Thursday, 14 June 2007

The Arts Under Socialism

So today's the day. Blair is finally off, and not a minute too soon, to be replaced by a real politician, Gordon Brown. And the last couple of weeks have been excellent demonstrations of the view of politics as a branch of the entertainment industry, with cliffhangers agogo: what will happen next? Will Tony set up his preposterous face-to-faith forum, since he's done so much for the good name of Christianity and good relations with Islam? Will he recover from his "frank" drubbing from Pope Benedict, hardly a moderate himself? Gosh, no, it looks like he's off to bring peace to the middle east. (Surely that's meant as a joke, as though the Fonz disappeared to a monastery?)

Meanwhile we have all the humming and ha-ing about who will compose the first Brown cabinet. Will there be a deputy Prime Minister? How can Jack Straw's loyalty be rewarded without giving him a brief he might fuck up? How to deal with David Milliband, the nearly-challenger? Or Harriet Harman, who one can't help feeling wouldn't have been Brown's first choice as Deputy? (The latter has been neatly dealt with by doubling up the deputy leadership and the party chairmanship: no dangerous cabinet brief for moderately disloyal Harriet.)

And now we have one final twist in the tale: Quentin Davies' splendid resignation of the Tory whip and defection to the government benches. It could hardly be more timely for Brown, or more cutting to Cameron, who is indicted on a bewildering number of charges: vacuity? check. Superficiality? check. Hypocrisy? check. It's lovely, and I hope Blair saves some of it for Brown rather than using up the whole lot in his final PMQs today.

But this resignation is pleasing for more reasons than mere entertainment. It's about time someone stuck it to Cameron or, more to the point, about time people started to realise that being a nice young man with his heart in the right place is not a suitable qualification for the highest office in the land. So he deserves everything he gets and it'll be nice to see the Tories start unravelling again. That is satisfying, in the way it's satisfying to see the judge don his black cap when passing judgement on the man who killed your children.

Perhaps through the principle that a change is as good as a rest, I'm feeling oddly optimistic about Gordon Brown. Admittedly you can't put a fag paper between him and Blair in terms of policy. But Brown's a details man, so perhaps he's in a position to make some of the admirably-conceived reforms of the last ten years actually work. (Before you deluge me with comments: not all of the reforms have been admirably-conceived.) And Brown actually believes in them, whereas change the name at the top of Quentin Davies' letter and it could just as well be read to Blair. Let's hope the one thing Cameron doesn't learn from his Labour alter ego is the teflon trick.

The one thing I don't feel particularly optimistic about is the future of arts funding. The comprehensive spending review due later this year is unlikely, whoever the new chancellor turns out to be, to deliver even inflation-level rises to ACE, and nor is it likely to address the losses suffered by the smash-and-grab raid recently effected on behalf of the Olympics. It's these losses that are most damaging for me personally, as they manifest themselves as a 33% cut in Grants for the Arts, the scheme making grants on a project-by-project basis, and through which all of the public funding I've ever had has come.

Brown was recently full of praise for the arts in Britain, almost as fulsome as Blair was earlier this year. But it's utterly meaningless. Screwing the arts is politically low-cost and so it's all too easy to smile, and smile, and be a villain. But no-one will ever resign a whip because of little white lies like these.


I've spent the last couple of weeks in London working on Man Across the Way, and trying to watch as many shows as possible, so apologies to my readers (both of you) for the extended absence. I'll fill you in on all my adventures over the next few days. In the meantime, here's one meditation. Finding myself with an hour or two to kill before a show at the Soho Theatre, I wandered into the London Review Bookshop and browsed my way to JB Priestley's essay The Arts Under Socialism. In it he lambasts the confusion between means and ends that he sees as besetting much of left-wing art. Art under capitalism is not a means to the end of socialism; art under socialism is not a means to the end of the maintenance of socialism. Such a view of art impoverishes art immeasurably, as good art is an end in itself, not arguing for this or that case of affairs, but rather pushing us, or dragging us, towards greater understanding or greater awareness of our lack of understanding. Art is good under whatever system of governance and the enlightened system will support it. What do you reckon, Gordon?

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