Terence Blacker: When art should stand up for its own virtues

The arts have become almost as marginal and irritating to New Labour as to Thatcher
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The Independent Online

As Tate Britain and the BBC prepare to do their bit for the heritage industry by collaborating on a celebration of our glorious landscape called A Picture of Britain, it is perhaps too much to hope that an enterprising gallery might mount an alternative version. Instead of Constable, Turner and Gainsborough, and the inevitable fells and haywains and patchwork quilts of rolling farmland, this picture of Britain would capture the way we live now with scenes unfiltered by fantasy or nostalgia.

As Tate Britain and the BBC prepare to do their bit for the heritage industry by collaborating on a celebration of our glorious landscape called A Picture of Britain, it is perhaps too much to hope that an enterprising gallery might mount an alternative version. Instead of Constable, Turner and Gainsborough, and the inevitable fells and haywains and patchwork quilts of rolling farmland, this picture of Britain would capture the way we live now with scenes unfiltered by fantasy or nostalgia.

Two candidates for the cultural section might be the portrait of a farmhouse on the outskirts of the Norfolk town of Swaffham, which could be exhibited beside the view of an empty office block at the Five Ways industrial centre in Birmingham. The country house is rather less than idyllic, with wrecked vehicles, covered in graffiti, in the front and back garden, garden gates hanging off hinges and a field that looks as if it has been used for drag-car racing, as indeed it has. The house's owner is Michael Carroll, whose current vital statistics read: age - 22, bank balance - £9m, appearances in court - 30.

The office block had until recently been occupied by the National Academy of Writing, an establishment which was set up three years ago to help young and talented would-be writers towards professionalism but which now seems to be seriously on the skids.

The connection between the two is admittedly tenuous. Carroll - or, to give him his full, popular press character-reference, the "tattoo-covered, chunky jewellery-wearing, cocaine-snorting, foul-mouthed, feckless, lying, children-frightening neighbour from hell" - is probably not a literary man. Recently he enraged the moralists of the press (something for which he has a real talent) by skittishly announcing that his two-year-old daughter had just said her first two words, "fuck" and "shit".

By contrast, the National Academy of Writing has been supported by the great and the good of Medialand. It has a highly respectable president in the form of Lord Bragg, and has only caused controversy when lack of funds forced it out of its Birmingham offices.

Public money - too much of it in one case, and not nearly enough in the other - provides the link between Carroll and the collapsing writing school. The Lottery Lout, as he is known in the poplar press, bought a ticket in 2002, won £9.7m with it, and has since been spending his gambling profits in ways that are mainly antisocial and quite often illegal.

The academy if it ever received lottery money now no longer does, and has become dependent on a dwindling supply of private donations. The idea of offering young, able writers a mounting-block into the business, the literary equivalent of Rada, the Royal College of Ballet or the Slade, had been widely supported at first, with even agents, authors' organisations and publishers donating money; but in the end, the vital core funding had dwindled away. It appears that soon all that will remain of this great, bright idea will be a creative writing module at a local university.

The decline of a national school for authors is perhaps not the most heart-wrenching of tragedies. Unlike ballet or acting, putting down words on paper is not a performance art and its students are likely to benefit less from the disciplines of communal training. There is a boom in creative writing courses, ranging from the academic to the therapeutic, the fiercely serious to the frankly recreational.

Yet there is something embarrassing, depressing even, about the fact that a good idea, widely supported and well run, can fail after such a short period of time without either local or, more significantly, central government giving a damn.

For all the brave talk of creative industries, by Chris Smith and others, back in that golden false dawn of 1997, the arts have become almost as marginal and irritating to New Labour as they were to the Thatcher governments. Support for creativity has always been at a price. When it was associated with vote-winning photo-opportunities beside hip young things from the world of music or advertising, it remained on the political agenda. Later, arts funding became entwined with vague educational ideals and with an ill-defined wish to make society a nicer, warmer, more inclusive place.

But now it seems that putting a small proportion of money (some of the revenue gained from the nation's favourite gambling habit, for example) towards a course that would bring on the best, that would shamelessly encourage élitism, perhaps helping people who will prove the kind of stroppy individualists governments habitually distrust, is not politically expedient. Artistic excellence, after all, is difficult to measure in terms of targets, strategies, objectives and league tables.

It was perhaps this betrayal of the artists of the future which John Tusa had in mind when, speaking this week at the annual dinner of the Royal Academy of Arts, he referred to the new "fear of culture" which has established itself in the places of power. It is now time, Tusa said, to speak up for art as a good in itself - good for individuals, good for the country - not as part of some educational or social programme.

For many young writers who were hoping for a leg-up into those much-publicised creative industries, these words of warning may have come too late.

Terblacker@aol.com

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