Labour turned a golden age of culture into lead

Publicly funded art lost its credibility thanks to Blairite neo-liberalism, claims the author of Cultural Capital. But that's no bad thing, says Stephen Bayley.

by Stephen Bayley
Last Updated: 02 Feb 2015

'Wenn ich Kultur hore... entsichere ich meinen Browning' is usually slightly mistranslated as: 'When I hear the word "Culture", I reach for my gun'. Playwright Hanns Johst's famous line is usually attributed to Goering or one of the other Nazi brutes. Robert Hewison feels much the same about culture, but reaches, instead, for his pen. I mean keypad. Hewison and I are old friends. Let's hope we remain so by the time we reach the bottom of the page.

Hewison is professorially waspish in the best and brightest way. A long-serving theatre critic for the Sunday Times, he has two major academic interests. One is that complicated and fascinating High Victorian phenomenon art critic John Ruskin. Then there is cultural policy, the other bee in his left-leaning bonnet. Surely this is one of the most boring subjects on earth. Personally, when I hear the words 'arts administrator', I reach for any lethal weapon I can find. Not so my friend Robert. Like his hero, Ruskin, Hewison is moving from the enjoyment of art to hectoring about political economy. Ruskin's own journey, let it be said, ended with howling-at-the-moon madness.

My problem with cultural policy is that, as an idea, it is contradictory and nugatory. Wondering about cultural policy is like asking a fish if it has a water policy. Culture is not defined by committees. Culture is not the 2% of activity that is neither work nor sleep. Culture is everything and everywhere. Culture includes lunch and the ads on the Tube.

In any case, great artists are not interested in policies, targets, protocols, consensus, votes, quotas, funding climates, task forces or mission statements. Art is fugitive. Jean Cocteau was asked what he would save if his house was burning down. He said: 'The fire.' You cannot administrate creativity. That's the whole point. The Turner Prize was an arts administrator's attempt to institutionalise outrage and it turned into a bad joke with less intellectual or artistic integrity than The X Factor.

But Hewison is hewed from the granite of old left certainties and the jungle drums of 'social capital' are ever in the background. He wants lots of arts funding, but why? Artists are better off and make better art when they have to struggle and sell and make a case. But in his utopia of arts administration, with grants being dispersed by culture's equivalent of drunken sailors, Hewison believes 'the existence of trust is essential to creativity'. Not so. Creativity thrives on thieving, mischief, back-stabbing, front- stabbing, jealousy, lust, greed, fear and desire.

Hewison says that wicked 'managerialism (has) turned a Golden Age to lead'. This seems odd because an efficient investment in 'cultural capital' would surely require more expert managers than have been drawn to even the Heliogabalan orgy of arts overspend we have today.

Cool Britannia was the first embarrassment of the Blair reign. This was a hangover of the M&A mania of the 1980s. We were told that in the absence of meaningful industrial activity, Britain's brand values alone would create wealth. And in the euphoria of 1997 this almost made sense. I remember being invited to a 'creative industries' love-in at Downing Street. You can't say no, but I hid, blushing, behind the curtains. These sensibilities leached into minister Chris (now 'Lord') Smith's 1998 book, Creative Britain (valued at 0.01p on Amazon). George Walden's review of this drivel was the rudest critique of anything I have ever read. Ever.

I wish I had stayed behind the curtains when invited that same year to be creative director of Mandy's Millennium Tent. Hewison describes its various absurdities in a way that makes it seem much more lucid than it in fact was, although he does call me 'witty and articulate', so I must be grateful. And then there was the Olympics, where bathos and majesty rubbed shoulders with jingoism and brainless kitsch.

Here we have two dreadful failures and an idiosyncratically mixed success, but they are not good evidence for what Hewison's subtitle calls the 'fall of creative Britain'. Instead, they are evidence of what goes wrong when public money is spent on what's best left private. If you have a vision to see beyond the dogma of the cultural lobby or the files of arts administrators, you can find exceptional creativity in Britain.

A rather grande dame recently said to me: 'Tell me, dear, does the Arts Council still exist?' That's the result of over 60 years of public spending on the arts. Hewison wants more. I want less. Where's my gun?

Stephen Bayley is the author of Charm: An Essay and a contributing editor to MT

Cultural Capital – the rise and fall of creative Britain by Robert Hewison is published by Verso at £14.99

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