David Lister: Why must it be a culture-free election?

The Week in Arts

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The party leaders' debate two nights ago took place in an art gallery. It was, according to one wag, "possibly the only time the arts will really take, or provide, the centre stage during this election".

That remark would be mildly amusing, were it not for the fact that it was made, in his weekly blog, by Ed Vaizey, the Conservative Party spokesman for the arts. One might have hoped that he would have done his best to ensure that this was not the case, rather than accept defeat so easily.

But perhaps Mr Vaizey is a realist, though he is a little unfair to his own leader. David Cameron did allow the arts to infiltrate his campaign, launching a nationwide talent contest with Take That singer Gary Barlow. It would involve an annual schools music competition, with the winners progressing to regional heats and a national final. The Conservative manifesto, however, disappointingly has nothing to say about culture apart from "restoring the National Lottery to its original purpose", which would imply more money going to the arts.

Labour has a reasonably chunky section on the arts in its manifesto, and promises cheaper theatre tickets, maintaining free admission to national museums and galleries, more lottery funding, more children learning to play musical instruments, and lifetime library membership for every child from birth.

The Lib Dems proclaim that "the arts are a central part of civic and community life", and make a few promises that would directly affect cultural life – such as helping live music by introducing an exemption from licensing for venues of up to 200 people, and removing the higher rate of tax relief in gift aid.

Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party don't mention the arts at all in their manifestos. And though some parties emerge better than others as far as manifesto mentions of culture are concerned, the word is still pretty much absent from the hustings, as it is from the TV debates and party leaders' press conferences and interviews.

Of course, much of the arts runs itself quite happily and does not need interference from politicians. But other areas do demand publicly stated interest from politicians, especially in an election campaign. Is there really nothing to be said about the state of TV, public libraries, museums or ticket prices?

It does not even need grand policy statements. I attended a meeting in Downing Street shortly before the election was announced along with the directors of a number of key arts institutions. The Chatham House Rule prevents me from giving any detail of the meeting. But what was clear was that the people who run the arts, and individual artists, want to see advocacy and engagement from all the party leaders and senior political figures. They want them to go to arts events, to talk about them and, by example, encourage the nation.

The irony is that in these cash-strapped times, that wouldn't cost anything at all.

Daisy knows how to spin a yarn

When the Orange Prize longlist was announced a few weeks ago, the chair of the judging panel Daisy Goodwin (or chaise longue as she describes herself) made it clear that too many female novelists wrote depressive fiction. This week, as the shortlist was announced, Ms Goodwin hinted at a dispute among the judges. Later she let slip that she was worried that judging panels for book prizes were too incestuous with literary figures either settling scores or favouring friends. A few more non-literary celebrities on book prize panels would be a good thing, she concluded.

Who knows? I do know that if I were launching a book prize, I would want Daisy Goodwin to be the chair, chaise longue, or whatever the former TV executive and public champion of poetry wishes to call herself. How she performs in the privacy of the judging room I have no idea, but as a literary spinner and publicity gatherer for a prize that was looking a bit tired, she has few equals.

Let's think of Britain before Broadway

One of the greatest plays (and greatest performances) of recent years comes to an end tonight as Jerusalem, starring Mark Rylance, finishes its London run. The stirring lament for a lost sense of individuality, rebellion and even anarchy has had packed houses not just giving standing ovations, but asking themselves questions about identity and Britain.

The plan is to take the production to Broadway. But I wonder if that is a good idea. It seems perverse to mention the words "Jerusalem" and "failure" in the same sentence. But I'm not at all sure that New York audiences will "get" Jez Butterworth's play with its idiosyncratic West Country jokes, a touch of morris dancing and an anti-hero who is a drug addict and a paedophile.

American humour it ain't. The theatre world always makes the assumption that Broadway is the logical next step for a London success. But, wouldn't it be wonderful if this London hit could now entrance audiences across the UK, not least in the West Country, where the play is set. Broadway is not the be-all and end-all. We should think of our own theatre-goers too.

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