“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.
The art wars have shown once more that the “creatives” of our times are in danger of getting a little full of themselves. Works of genius immeasurably greater and more original than many we see now were produced by artists in circumstances that today’s generation are unlikely ever to face.
The DIY Stravinsky example also reminds us of the inflation that afflicts every aspect of our arts institutions. Now is an excellent time to cast a harshly appraising eye over their spending, with a view to maintaining quality and junking the rest. The need for yet more provincial galleries of low-grade, derivative contemporary art must now be questioned, and those that are an embarrassment to the nation should be shut. Anything to do with popular music must be hived off to the multi-billion pop industry itself. Superfluous curators and semi-literate arts publicity types of the kind that infest the Arts Council must go too.
The response will be that it is absurd to suggest that orchestras be reduced to seven players, art galleries boarded up or theatres left to the mercy of donors. We must choose between paying what it takes for the arts, I shall be told, and a sordid populism. It is of course possible to end up with both, as Tate Modern has shown.
The painter Walter Sickert mocked the illusions of earnestly progressive folk who lamented the dearth of state subsidies. People appeared to believe that the whole future of art would be determined by a bundle of cash “secreted somewhere in the Treasury”, he wrote. Art being eternal, we must expect the lamentations — and the illusions — to continue.