited in this way. There was a hunger for culture, for improvement, and the obvious way to improve was to adopt the culture available to the educated classes.

    This was neither demeaning nor ignoble. The libraries built up in poor mining villages in the impoverished South Wales coalfields were legendary, speaking of a moving desire to reach out for something that you could get for yourself – learning; it was yours too, your right, and nobody could keep you away from a book if you wanted. I wonder if Shakespeare was not more truly owned by the majority 70 years ago than he is today, in all but lip service.

    There was, too, the work of such English pioneers as Lilian Baylis, whose passionate belief in the 1930s was that the London working classes deserved, wanted and needed theatre, opera and ballet. Few thought she was right. Her idealism was triumphantly vindicated, and the fruits of her works exist today in the English National Opera, the Royal Ballet, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the Old Vic.

    By contrast, I cannot imagine a single leader involved in public arts funding – or private, for that matter – setting out as their first principle that provision of the arts is for the benefit of the people because the people deserve and need them.

    All the current emphasis on ‘access’ and ‘outreach’ reveals not a belief that there is a need for the arts which must be met; but rather a belief that because demand for the arts is weak, they should transform themselves into forms that the public will find attractive and acceptable. The public does not need the arts – in this view – but the arts certainly need to persuade and involve an indifferent, sceptical and fully diverted public if they are to survive. This is a very different situation from the one we were in 100 years ago.

    Deep blue

    I have one further anxiety that I usually only share with loved ones. It’s not that there is too little of the arts available; very possibly there is too much.

    My personal experience indicates that the range, quality and frequency of arts events of all kinds is vastly bigger and better than it was when I was in my teens. Then, the long playing record was just being invented. FM classical radio stations did not exist. Opera videos did not exist. Classical music and cultural networks were a shadow of their present form. The arts and culture pages of broadsheet newspapers did not exist. Cycles of Beethoven symphonies were a rarity. Mahler and Bruckner still sought their advocates. Contemporary drama about the modern world – from Harold Pinter to Samuel Beckett – was just starting to emerge, and seemed incomprehensible when it did.

    Today, you trip over the numbers of recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, or the sonatas; record companies discover more and more obscure composers; galleries fight for exhibitions of the great names of modern art. Theatres scour the land for the voice of new playwrights.

    You could argue that this suggests not that there is too much of the stuff around but rather that I go to too much of it myself. My impressions reflect a mere professional de-formation, akin to the chocolate phobias experienced by workers in sweet factories.

    I think there is more to it than that. The arts scene is littered with formulae that have outlived their day and their stay. If great art is to retain its freshness, its capacity to shock, then perhaps it has to be less familiar. Perhaps today’s indifference stems in part from an over-familiarity that has blunted the edge of surprise of too much great art, and so reduced its attractiveness. Can it rediscover its shock quality by a period of retreat, the monastic strategy, as you might call it?

    Such a strategy would involve withdrawing to the traditional, cultural ramparts. It would not attempt to convince those beyond conviction, involve those who are indifferent or hostile, or educate those who reject education. It would live within the exiguous means that a populist-oriented set of governments would throw their way. It would endure a massive reduction of activity rather than alter the essence of the experience, understanding and revelation that the Western artistic canon offers and has accumulated. It would be like a set of believers suffering persecution or indifference. The arts would lie low, remain true, and stay poor until society at large realised what it had rejected, what was lost and the riches that awaited rediscovery.

    This is not my own strategy – but part of myself finds it curiously attractive. Would it not be wonderful to rediscover Beethoven as the shock of the new? To hear the Rite of Spring as if with the ears of its first audience? Or see the Demoiselles of Avignon with fresh eyes? We are all too familiar with what we know that a period of abstinence might scrape its ears clean, remove the scales from our eyes, chase the cobwebs of familiarity from our minds.

    To argue like this would be to admit that those of us who know about the arts know too much, those who don’t, know nothing, and that the only way to bridge the gap is to give the game up to the know nothings – for a time.

    This is the view advanced by the writer Morris Berman in his book The Twilight of American Culture. Of the many fine phrases Berman deploys here are a sample: ‘The US lives in a collective adrenaline rush, a world of endless promotional/commercial bullshit that masks a deep systemic emptiness.’ Or: ‘The highest bastions of intellectual life have become infected with post-modernism, a philosophy of despair masquerading as radical intellectual chic.’ And Berman, too, reaches for the model of the monks of the Medieval world, sheltered in their monasteries, apart from the rest of society, but treasuring knowledge, transmitting civilised values, thinking, learning, talking until the world was ready to listen.

