“In England, public policy has not favoured the view that the making of art should be spread through the community. When the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which later became the Arts Council, was set up in 1940, it had to choose between promoting art by the people or art for the people. Should central government funding of the arts encourage us in using our ‘marvellous, long-evolved, specialised hands’, or should it turn us into passive art worshippers? The Council chose the latter course. The mandarin aesthetes among its members, headed by Kenneth Clark, who saw the arts as essentially a professional activity, prevailed. W.E. Williams, the Secretary General of the Arts Council, in his 1956 Report, made it quite clear that the Council envisaged art as enshrined in showpieces of national pride, precisely of the kind Hitler had planned to build. ‘The Arts Council believes that the first claim upon its attention and assistance is that of maintaining in London and the larger cities effective power-houses of opera, music and drama; for unless these quality institutions can be maintained, the arts are bound to decline into mediocrity.’ The image of ‘power-houses’ is revealing. Art is to be beamed out to consumers like electricity. All they have to do is switch it on. It is not something that arises from them and the cultivation of their abilities.”
Later in the book Carey goes on to examine the transformative power of creative activity upon the individual in a lengthy case study of the work of the art-in-prisons charity The Koestler Foundation. He concludes:
“There is evidence that active participation in artwork can engender redemptive self-respect in those who feel excluded from society. This may be the result of gaining admittance to an activity that enjoys social and cultural prestige. But it seems also to reflect the fact that standards of achievement in art are internal and self-judged, and allow for a sense of personal fulfilment that may be difficult to gain in standard academic subjects. The difficulty prisoners meet with when they try to pursue their artistic interests after release is a consequence of our inadequate support for art in the community, which stems from a belief in ideals of ‘excellence’, as reflected in Arts Council policy. The contention that the money available for the arts should be reserved for ‘quality institutions’ such as the Royal Opera House, rather than being spread through the whole community, automatically relegates the public to the role of passive art-worshippers. It is not a decision that would be countenanced in any other area. The proposal, for example, that the money available for education should in future be spent only on the supremely gifted would immediately arouse opposition. The idea that the arts are things that happen in ‘quality institutions’ seems to be essentially competitive. It puts ‘achievement’ in the arts on a level with national sporting triumphs or scientific breakthroughs. This triumphalist view of art seems to be related to the notion that high quality artworks are ‘monuments’ to the human spirit … [and] should be left to geniuses, and that ordinary people should not be encouraged to play any part in them."
Now of course, in recent years the Arts Council has become known for its box-ticky ‘inclusion’ agenda – which I’ve argued in other posts and in other people’s comments boxes doesn’t seem so unreasonable to me as it does to many. But put into the context of ACE’s historical raison d’etre, it could be that this social agenda was an aberration. What we are seeing now could be a sudden reversion to type in ACE policy. The emphasis does certainly seem to be shifting away from artistic process and back towards artistic product, which is perhaps why companies such as the inspiring and much-loved community theatre company London Bubble are getting it in the neck (not that their shows aren’t brilliant, just that their community sensibility and aesthetic doesn’t fit the ‘product’ model when it comes to judging value).
My dictionary defines ‘to excel’ and ‘excellent’ as ‘to be superior to or better than; to surpass others’ and notes its Latin roots in ex (‘out of’ or ‘from’) and celsus (‘on high’). I don’t like the whiff of snobbery in the etymology of that word. And I certainly don’t like it in the art which I pay for or consume.
Let’s hope that the Arts Council has learned something about art’s role in the community in the past 60 years, and outgrown the unpleasant and elitist post-war culture which engendered it.