Tearing down the culture temples

British arts venues want to become bastions of “inclusivity” at the expense of connoisseurship

Alexander Adams

As an art critic, I receive about 15 or 20 emailed press releases every day. I almost deleted one headed “Major Funding Programme for Transformational Arts Projects”. It was only by chance that I opened it.

Outset Contemporary Art Fund [OCAF], the leading international philanthropic enterprise, announces the recipients of six grants in a major new arts funding programme from its new accelerator unit, Outset Partners.

The press release detailed grants to educational programmes, a film that will be seen by a handful of art students, and a display of “sound, dust and environmental data”. So far, so banal. One’s eyebrows might be raised at £25,000 paid to the International Curators Forum, a politically active organisation which sponsored a display in Venice on the subject of diaspora, co-curated by Labour MP David Lammy. The true purpose of OCAF becomes clearer in the part relating to museums.

A grant of £75,000 was given to the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, which announced: “We will use the Transformational Grant to experiment with ways to repurpose the museum as a new social power plant to collectively generate ways of navigating the huge economic and political transition ahead.” The money will be used to “radically transform their core protocols by redrawing relationships with local constituency groups, creating an agency for them to inform the museums’ collecting, curating and presenting”.

OCAF, a registered charity, funded by donors both named and anonymous, is paying publicly-funded museums to fundamentally alter their core purpose. No longer will these museums be dedicated to collecting, preserving, researching and presenting art of high quality; instead, they will become “social power plants” used as tools for reshaping society. The expressly political nature of OCAF is apparent in its supported projects, which dwell on colonialism, race relations and migration. The aim is to “to bring voices previously on the margins into the heart of their activities”. OCAF is an organisation funding public institutions to remove traditional considerations of museum practice and replace them with utilitarian social targets. Sponsorship has usually been done in a “hands-off” manner. Outset Partners’ funding breaches this principle by stating explicitly that it supports projects that are “open to disruption of traditional power dynamics”.

British arts venues are now ripe for the taking. They are staffed by individuals schooled in cultural relativism and primed by feminism, anti-colonialism and identity politics. They are eager to turn their bastions of so-called privilege and oppression into beacons of inclusivity and empowerment. Their overwhelmingly left-leaning political beliefs welcome the chance to throw off the shackles of connoisseurship, historical rigour and professional integrity in order to become champions of social justice. If some crusty old pictures by dead white male Christians have to be consigned to the basement (or auction rooms) then so be it. Progress demands that museums reflect “the world we live in”, as Maria Balshaw, Director of the Tate, puts it. OCAF is pushing at an open door.

There are three conceptualisations which help us understand the mindset of the elite who dominate public arts. The first is David Goodhart’s division of “somewhere people” (who have a strong attachment to their country/town and traditions) and “anywhere people” (who have little attachment to their birthplace and home culture, and who pride themselves on being cosmopolitan world citizens). The second is Jonathan Haidt’s division of people into two psychologically determined groups: nationalists and globalists. The former tend to be conservative and cautious, while the latter are liberal and embrace change. Conservatives see boundaries as a way of defining and protecting places, people and ideas; liberals see boundaries as restrictive, oppressive and unnecessary. Liberals are inclined towards open borders, mass migration and a single world government. The final conceptualisation is Thomas Sowell’s, in which he describes the elite as “the anointed” and the non-elite as “the benighted”. The anointed see it as their role to direct and correct, applying their ideas regardless of contrary evidence and opposition. They are never held to account when the policies fail. They consider themselves the Brahmin class, destined to rule as arbiters of truth and morality. (We might discern such tendencies in the ardent “Remain-at-any-cost” anti-Brexit voters.)

In the work of staff, creators, politicians and outside organisations to turn arts venues into community centres for social change, we see the cultural cosmopolitan mindset in action. Politically-directed culture is a sanction for politically-controlled social changes made without consent of the electorate. Cosmopolitan Kulturkampf (cultural struggle) is action to dominate social discourse and discredit those who question or oppose cultural cosmopolitanism and its associated tenets: mass migration, multiculturalism, de-Christianisation, social liberalism, affirmative action, globalism and big government. Culture in official channels is being turned towards the struggle — to promote cultural cosmopolitanism and oppose tradition. Rather than the leftist characterisation of Western governments and institutions as powerful forces oppressing minorities, the case can be made that today Western governments and institutions are powerful forces oppressing the majority.

How long can this situation continue, with the cultural elite using our institutions to drive their political agenda? Now that institutions are entities hostile towards the traditions they were founded to preserve and project, how can they expect public support or funds? By all means let us have the dissent that criticises our past and present, but why are we paying for it? Why are we incentivising the production of such material by providing venues, promotion and grants — especially when we do not provide equivalent support for counter-opinions?

The time is fast approaching when public venues which engage in political activity will have to choose between art and social activism and — consequently — between public and private financing. (Registered charities already do so in contravention of the Charities Commission policy prohibiting political campaigning.) If the venues do not choose, there are professionals in the art field willing to lobby for venue defunding.

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