"A Blitzkrieg against the arts," boomed Sir Nicholas Serota from his bunker in the turbine hall of Tate Modern during the campaign against the cuts. Now that the Government's Luftwaffe has done its worst, which turned out to be rather little, it is worth reflecting on what the art wars have revealed about us, and the damage our arts persons have done to their cause, and the country.
Their position seems to be that our creativity as a nation is dependent on raw cash, so that the more money the state spends the more art we will get. A Philistine notion if ever I heard one, but there you are: in their righteous rage, art folk are rarely given to reflecting on the import of what they are saying.
The converse — the starving-in-the-garret syndrome — is equally fatuous. The poor quality of his paper may have accidentally enhanced the effects of Modigliani's drawings but you wouldn't recommend fragile, low-quality materials for that reason.
Less is sometimes more: Stravinsky, as drawn by Picasso
Yet it is the investment-equals-art argument that needs confronting, and the best case study I can think of is The Soldier's Tale by Stravinsky. World wars and revolutions can be an even worse time for the arts than Tory governments, and at the end of 1917 Stravinsky, with The Firebird and The Rite of Spring already under his belt, was driven abroad, close to penury. To make ends meet, he and his friends, the Swiss conductor Ernst Ansermet and the writer Charles Ramuz, created "a little travelling theatre". Based on Russian folklore about the Devil stealing his soul, The Soldier's Tale was already germinating in the composer's mind, but the form the music took was directly influenced — for the better, in this case — by his straitened means: "I should have to be content with a very limited orchestra," he wrote, which meant a seven-piece ensemble, a conductor and a narrator.
The moral of the story is that there can't be one, in any overarching sense. Each moment of genius stands alone. The Soldier's Tale was the product of penury, but at the other end of the scale the sumptuous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the 15th-century illuminated manuscript, benefited from its generous patron and its lashings of lapis lazuli.
Yet there is an ethical point to be made. Today, there is something intrinsically distasteful about the equation between cash and quality in a discipline that is fond of setting itself above our tawdry material world. The tendency of interviewers on arts programmes to give writers, artists or playwrights the celebrity treatment, rather than interrogate them about their work in a spirit a little closer to the way ministers are asked about theirs, enhances the impression that these are godlike creatures to whom nothing — and certainly not money — must be refused.
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