There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the arts (and culture) being in crisis. There will be much more, next week, when delegates gather for a big double conference in York and Bristol, generously funded by the British Council, Arts Council England and others. I imagine hand-wringing, soul searching, frustration and anger, some defiant optimism, but not much change.*
Arguments in defence of culture have always seemed self-defeating to me. Culture is not in anyone’s control, happily. It has survived religious fundamentalism in the Reformation and the political totalitarianism of Fascists and Communists. I expect it can cope with liberal democracy. Having an unshakeable confidence in the human value of art, I don’t – for one second – believe that it needs me, you or the Arts Council to protect it.
In different conditions, it will change. There has been a notable dearth of religious painting since the Church stopped paying for it. Never mind. We’ve plenty left over from the days of Papal patronage and – more importantly – there are other things we want to express in our visual culture now.
It’s understandable that people whose work in arts and culture is subsidised by public funds feel that the world is in crisis when those funds are reduced, as they have been since 2010. It’s not that I underestimate the losses that will follow these cuts: I have experienced them myself. But, as Saul Steinberg brilliantly illustrated, the View of the World from 9th Avenue (or Great Peter Street, the South Bank, or any other bastion of the current arts world) is very selective.
Art is vast, more or less equivalent in scale, nature and diversity to the human population of earth, and mostly informal, uncommercial, nonprofessional, unstructured, unregulated and unfunded. That world is not in crisis, except in so far as individual human lives and our collective future on the planet may be in crisis.
The world, as we privileged Westerners have known it, is indeed ending. What will follow, in the arts, in welfare, in global security or in environmental change is uncertain. But we won’t begin to think well about where we are and what might be coming unless we realise how misleading is the view of the world from our own windows.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine…
* Update, 25 February 2014
Some of the streamed presentations at No Boundaries have been very good, and there are ideas I’d like to revisit with more time. It’s also good to see a discussion that would recently have engaged only the delegates in the room open to a much larger online and social media audience. That said, the view I’ve been offered mostly overlooks a landscape familiar to the ‘we’ so often invoked. The idea of talking to different people, suggested more than once, is greeted as an insight, rather than everyday reality in a diverse world.