David Lister: This is no time to be utilitarian

Share
Related Topics

When the Prime Minister admitted to the TUC this week that there would be public spending cuts, he used a word which should strike fear into everyone connected with the arts.

He said there would be cancellations of projects that were not necessary. Commentators were quick to highlight the C word. Gordon Brown had at last mentioned cuts. But it was the N word that sent a shiver up my spine. Once more the leading representatives of Britain's culture are going to have to give demonstrable evidence that the arts are necessary.

It's not easy. At a conference sponsored by The Independent years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, the then Tory arts minister prefaced any number of answers to questions with the words "Because the arts are important, we are going to...". Eventually someone asked: "You keep saying that the arts are important. Why are they?" The poor minister was stumped. A look of terror spread across his face as he tried to recall the correct platitudes.

Since then, culture's spokesmen have smartened up their act. The two Johns, Carey and Tusa, have written books on the subject. Knights of the arts, such as Sir Nicholas Serota and Sir Richard Eyre, have attended seminars at Downing Street to put the case for culture. True, the case has subtly changed in recent years. For a time it was vogueish to press the economic case for the arts – also the title of a book. There were all those jobs and the money that culture brought to various cities and regions. But as quickly as that argument came in, it went out; the book was remaindered, and the advocates of the arts concentrated on more universal and metaphysical themes. The arts nurture the soul and the spirit, help us understand ourselves and society, help us grow. One could also add that they're enjoyable. And we're allowed a bit of enjoyment and entertainment, aren't we?

But does that make them "necessary?" Of course I would argue that it does. But it's not going to be an easy argument with Treasury mandarins, and it's going to be even less easy to argue that certain planned multimillion-pound public spending projects in the arts – expansion of the British Museum, an extension for Tate Modern, a new national film centre – are "necessary." Take the Tate Modern extension, for example. It will be designed by innovative architects Herzog & de Meuron; it will be a splendid addition to London's landscape; it will house great new modern art exhibitions and allow more of the Tate's permanent collection to be displayed. "But," said mandarin might reply, "Tate Modern is already acclaimed around the world. Is the extension strictly, how can I put it, necessary?"

I wish that Gordon Brown had used a different word: enriching, fulfilling, life-enhancing. There's something cold and utilitarian about "necessary" that makes me very uneasy.

Advocates of the arts need to start mustering all their arguments, old and new, for necessity. If I'm to make a prediction, it is that they might be able to win the argument sufficiently to stop radical cuts to arts spending which would close down theatre companies and the like. But whether they will convince the Government that new building projects for the arts are "necessary" is another matter. I have my doubts.

Punk, the musical

The world premiere of American Idiot, the debut musical by rock band Green Day, took place in California on Wednesday. It was rather sweet that theatre staff tried to behave in what they assumed was rock concert fashion. The house manager at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre ran on in a T-shirt and yelled: "Are you ready to rock?" The theatre's artistic director, Tony Taccone, wearing a skinny tie with red sequins threw an opening-night party in the theatre, with combat boots hung in trees and a "No Stage Diving" sign.

But the band, it seems, just want to be part of conventional musical theatre. Green Day's frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, said that he sang tunes from musicals like Gypsy and Bye Bye Birdie as a boy, but "shied away from anybody knowing" once he discovered punk music. If the musical comes over here, theatre managements should avoid trying too hard to be hip.

Death by catchphrase

Popular culture doesn't always get the credit it deserves. After the tantrum thrown by Serena Williams at the US Open tennis, a number of newspapers said that the most famous outburst in tennis history was John McEnroe's one liner "You cannot be serious" to an umpire in Wimbledon in 1981. True. It is.

But I suspect it would not have achieved immortality if it had not also featured in a sketch on the hugely popular TV comedy sketch show of the time, Not the Nine O'Clock News. The sketch featured breakfast in the McEnroe household, and after John's mother told him not to slurp his food, McEnroe, played by Griff Rhys Jones, yelled at her: "You cannot be serious!"

I attended a lunch recently where McEnroe was the guest speaker. He asked if there were any questions. Someone shouted out: "Can you be SERIOUS?" A weary McEnroe observed that usually there is the formality of four or five tennis questions before that one is reached. I think he can blame Griff Rhys Jones and co.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

£14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Manager

£44000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Marketing company based in cent...

Recruitment Genius: IT Installation / Commissioning Engineer - North West

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Installation / Commission...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Mininster: I would legislate for abortion on demand and abolish VAT on sanitary products

Caroline Criado-Perez
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence