Thomas Sutcliffe: Spot the cultural Renaissance

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

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

Operations Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am currently recruiting for an Operati...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Junior Developer- CSS, HMTL, Bootstrap

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prime Minister David Cameron walks on stage to speak at The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference on November 4, 2013  

Does Cameron really believe in 'British Values'?

Temi Ogunye
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz