Politicians practise the art of patronage

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The arts - of all things - are front-page news again. A blizzard of recent events and announcements has raised once again the familiar litany of vexed questions about how we should patronise our creative types. The Department of National Heritage is changing its name to one more in keeping with the dynamic new times (it is now the Department for Culture, Media and Sport) and hinting that the Arts Council's days as Britain's sponsor-in-chief might be numbered.

The head of HarperCollins - Anthea Disney - has sparked off a squabble in the book trade by firing 106 writers who failed to honour their contracts, which inevitably provoked a lot of grave talk about philistine corporate values.

New Labour's high table has committed itself enthusiastically to the extravagant Millennium Dome, even to the extent of creating the first New Labour fat cat, Mark McCormack, by appointing him as its chief fund- raiser. And now comes news of a "creative task force", to be headed by Sir David Puttnam and Richard Branson, who will "champion" the cause of creative endeavour in a country supposedly famous for neglecting its artists.

As always, the true picture is muddier than the clean lines of caricature permit. Anthea Disney is a shade unlucky to have been made the emblem of the book trade's nasty desire to channel the flow of books, to turn a broad, mazy river into a winner-takes-all waterfall. In truth, the world might just go on turning without some of the titles she has pledged to stem - books about cookery and pets, for instance. But it is true (alas) that the desire for fewer books is a surprisingly common one among modern publishers.

The great number of new titles produced annually (70,000 each year in Britain, and rising) certainly is an inconvenience - it's lots of books to hump around, a lot of titles to catalogue, a lot of authors to keep up with. But is plentifulness and a wide choice a bad thing? Can publishers truly promise, as they condense their list, to retain the great books and ditch only the rubbish? Not many would have the nerve. It really would be ironic if capitalism managed to achieve bloodlessly what communism had to kill millions to obtain - a narrow culture dominated by a few mass- market opiates.

The various political initiatives of recent days might, in this context, seem like good news. For too long, the case goes, our creative artists and designers have been neglected. David Puttnam, for one, has sung this song many times. But he of all people should know, from his unlucky experiences in the film industry, that money-equals-art is not a straightforward equation.

Of course it makes sense to ditch a jaded, snotty word like "Arts" in favour of a vibrant one like "Culture". Of course the new government should surf along on the excitable wave of the times; should look forward, not back. Opportunity, not obligation, as Tony Blair might say. The future, not the past. Anticipation, not antiquities. Full stops, not commas. Slogans, not sentences. That's all fine.

But will it work? Generous government intervention is always going to play a key role when it comes to grand civic projects such as the Dome; and government plays an inescapable role, too, in shoring up unprofitable but worthwhile aesthetic adventures, be they rap evenings for black women in Solihull, or pounds 213m makeovers for the Opera House in Covent Garden. But both approaches to the arts - ruthless profit-and-loss accounting, or government featherbedding - tend to be grandiose, both assume that it is possible to predict, centrally, what will work out there in the bookshops and theatre queues and art galleries. Both, it hardly needs adding, are pretty much bound at some point to trip over the infuriatingly unreliability of artistic energy.

It's annoying, but there really seems to be no budgeting for spirited work: the Muse moves in mysterious ways and thrives on adversity as often as she does on whole-hearted applause and support. There is no doubt, for instance, that Britain's creative industry has thrived in the past decade or so, without any visible encouragement or support from government. Waterstone's effected a transformation in the once-dowdy world of books; British fashion is everywhere the rage; Britpop and the Spice Girls come booming out of transistors all over the world; British designers have taken the lead in anything involving glass, steel and wood; and the visual arts have rarely been so bracing and adventurous, with annual controversies guaranteed by the assorted pickled livestock and inside-out living rooms in the Tate or the Royal Academy.

Nor is it just the so-called "arts" that have buzzed into life. There have been some good-sized intellectual upheavals busily brewing, be they feminist - the me-me power play represented by the Spice Girls - or environmental: see under Swampy. There have been new newspapers, new buildings, new comedians, even new ways to dance the night away.

Is it ironic that all of this blossomed under what some of its enthusiasts might have called the Tory jackboot? Some might think so. Or they might argue that it was the very spirit of opposition that brought all these new modes of expression flaring into life. That might be true, too. But a more uncomfortable truth is that what all of these things depend on in particular is prosperity in the high street. Someone's got to buy all the damn books and records, after all. Even what we might call protest culture is driven by cash. The whole world of clubbing and raves, with its Ecstasy tabs and its Irvine Welshes, might seem defiantly hedonistic and utopian, but actually it relies on young people having the kind of pocketfuls of money that no previous generation has ever enjoyed.

The culture of protest, these days, is quite an expensive habit. Much the same could be said about fashion: if you want to spend a hundred quid on a bin liner with holes in it, fine. But it isn't only a "creative" gesture.

Of course it would be fatuous for Tory Britain to claim this flood of innovative energy as some sort of reflection of its own competence or aesthetic flair, but it might be a mistake also to see it as something that can easily be planned.

The most important aspect in the patronage of art is humility - a recognition that the finest work often sprouts in the shadiest and most neglected corner of the garden. In the fairy tale, the villagers sell the goose that lays the golden eggs for less than it is worth - they are too dumb and greedy to appreciate its real value. But there are an awful lot of ways to cook a goose. The pompous urge to tame, cage and promote it - be it corporate, and motivated by a desire to streamline the profit flow; or political, and driven by glory-seeking - almost always ends in tears. The goose will still have soft feathers - it would make a good pillow. But what if it does not glisten any more?