We need poetry in politics and a new language for the arts

Ministers speak much less often about why the arts are important in themselves

Last weekend I was in Budapest for the launch of a year-long festival of Hungarian culture, about to take place in Britain. It was particularly fascinating to meet Hungary's minister of culture, Istvan Hiller, as he is also one of the country's better known poets. He had just secured an astonishing 20 per cent increase in the arts budget, and I asked him if his knowledge of the arts through his career as a poet had helped him to argue passionately and convincingly for the cash windfall. He shrugged. Perhaps that was the case, he said, but his success was probably more to do with the fact that he was deputy leader of the ruling party.

Fair enough. That has to be more useful than being a poet when it comes to negotiating with the treasury. But it still made me think how different, how very different, it was from the home life of our own dear ministers. It's not hard to imagine the sort of reaction there would be if a poet were to be appointed arts minister in Britain. It wouldn't just be the Daily Mail and The Sun which would have a field day. Our arts ministers are not always known for a hinterland in the arts. It was a former Conservative arts minister, Stephen Dorrell, who could have started a war when he paid tribute at the Cannes Film Festival to the actress Jeanne Moreau, and described her as "that great Frenchman".

The current arts minister, Estelle Morris, came into the job admitting with typical honesty that she knew very little about the arts. And with similar honesty she made an interesting speech at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last week, saying what few of her predecessors have dared to say - namely that they don't know what vocabulary to use to express why the arts are important.

I was present at a debate at the Edinburgh Festival a few years back when the then Conservative arts minister Richard Luce was challenged by a student in the audience thus: "You keep saying that the arts are important. But why are they?" The minister was momentarily speechless.

It is not the easiest one to answer in empirical terms, which is why so many ministers stress the economic importance of the arts and its use in city regeneration. Ministers speak much less often about why the arts are important in themselves. Ms Morris's Cheltenham speech went some way to explaining the difficulty. She said: "I know arts and culture make a contribution to health, education, to crime reduction, to strong communities, to the economy and to the nation's well-being; but I don't always know how to evaluate it or describe it. We have to find a language and a way of describing its worth. It's the only way we'll secure the greater support we need."

Even as she wrestled with the difficulty of finding a form of words to describe the benefit of the arts, Ms Morris, like all her predecessors, mentioned the economy and the even more voguish alleged benefit of the arts - crime reduction. But she is correct and brave to say that we don't in this country have a public language, and most certainly not a political language, to express why the arts are inherently important, why they inspire the imagination, why they help us to understand the world and to understand ourselves. We have, as Ms Morris says, to find a language. Perhaps we do need a poet as arts minister after all.

¿ One thing that struck me rather forcibly at the launch in Budapest was that in all the speeches by dignitaries and tributes to Hungarian artists there was not a single mention of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Ironic, when one considers that at the very same time in London there was a mini-festival of Ligeti's music to celebrate his 80th birthday.

I put this to the Hungarian culture minister who murmured something about the composer being a strong individual and "not easy to organise". Others told me off the record that Ligeti's modernist compositions were not always popular in his homeland. Clearly Britain is not alone in its ambivalence towards contemporary classical music.

¿ Suddenly there's good news in the fight against booking fees. And it comes from an unexpected source. The Really Useful Group has decided not to charge booking fees outside London. Sam Shrouder, business consultant for RUG subsidiary Really Useful Theatres, told The Stage this week: "Booking fees are the single biggest problem in the regions. I feel it is imperative for the future of regional theatre that booking fees are done away with."

Quite. But why is it good sense to do away with booking fees in the regions but carry on charging them in London? Why are they the "single biggest problem" in the regions, but an administrative necessity in the capital? Congratulations to the Really Useful Group for having no truck with booking fees in the regions. If only their example were followed by the organisation that runs a dozen of London's West End theatres. What's its name now? Oh yes, the Really Useful Group.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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