David Lister: This is no time to be utilitarian

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?