    While this may have an ascetic hermitic attraction to it, it takes too much of a risk with the past and is, I believe, too extreme and unnecessary.

    Catechism of our arts belief

    In that case, what is the way out of the quandary of a huge oversupply of arts to an apparently indifferent audience? We should, for a start, be more assertive towards our funders, stakeholders, interlocutors, about what we do and how they view us. We should be more robust in answering the questions put to us, more ready to face up to a challenging catechism of belief about the arts. This is how such a catechism of our arts belief might go.

    • Q: ‘Do you believe in accountability, to the customers, the funding bodies and to stakeholders wherever and whomever they may be?’

      A: ‘I do sincerely believe in accountability, but I believe in responsibility first – the responsibility which includes a duty to the arts as well as to the people who subsidise them.’

    • Q: ‘Do you believe that the arts shall be for all the people all of the time and not a few of the people some of the time?’

      A: ‘I do not believe in subscribing to impossible ideals. I do passionately believe – and experience and history are on my side – that even if some arts or particular creations are enjoyed by only a few and understood by fewer still, they may still change the world.’

    • Q: ‘Do you believe that the arts must be inclusive and that funding them can only be justified if they are?’

      A: ‘No. Very few activities in society are entirely inclusive. If inclusiveness were the chief criterion for funding, there would be few activities that deserved it. In any case, why pick on the arts?’

    • Q: ‘Do you believe in marketing as the answer to all your funding problems?’

      A: ‘No, I don’t. Elevating marketing to this level of importance is a snare and a delusion; it confuses form and image with substance and reality. In any case, I’ve seen too many organisations brought low by stuffing their marketing departments to unrealistic levels and failing to meet their promised income targets.’

    • Q: ‘Do you condemn elitism, elitists and all their works and attitudes?’

      A: ‘Only up to a point. If by elitism you mean a deliberate attitude of wrapping up the arts in arcane rules and terminology, so that people are put off by them, then I do. But if you mean the sustained pursuit of the excellent, the best, whether it is easy or difficult to understand, then you’re on your own.’

    • Q: ‘Do you believe in focus groups as a guide to arts programming?’

      A: ‘You mean, do I believe that where five or six are gathered together we should grant their request? No. We can’t ask for what we do not know. On this basis, the arts would never have advanced from the known or the familiar.’

    • Q: ‘Do you believe in art for art’s sake?’

      A: ‘Yes, I do. But my culture ministry only seems to believe in art as an instrument of social or economic policy.’

    Will this get us out of the bind? Of course not, but a robust attitude always helps.

    Recently, I heard the legendary leader of the Juilliard Quartet, Robert Mann, give his personal summary of the importance of music and the arts. Music and the arts were necessary because they provided, in this order, ‘entertainment, catharsis, and good citizenship’. I can sign up to that. But we need to go further.

    Far from withdrawing from the challenge of the busy, modern world, we should think of the millions who have yet to enjoy the revelation of their first sound of Beethoven, their first sight of Picasso, their first look at Michelangelo, and who will be bowled over by the experience.

    We should not forget that the most radical artists of today, including composers such as Alfred Schnittke and John Adams, find essential inspiration from the past for their creation of the new.

    We know that the categories that make up the world of the arts are becoming more blurred, but we also know that the vitality that springs from these blurrings produces innovation, discovery and vitality.

    We know that the new buildings now going up for the arts will be landmarks of inspiration equivalent to the Medieval cathedrals of Europe.

    We know that the collective experiences conjured in these places contribute to the way society feels; the ideas generated there shape the way we understand; the images created there colour the way we see.

    And we know that any society which cuts itself off from such a body of inspiration, does risk cutting itself off from the future.

    At their best, the arts are a creative test bed where the best of the past is combined with the openness of the present to produce the transformation of the new.

    Not everyone will be convinced. Not everyone needs to be convinced. If enough can be convinced, then we stand a good chance of finding ourselves living in the best of times after all.

    John Tusa is director of the Barbican Centre in London.

    This is an edited version of a speech given at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, USA

    Copyright John Tusa 2002

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics


    Want to join the conversation?

    Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

    Join today