Leading Article: Professionalism and imagination: the only response to falling arts subsidies

Among the works associated with Sir Isaiah Berlin - fondly remembered at a memorial service this week - is his enrichment of the old adage that there is no accounting for taste. Values, he taught, are incommensurable, and the old liberal idea that we should work towards a nirvana where all conflicts can be ended is not only inhuman but positively dangerous.

Well, scanning the latest Arts Council budget allocations, it's hard not to agree. Here is a miniature example of the wider point. How exactly do we measure the relative worthiness of supporting - out of a limited and shrinking total of public money - opera rather than film, poetry against painting, and after that decide, say, that this big London-based company is more deserving than that provincial troupe or even (a critical example) this London orchestra rather than that?

The answer is we cannot. Decisions have to be made, and money allocated. But there will always be argument, endless dispute about what constitutes innovation, about what is good and worthy and what deserves subsidy from the taxpayers when patrons won't pay up. That debate is not just inevitable. It is thoroughly healthy. The core principle, that there should be public subsidy, is unassailable. The vexing questions are how much and for whom. What is essential is that such judgements are made openly, and that they are available to be defended by those who make them on the public's behalf. The public's assent has to be earned rather than taken for granted. Too often arts administrators have allowed their defensiveness to become an excuse for closet decision-making, too readily (but understandably) interpreted by the public as arrogance.

That is the biggest criticism that can be levelled at the Arts Council. Born as a buffer, to stop direct political interference in artistic projects, the Council has too often itself become a sealed container, its deliberations impervious to public gaze and correction. Worse, it has not even been well run. Too often the paying public has been left with the impression of an institution afraid of debate, and inefficient with it. Too often under Arts Council oversight, arts administration has remained the province of amateurs, sincere, titled, well-intentioned ... and innumerate. That is a generalisation unfair to many organisations, no doubt - but all too apt a description of, for example, the Royal Opera.

In this light, the twin appointments this week of new chairmen for both the Arts Council and the Royal Opera must be welcome news. Messrs Southgate, at Covent Garden, and Robinson, at the Arts Council, bring two much-needed qualities to their respective tasks. Too much can be made of business acumen in the public sector - Mrs Thatcher's serial appointments proved that success in running a company or impressing the Stock Exchange is not a sufficient condition for political and administrative achievement. But managing Granada or EMI is a very big task; it is hard to imagine Sir Colin Southgate allowing the Opera House's finances to come to their present sorry pass, if only because he would have been scrutinising the balance sheets.

What both men also offer is a fresh eye. Sir Colin takes over in anticipation of Sir Richard Eyre's report on the future of the Covent Garden site: he will need to be tough-minded and iconoclastic if company and theatre are to be re-founded. Gerry Robinson does not have to be a ruthless tycoon to ask whether the Arts Council is strictly necessary - but he will be free from the ludicrous prejudice which sees artistic endeavour as so fragile, so precious that only amateurs can be entrusted with the business of allocating grants. Both men ought to agitate for more money from all sources, that is part of the job. But both are surely realistic enough to know that - however rosy the macro-economic assumptions for the spending era after April 1999 - financial constraints are more likely to tighten than become more lax.

Besides, a lot of ritual huffing and puffing goes on over arts funding. It will always be a critical, and unending, dialogue between "elitists" and "egalitarians", between those who want to concentrate the limited sums on the identifiably excellent companies and sites so they can build and prosper and those who want to see a thousand flowers blooming, especially in the provinces, even at the expense of quality.

A critical chairman of the Arts Council ought to get himself along to the Aldwych Theatre and pick up the question posed (but disappointingly not answered) in David Hare's new play Amy's View: why should (subsidised) theatre be languishing when movie and television drama flourishes? Given his background, Gerry Robinson might extend the questionnaire and ask about orchestral subsidy levels, given the trends in the market for recorded classical music.

There are hard questions, but there are no clear or absolute answers: a lurch toward elitism or towards populism might look intellectually clever but would be disastrous in practice. If the Arts Council is to exist at all - and we are sceptics on that - then it should prove itself by finding more imaginative ways of using public money. It should support individual makers of music, art and drama - poets and sculptors - not simply institutions. It should ensure that we are provoked as well as charmed. And above all, it should be rigorous and ruthlessly professional in its management of money. That may not be an art; but without it, art suffers.