Making failure into an art form: The orchestras fiasco underlines the futility of the Arts Council's continued existence

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THE FIASCO of the Arts Council's attempt to reform the funding of the London orchestras is not just another arts mess. It is the climax of a decade-long identity crisis. The fact that this is a climax is being overlooked in the usual calls for reform and in the hopes that are being placed on the appointment of a new chairman, due in April. But reform is pointless. The Arts Council is not lurching from crisis to catastrophe simply because of some internal, correctable difficulties. It is doing so because it is now an entirely futile organisation.

With the orchestras the council aspired to impose a radical policy initiative and failed. Instead of cleanly cutting the four subsidised bodies down to two super-orchestras, it now seems it will continue to hand out four grants with slight adjustments. The pseudo-legal tactic of employing a High Court judge to do the dirty work unsurprisingly backfired and has left the council looking even weaker than before, unable to execute a policy to which its officers had insisted they were '100 per cent' committed.

This was the worst but far from the only example of a crippling discontinuity between the council's reach and its grasp. It walked into a similar mess with the theatres earlier this year. The pattern is always the same. On the one hand the council wishes to impose its authority and expertise, on the other it cannot do so because it is politically isolated, organisationally mistrusted and aesthetically muddled. Its position is now wholly impossible.

The story of the steady progress of the council to the unhappy condition of an organisation whose only hope for survival is government inertia and incompetence is depressing but predictable. The foundation of an independent body to dispense public subsidy for the arts in 1945 was based on a series of decent, idealistic impulses. Government took over a patronage role that was no longer sustainable by private wealth. It did so in order to democratise culture, and in a form intended to prevent political interference. This last point - known as the arm's length principle - was important to a nation that had seen the horrors of political control of expression in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.

The essence of this conception was that there was a stable commodity known as art which was universally recognised by cultivated people, which was spiritually valuable and which the less cultivated would flock to consume, given the opportunity. It was an ideal of its time that now looks decidedly quaint. Art in every field has now escaped from any set of conventions that would make it either stable or universally acceptable. Its spiritual value is disputed and unclear, and in the ensuing years a deluge of hotter, sweeter, more immediate attractions has been competing for the attentions of the masses.

Nevertheless, until about 10 years ago the Arts Council's position was sustainable. It had a short and reasonably noble history of leftish paternalism. It had presided over a steady growth in the provision of artistic hardware for the nation. Both its constitution and the political purity of the arm's length principle had been employed as models, in the best post-imperial tradition, throughout the world.

The collapse of its status cannot, as it so often is, be blamed either on Thatcherism or on the council's leading personalities. Neither Lord Rees-Mogg nor his successor as chairman, Lord Palumbo, are guilty men. They are both well-meaning, well-intentioned idealists. They were not appointed as right-wing insults to a left-wing arts establishment; on the contrary, they sprang from precisely the same establishment of amateur idealists known as the great and the good. But they faced the sudden and inevitable eruption of the contradictions implicit in the founding principles of the council. If Tony Benn had been chairman, he would have been similarly overcome.

One of these contradictions was the problem of art itself. Bringing the masses symphony orchestras playing 19th-century music was one thing; bringing them modern music, sculpture or painting was a different matter. So much of this work is so 'difficult', so easily lampooned and so far removed from the old craft traditions that seemed to underpin the quality of creativity, that the very word 'art' came to be seen as a kind of smart conspiracy. This would not matter if private money alone was involved, but the presence of public money raised all sorts of impossible questions: why these bricks or this ear-assaulting opera, why not cash for the poor, the sick or the elderly? There are answers to such questions, but they do not work in the sound-bite culture.

The far more serious contradiction lay in the paternalism of the initial ideal. Art could not at once be democratised, the council had to start from the position that certain people knew what was good and they would, therefore, be the judges of what was to be subsidised. This, in effect, defined the amateurism and establishment bias of the whole enterprise. Cultivated people would emerge through mysterious government processes and would dispense money on the basis of even more mysterious aesthetic assessments and assumptions.

Again this makes a kind of sense. If we are to have state art then the lethally sectarian arguments about what, precisely, art is will have to stop somewhere. But establishment taste - not just in the conventional realm but also in the avant-garde - was to prove increasingly unconvincing. Worse, establishment attitudes towards the arts proved hopelessly out of touch. In the Eighties the arts industry underwent a radical process of professionalisation. New sources of private funding were tapped and the regions discovered the value of local artistic provision as well as their own competence in administering it. Arts bodies across the country became increasingly unwilling to accept the authority - aesthetic or administrative - of the London bureaucrats.

Politically this was reflected in a massive devolution of power to the regions and in the acceptance of a strategic arts policy role by the ministry - now known as the Department of National Heritage. The council's reaction to this stripping of its powers was a series of feverish attempts at self-identification. Both the disastrous theatre and orchestra initiatives were aimed at seizing back some of the strategic high ground of arts policy. Both failed, not because they were intrinsically stupid - though they were - but because the council no longer had the political or aesthetic authority to enforce them.

Yet in spite of all this, the arm's length principle persists as the primary ideological defence of the Arts Council. It launders public money, cuts its political strings. In fact, this is now employed simply as a procedural veil over the workings of the political establishment. The full story, for example, of the meddlings of David Mellor, when arts minister, has yet to be written. The current reality is that no sane, modern British government could care less about interfering in the production of dissident plays at the National Theatre. What it does tend to care about is all the fun of string pulling, favour granting and piffling factional in-fighting that can be had in the arts world.

The problem now is that the Government appears, yet again, to be backing off. A Treasury deal involving a slimming down of the council in return for an increase in overall funding has been ignored and this year, as a result, the money has been cut. Peter Brooke, the Heritage Secretary, instead of confronting the issue, has merely asked for cuts in the council's overheads. But that just means that, when the cuts are made, life will continue as before. Heavyweight arts mandarins are queuing up to go public with a demand for abolition and a Minister of Culture on the French model. This is understandable but misguided, first because the French model has proved an expensive, indulgent mess, and second because a British minister of culture would almost certainly be either a second-ranker or a first-ranker on his way up or down. There is no tradition of artistic passion in British politics.

State art is a fact of modern life. There have been better arrangements in the past, but subsidy is what we have and it is here to stay. It will always be a messy business. The arts constituency contains both the best and the worst people that we have. Dealing with them requires an 'Arts Council' that consists of a small, highly paid group of people with strategic responsibilities and an overall brief to assess national arts performance. The people employed should be as ferociously high-powered and arts-credible as possible, they should be bloody-minded and quick-witted. For, in the last analysis, they will need to insist on a new seriousness about the arts, a seriousness that has always been lacking in British politicians and, latterly, in the arts establishment.