Tom Sutcliffe: Keen, lean times for the arts

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The Independent Online

Responding to the news that a £100m shortfall had been discovered in the capital budget of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the chairman of the British Museum, Niall FitzGerald, was reported as saying that it would be a "catastrophe" if the museum's plans for an extension, which depended on a big IOU from the government, had to be cancelled. He didn't know the half of it at the time, since only a couple of days later, Camden rejected planning permission for Richard Rogers's extension anyway – which presumably counts as catastrophe upon catastrophe.

The word he chose to describe the consequences of the DCMS accounting error seemed a little extreme to me at the time – a good example of the entirely human instinct to magnify the downside, but also an unwitting illustration of a tart parenthesis in the OED definition of the word: "In the application of exaggerated language to misfortunes it is used very loosely." The British Museum is hardly teetering on the brink, after all, or utterly dependent on this development for its future survival. It is actually in as good a shape as it has been for years, and has brilliantly exploited the exhibition possibilities of the old reading room.

Still, FitzGerald isn't alone in reaching for the language of cataclysm when talking about the immediate future for the arts. One of the contributors to the BBC's two-part Imagine film about the arts in hard times used the word "tsunami" to describe what was about to hit arts organisations, as the triple pinch on consumer spending, corporate sponsorship and public subsidy made itself felt. And, in this case, there was a little more justification. There are unquestionably hard times ahead for arts organisations of more modest public profile – those that cannot rely on the unthinkability of their closure. And some higher-profile initiatives are surely bound to suffer as well. The Cultural Olympiad (already the subject of some jitters in terms of planning) is likely to be trimmed and one wonders about the prospects for Ben Bradshaw's recently announced competition to find a British City of Culture for 2013. Before the crunch, the cultural landscape was beginning to look like a game of musical chairs in which another seat was added every time the music stopped. Now we have reverted to more familiar rules.

I found myself entertaining a heretical thought, though. What if the belt-tightening turned out to be good for the culture rather than bad? It simply can't be true, for one thing, that the quantity of publically subsidised art can be endlessly expanded without eventually running into a problem of quantity. Art has become so fashionable a solution to other kinds of social problems (Your seaside town is in decline? Arrange a triennial.) that available supplies of the good stuff must be running short. And less can be more; rationing a more effective sharpener of appetite and appreciation than glut.

As the Imagine film pointed out, the National Gallery drew huge crowds during the war with the display of a single painting – for once, one imagines, it was truly examined than merely glanced at. I wouldn't want to be flippant about this. There is the prospect of real damage that would mean everything would have to be built from scratch again. But it's also possible that what is coming is not a tsunami (or a catastrophe) but a brushfire, a clearing of the overgrowth that, as shocking as the scorching first appears, may actually lead to a flourishing.

Novel ways of reading

There's an intriguing article in The New Yorker this week, in which Nicholson Baker road tests the Kindle 2, Amazon's electronic reader. It's not entirely surprising that he finds it wanting – this is a man, after all, who wrote a furious book about digitisation, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. He can rhapsodise about the sensory pleasures of a dimestore novel's pages. But what's telling is that Baker disoblingly compares the Kindle to reading books on an iPod, an experience he confesses he likes (he actually compares it to driving a Mini Cooper). The design quality of the machine, he hints, offers a kind of substitute for the tactile pleasures of a book – and besides, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is. This week also saw much firmer reports that Apple is going to produce a tablet computer sometime soon, linked in most cases to rumours of enhanced music content. What struck me, though, is that it will be almost exactly the size of a standard hardback book, meaning that all the reading apps that already exist will be even better. And if a bibliophile as defensive about dead-wood publishing as Nicholson Baker can be converted to electronic reading, I don't think anyone's immune. The electronic library really is coming, but Kindle should be nervous.

A lot of people would be able to tell you the first line of Anna Karenina ("All happy families etc...") or Pride and Prejudice ("It is a truth universally acknowledged etc..."). But I wonder how many people could tell you the last line of either novel? I found myself thinking about this after reading a remark by Eudora Welty, to the effect that she would die happy if she could write a line as good as the final sentence of Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Tyler's latest last line, in her novel Noah's Compass, is pretty fine too, though it's only if you've read the novel that you can know how good it is. That's the explanation, I guess, for the discrepant memorability of first and last lines. The former have to make an impression with nothing to back them up. The latter can rest on the pages that precede them. Anyway, I think it's time to compile a list of great end lines in literature. Middlemarch is in there ("...that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs."), and the closing lines of Darwin's Origin of Species are a masterpiece of resonant poetry ("...from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."). Suggestions gratefully received.