Terence Blacker: The dubious art of social engineering

For an arts group to lose funding because its race objectives failed to impress the Arts Council is absurd

It is a fact, largely unmentioned but hardly much of a secret, that in some of the loveliest and greenest parts of the British countryside, racial prejudice is as ubiquitous as the leaves on the trees in summer. The racism there is not violent or unseemly. Windows are not broken, nor disgusting things put through letter-boxes. It tends to be of the jokey, smiling type, largely because the rural community in which it resides is almost entirely white.

In my part of East Anglia, where black or brown faces are rarely seen, it is quite normal to hear casual remarks of outrageous prejudice issuing from the lips of good old boys of all ages while chatting in the pub or at the local auction. When a black player was recruited by one of the local teams, fans cheerfully referred to him as "our new darkie" and made crass jokes at his expense. Any murmur of liberal disapproval would be met by genuine surprise. Round here, it can sometimes feel as if the word according to Bernard Manning still holds sway and that the bright New Labour dawn of cultural inclusiveness had never happened.

So, on the face of it, there could be few better ways of spending government money than by gently pointing out, through education and entertainment, that the world has moved on, that beyond these fields there are different societies and cultures and that its is stupid to mock or fear them. The Arts Council has always taken a proactive approach in these matters and, over the past few days, has cranked up its efforts to break down the old barriers.

In its newly-published Race Equality Plan, a 110-page booklet that has been sent to all recipients of Arts Council grants, it suggests - or, rather, demands - that arts bodies, wherever they may be, should put a new emphasis on cultural diversity. In future, financial support from the council will firmly and explicitly depend on the recipients' ability to prove that they are appealing to audiences of ethnic minorities, forming partnerships with their groups and putting on shows which express black and Asian culture.

Anticipating the argument that, for example, a theatre group in a prevailingly white area will simply not be able to attract audiences to a play set in Brixton or Congo-Brazzaville, the Race Equality Plan sternly reminds its clients that art is about difference and that even rural audiences can appreciate art from cultures and experiences distant from their own.

The leaflet provides rather more than friendly guidance to those who run arts bodies: "We will closely monitor the development of your action plan and your progress in meeting you race equality objectives," it warns. "Future funding may include considerations on your ability to meet race equality targets." There is something familiarly chilling about this pronouncement, with the way that its buzzy jargon about targets, objectives and action plans is delivered in a tone of thin-lipped, nannyist threat. In response to it, there has been hand-wringing from good-hearted arts folk across the country - "When I read the pack, I just thought, gosh, what am I mean to do with this?", said a worried gallery director from the Forest of Dean.

Now the heavyweights are entering the fray. The playwright Ronald Harwood was horrified to discover that the directive had caused some theatre companies to drop perfectly good productions, simply because they were too white and middle-class to suit the Arts Council. It was a disgrace, Harwood said, that the arts should be used as an instrument of social inclusion.

Here, of course, is the big question which lurks behind much government funding for leisure, whether it be for a puppet theatre in Norwich or a national park in the Lake District. Is public money being spent in order to encourage a quality of experience as widely as possible? Or is it a semi-covert way educating the masses, using the efforts of those who run theatres, parks galleries and arts centres to help make society nicer, better educated and, above all, more inclusive.

There is case for supporting the social engineering option. If taxpayers are obliged to contribute towards something as amorphous and ill-defined as artistic expression, then the majority of them would probably prefer that its emphasis is making the world a kinder place rather than providing a small number relatively privileged people with a shudder of aesthetic pleasure. As for artists, directors and writers, they should, if they object to being regarded as essentially educators, resist sticking their hand out when a government grant is in the offing.

The problem is not moral but practical. However worthy and thought-provoking the culturally diverse productions that may be on offer at a theatre, the idea that it is going to attract the kind of locals who regard an alien culture as intrinsically suspect is gormless and naive. For a good local arts group to lose its funding, and probably disappear, simply because its action plan towards achieving race equality objectives has failed to impress the cultural commissars of the Arts Council is clearly absurd.

Yet, behind the Arts Council's idiotic jargon, there is good sense. A process of education probably can and will change ingrained attitudes within the rural communities but it should be aimed at the young, at schools and above all should use that great racial unifier, music.

terblacker@aol.com

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