Thomas Sutcliffe: Spot the cultural Renaissance

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Reading about the McMaster review of arts funding, headlined in one newspaper as "Britain on verge of 'new Renaissance', minister claims", I was reminded of the – possibly apocryphal – Hollywood biopic in which one artist turns to another and says furiously: "Don't you understand? You can't paint like that any more – we're in the Renaissance now." The point is, of course, that the Renaissance wouldn't even exist as a concept until some 300 years later: a renaissance isn't something that you can identify at the time.

Reading the report itself – published yesterday – it's clear that the headline may have overreached just a little. True, James Purnell, the Secretary of State for Media, Culture and Sport, is in a flag-waving mood in his preface, boldly declaring that "the arts in this country are on the cusp of greatness". True, too, that McMaster says in his foreword, a little more tentatively, that "we could be on the verge of another Renaissance" – but taken in context it's clear that neither is really a description of imminent reality, but rather a mission statement, the desired goal towards which the recommendations of McMaster's report are directed.

McMaster's brief was to consider how "the system of public sector support for the arts can encourage excellence, risk-taking and innovation" – which might sound like standard Whitehall boiler-plate but actually contains a potentially revolutionary alteration in political thinking in itself. Arts subsidy, it suggests, is not to be judged on a value for money basis, according to how many taxpayers it succeeds in touching, or as an alternative to the social services – performing tasks of inclusion and outreach or tourism promotion – but on whether it makes the culture more vital and unpredictable.

That this will be a good thing for culture and society as a whole is pretty much taken for granted. And this really does invert the standard way of thinking about public subsidy that has prevailed for at least the last two decades, in which the arts are seen as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.

McMaster's recommendations are pretty straightforward. Abandon the "spread it thinly and spread it fairly" approach and concentrate funding on institutions that have a track record of doing excellent work (he proposes 10-year funding for 10 flagship institutions in the country). Replace top-down targets for box-office receipts and community outreach with the requirement that funded individuals and bodies produce work that is demonstrably innovative and risk-taking. Place artists at the heart of the decision-making process (every cultural organisation should have at least two artists or practitioners on its board). And make funding bodies and arts organisations defend artists' freedom of expression if the risks they take provoke hostile reaction.

Crucially, a lowest-common-denominator assessment of public value (as many people as possible saying "We had a lovely time") is replaced by a far more difficult one (as many people as possible saying "I'm not quite sure what I thought about that, but I'm going to think some more because I've never seen anything quite like it").

There is a catch, of course, and it lies in how exactly you tell what is excellent and what isn't. There's not much point in giving money – public or otherwise – to a company whose experiments consistently fail. At the same time it's almost axiomatic that the numbers of failures will rise. That's what happens in a risk-taking culture. And this need not be a terrible thing. All mediocrity is not equal. A work that is mediocre in entirely predictable ways is as sterile as a mule and will die without issue. But a work that is mediocre because its maker cannot quite control its novelty may well generate a masterpiece.

Who's to decide between good failures and bad, though? McMaster's view is that there's nobody better qualified than artists themselves. "In my experience," he writes, "artists are the greatest critics of their own work, and their judgements of its success or otherwise should be trusted."

Up to a point, surely. It's true that artists can be very candid about the success or failure, but they prefer to do it in private, and the fact that next year's funding might hang on their candour could be powerfully inhibiting. More to the point, it's possible that none of us is qualified to judge – not politicians, not audiences and not artists – because none of us is temporally disinterested.

I think McMaster is right to move away from a functional model of arts funding. But, when it comes to another Renaissance, none of us alive now is going to know whether his recommendations worked.

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