If Maria Miller wants art that sells, she should focus on getting art that's good

She said the arts must make the case for themselves as a "commodity". How her audience prevented themselves from pelting her with coffee cups, I just don't know.

Tom Sutcliffe
Sunday 28 April 2013 11:56
Culture secretary Maria Miller is calling for the support of arts organisations to make the 'economic case' against further cuts
Culture secretary Maria Miller is calling for the support of arts organisations to make the 'economic case' against further cuts

You'd have to be certifiably mad to look to a politician's remarks about the arts for a sense of spiritual uplift. But even allowing for the dismal track record in this field, Maria Miller's first speech as Culture Secretary was a singularly depressing affair. The arts, she told her audience, were going to have to make the case for themselves as a valuable "commodity", a honeypot for moneyed tourists and an export that could be stamped "Made in Britain".

She got positively schoolmistressy at one point, although she presented it as straight-talking: "In going through this period of transition, the Government wants participants – not bystanders – and I need you all to accept this fundamental premise, and work with me to develop the argument". How her audience – forced to develop this argument for 20 years and more – prevented themselves from pelting her with coffee cups, I just don't know.

Except, of course, that they have to be polite about her banalities. Responding to the speech the Arts Council mumbled something non-committal and vaguely supportive. Nicholas Hytner was bolder than most in suggesting that there was a "contradiction at the heart of her thinking", but even he had to remain essentially courteous in his arguments. But I hope she's not stupid enough to mistake this politic decorum for anything like acquiescence, because in private most of those who listened to her will have been seething at the combination of condescension and ignorance she presented.

The "bystanders" remark perfectly encapsulated it – an imputation that unless arts executives accepted the Government's line of argument, they would be characterised as passive loafers on the sidelines, sunk in a kind of high-minded welfare dependency. You don't just have to do your job, Miller was essentially saying, I'd like you do mine as well.

Her argument at heart was this – "Entrepreneurial endeavour need not come at the price of cultural excellence". It's the sort of remark that's been crafted to be unexceptionable, a pokerwork motto to sit above the desk of the modern cultural CEO. The only problem being that it isn't unexceptionable at all. It's flatly untrue. Miller's concluding rallying cry to her audience – not exactly Shakespearean in its poetry – was "Position yourself squarely within the visitor economy".

She meant, I take it, that they were to produce work that would go down well with foreign punters, shows like War Horse and Matilda, both namechecked as sterling examples of exportable commodity culture. She might have mentioned Billy Elliot too, though presumably its fierce anti-Thatcherism isn't congenial to her, no matter what it's done for the balance of trade.

The problem with this argument is that not one of those shows was the result of entrepreneurial ambition. Their extraordinary commercial success was an after-effect not a goal, and an after-effect of precisely the art-for-art's sake approach which Miller implied is now a luxury we can no longer afford. And if Britain's art executives were foolish enough to listen to her and start prioritising work that they know will turn a profit, you can guarantee that the result would be fewer breakout hits, and more wasteful flops. To believe anything else is to believe that you can improve gamblers' success rate by enjoining them to back only winners in future.

What Maria Miller should have said was this. Be tough on yourself in making the best work you can. You've proved to be very good at it in the past. It's my job to get the money that makes excellence possible, and I apologise if I occasionally have to use crass and wrong-headed arguments to fight for it. But, just between you and me, most of my colleagues are even more philistine than I am.

A fine mess that poses a question...

A visit to an exhibition by Richard Patterson threw up a psychological question. Why do we assume that in a canvas that mixes "messy" expressionist paintwork and airbrushed photorealism, the abstract disorder sits on top of the representational "tidiness"? In some of the paintings there's no mystery. You can see the order in which the paint has been laid on. But in other works, Patterson goes to great pains to withhold the clues. And yet the mind automatically privileges the representational as being obscured by the non-representational. Is it because we assume the world tends towards disorder? Or do we automatically treat abstraction as a kind of intrusion?

Child's play, Jacobean style

Intriguing to see Dominic Dromgoole's plans for a youth company to do Jacobean drama, but I did wonder whether Shakespeare took a turn or two. The Globe Young Players are to perform in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a space similar to the Blackfriars Theatre in which children's companies enjoyed so much success at the end of the 16th century that adult performers were edged out. That's the source of the Hamlet lines about an "eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for 't". "Eyases" are little birds, and you certainly get the feeling that Shakespeare didn't care much for child actors, presumably as unsettlingly variable in quality in the 1590s as now.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments