Howard Jacobson: You don't need poverty for art to thrive, but too much privilege could be a bad thing

Where would Dostoyevsky have been without his gambling
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The Independent Online

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." So says the Grecian Urn to all who wonderingly behold her. And so say we. Only art justifies and exalts us. We have to accept the rest – Conservative conferences, defecting generals, postal strikes, ageism, dumbism and racism in Strictly Come Dancing – but art is where our heart is.

But what doesn't follow from this is a sentimental attachment to those who make the art. The Greek potter whose urn turned Keats to jelly might have been a saint or he might have been a sinner. It's irrelevant. We like to think that beautiful work must issue from a beautiful soul, and sometimes it does. But just as often it does not. All we can say is that the artist's soul is beautiful in the act of creating beauty and it matters not a jot whether he or she is a devil, or more likely an egotistical bore – as those who know artists will be quick to tell you – the rest of the time.

So, no matter how high our valuation of art, our valuation of artists should never be of a sort that turns them into a protected species. You are an artist and you commit a crime? Then you are punished for your crime and your art goes scot free. It is as wrong to exculpate the artist on the grounds of his art as it is to punish the art for the sins of the artist. Art does not bring with it exemption from the obligations of the mundane world of non-art. If this applies to Roman Polanski, it applies equally to Tracey Emin, though I am not aware that she has committed any crime for which any government seeks her extradition.

The exemption Tracey Emin has been very publicly asking for is monetary. "I'm simply not prepared to pay tax at 50 per cent," she announced last week, as though the rest of us can't wait to. "At least in France their politicians have always understood the importance of culture and they have traditionally helped out artists with subsidy and some tax advantages."

Since the new tax will only kick in once you start earning in a week more than most families struggle to make in a month, and you will therefore feel the increase significantly only once you start earning more in a week than most families earn in three months, you are advised, it seems to us, to keep your dissatisfaction to yourself. It's one of the laws of money that no one can talk about how much or how little of it they earn without losing their dignity. Even the poor forfeit our sympathy the minute they plead poverty, so what chance do the rich have?

That Tracey Emin has given her critics the opportunity to reopen old arguments about what an unmade bed is worth she ought to have foreseen. Maybe she did and doesn't care. Good for her if she doesn't. Her work is her work, even if, in her case, she has identified herself with it to an unusual degree. But then some blurring between the artist and the art has been a feature of the contemporary scene and partly explains its popularity. Art is easier to consume when it forgets the laws of its own sacred chastity and gets chatty about its maker. Performance artists the worst. Why anyone would squander 10 minutes of a precious life staring at someone offering to make art out of his own body beats me. (Reader, would you want to watch me thump out words on my keyboard with a single finger?) But the genre has its fans. It is, however, I continue to maintain, an impermissible confusion and leads precisely to Tracey Emin's gaffe. If we value art, she implies, we must value artists and do our damnedest not to lose them, and if that includes subsidising them with tax breaks, then let the subsidies flow like champagne.

But what we subsidise is the art. There are some who say we shouldn't subsidise art either, that it must make its way in the marketplace, but that assumes the marketplace has judgement. So it is right, we believe, to offer help to people who would otherwise lack the wherewithal to make art. But not in perpetuity. A subsidy is not intended to confer a privileged status upon the artist, comparable to a royal title (of which most artists, anyway, disapprove), thanks to which he can go on living the life of Riley. It should be looked on as a version of a student grant – indeed, as things stand at present, it is far more generous since it doesn't have to be paid back. You get your start and then you are on your own.

More concessions, maybe, if unhappily your art does not support itself – which, if it is genuinely original, it might well not do – but those concessions are not for a new hairdo or nights out at Le Caprice. Whoever enjoys the privilege of making art must learn to go without privileges of the baser sort.

As for the French valuing culture more than we do, allow me to suggest that the great success of British artists in recent years is ascribable to the pragmatic vibrancy of our culture, its scrum of talent, its unruly confusion of values, if anything its not prizing culture at all. The hostility of the British middle classes to contemporary art has in many cases not just been a spur to creativity, it has been the art's only justification. "What makes this art?" asks Mr My-child-could-do-better from Stoke D'Abernon. Answer: "The fact that you don't know." And such muddle and incomprehension is of more stimulus to an artist, even if it yields some childishly rebellious art, than whatever fiscal advances to "culture" the French are prepared to make.

Besides which, what sort of art will it be that is made in an atmosphere of pampered privilege? Art rarely prospers in academies or universities or other gated communities. I don't propose poverty and strife as the only conditions in which art does prosper, but art that speaks to humanity must be of humanity. We cannot doubt that the vexations and vanities that landed Polanski into trouble as a man also landed him into art. Art feeds well on transgression and excess. Where would Dostoyevsky have been without his gambling or Tolstoy without his sexual appetite? But the man must still pay, as all men must pay – whether in higher taxes or behind bars – and let his art be his sole redemption.