UK: HANDY'S VIEW - OPEN YOUR DOORS TO EXCELLENCE. - Charles Handy urges businesses to find space for the arts, to give wider access to things that stir the imagination and make up for the inequalities of the market economy.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy urges businesses to find space for the arts, to give wider access to things that stir the imagination and make up for the inequalities of the market economy.

The Nutcracker ballet is traditional December fare for those culturally inclined, and with small children, set as it is in the context of a children's Christmas party. See it, however, as I did recently, in St Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre, the home of the Kirov Ballet, and a whole different message comes across.

St Petersburg in winter is a grand but uncomfortable place. It is cold, grey, wet and gloomy, or was when we were there. The Russian people we met were likewise grey and gloomy. Capitalism has not had the rejuvenating effect in St Petersburg that it has had in parts of Eastern Europe, and perhaps in other parts of Russia. There is nothing much in the shops, and few have much with which to buy what there is. If I were a St Petersburger in the winter I would be inclined to wonder what life was all about, and whether any of it was worth it.

Until, that is, I went to the Mariinsky Theatre. This is a magnificent place, a green and gold extravanza - and packed with people. The most expensive tickets, for Russians, were under £5 (still dear for them) but most were much less. Whole families were there, as were school classes with their teachers. Young and old alike were there, some smart, some shabby, all agog.

The ballet is unashamedly romantic, and the last act a fantasy of a ballet lover's heaven. Even the most cynical could not help but be stirred by its beauty, particularly when danced to perfection by the Kirov School.

I went out into the cold night wondering about the contradictions - the poverty and inefficiency outside and the sumptuous excellence inside. Was this the Russian version of bread and circuses, a way to pacify the mob, to make up for all their hardships, or do the Russians see the arts as a glimpse of the transcendent, and something to be made available to all as cheaply as possible?

Looking at the rapt faces of the audience that evening and watching the multitudes of ordinary Russians pouring into the Hermitage the next day, with its unbeatable collection of paintings, I am inclined to the more elevated view. These people were not there just to get out of the cold, they were coming to see some things that were as near to the sublime and the eternal as one could get. They came to be infected by excellence and beauty. If they went away uplifted for a while, or pondering on the real meaning of life, of what endured and what was passing fancy, surely this was no bad thing.

It will be interesting to see whether the Mariinsky Theatre and the Kirov Ballet survive when Russia eventually embraces the free market. Put art of this quality into the marketplace, with realistic costs and prices, and it inevitably becomes expensive, a playground for the rich. Too bad, then, if you are poor and cannot get your own taste of truth from the great theatres, concert halls or museums. The market, one has to conclude, is not always the best guarantee of free choice or democracy.

Yet paradoxically, for the market to work in the sectors where it does work well, we need to know that there is more to life than marketplace success. Those who struggle unsuccessfully in that marketplace will better tolerate the riches of the successful if they realise that there are some things which money cannot buy. The arts, in their many different guises, offer some hint of that other world. All should have the chance to visit it. Market economy or not, some things, perhaps, should not be priced, so that they are available to all.

In Italy, three years ago, the workers throughout Tuscany went on strike for a day in protest at the bomb which destroyed a part of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It is hard to imagine the people of London doing the same, but to the people of Tuscany their art is their heritage; it enriches their everyday life. They are fortunate - they see it all around them every day, in the architecture and sculptures of their cities, in the frescoes which still embellish the walls of their churches. In summer, their towns are full of music. Most of it is there for free.

I am hopeful that the halls and forecourts of our businesses may yet resemble the churches of Tuscany, as exhibition spaces for our artists, open to all who might pass by. It is encouraging, too, to see the names of big and small firms on the programmes of new opera companies, of local theatres and city music festivals. If the sponsorship of artists was good PR for the Medicis in Florence, it may be no less beneficial for their modern-day equivalents. Greedy merchant princes once financed the Renaissance, but we are forever in their debt.

We call it subsidy, our rather reluctant public support for the arts in Britain, implying, by our choice of that word, some sort of inefficiency. But we do not speak of subsidy when we talk of paying for the schools of our nation, or the funding of its hospitals. We speak instead of education and healthcare as the entitlements of every citizen in what we would like to think of as our civilised society. In a truly civilised society, however, that entitlement would include open access to all the things which stir our imaginations. If we cannot put those things in our streets, we should let the people through the doors. It would compensate a little for the inefficiencies that are inevitable in any free enterprise system, and would permit more tolerance, encourage more creativity and release more talent. It might even turn out to be a good market investment for the nation.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime