Arts: A big yelp for help

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The Independent Culture
THIS HAS been a turbulent couple of weeks in the arts, and there is more to come.

There is a quite new mood of alarm in the national companies, theatrical, operatic, balletic and orchestral (for orchestras, after all, are simply companies by another name): a sudden brutal realisation that it is possible, probable even, that these organisations, the product of so many years of toil and passionate investment on the part of all the participants, might soon cease to exist in any meaningful form. All my working life, we have had to fight, and fight hard, for what we have got, and then, having got it, have had to fight even harder to keep it. When governments of whatever political colour allow, in what sometimes seems like a fit of absent-mindedness, a theatre to be built or a company to expand, they then immediately start trying to claw back what has been given by starving them of the funds to run them successfully.

The reasons for this are obvious: during any economic downturn, the arts, by their very nature, seem conspicuously luxurious, the cherry on the cake, difficult to justify in the face of hardship elsewhere, so they have to be seen to be publicly penalised - until the next fit of absent- minded generosity, generally brought on by an economic upturn.

In Britain, at any rate since the time of the early Hanoverians, there has rarely been the sense that the great companies, the museums, the art galleries, add to the glory of the state, and therefore to the sense of self-respect of us all. Coronations and royal weddings and funerals are the form of public art that the nation embraces; the rest - theatre, opera, dance, painting, sculpture - is distant, obscure, wasteful: something encouraged by the great and the good for the exclusive benefit, it is darkly suspected, of the great and the good, another part of the great con trick practised on us every day by our masters, who somehow manage to feather their own nests whatever is happening in the rest of the country.

Those of us who work in the arts - work being the operative word - have a profoundly different view of the process and its purpose, but we have become resigned to the curious psychology governing arts funding: that we must always live on a knife-edge, and be prepared at all times to lose everything. The sums of money involved are tiny in relative terms, which makes the whole issue an ideal political football: it is a game in which matchsticks are the stakes, not real money. This is the game which, wearing and demeaning and infantile though it is, we have resigned ourselves to playing, because behind it has been a tacit understanding - nod, nod, wink, wink - that it is simply too difficult a line to sell to the great British public openly, but of course everyone knows how important the arts are and how very hard we all work.

Until now.

For the first time, that understanding, under this administration, seems absent. The unthinkable has been thought, here as elsewhere. And the question has been asked: what would it really matter if we pulled the plug on all these organisations? And the answer has come back: not a lot.

No one - except those few with vested interests - wants the old dishonest system to carry on: what we all hoped for from the new Government was an entirely new dispensation by which the existing companies would be re-established on logical principles and that immediate attention would be given to the all-important question of how to plug them into the nation's life, creating that grid across the country that would put art - crystallising, elevating, boldly going into the darkest and the deepest hiding places of our soul - at the centre of the citizens' experience of life. This was to be an important part of the work of restoring human values that was the reason so many of us voted for the present Government.

Of this process there is no trace. There is only paralysis, and a dawning realisation that it is all too difficult for them even to think about till more important things have been tackled.

It is this that is scaring us all at the moment. There is no sustained thought about it, no urgency. There is a degree of laissez-faire which, in the present critical situation, may prove terminal for many organisations.

I am aware that my voice has become more strident as the weeks have rolled by. It has been increasingly impossible to remain cool in the face of this monumental indifference. I shall shut up now, but for the arts to have a future in this country, it will require every available voice of protest to be raised at every possible opportunity. SOS. Save our souls.