It’s the end of the world as we know it

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.

Saul Steinberg

To put it simply, the arts profession ≠ the arts. Nor even, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms (I can drop names too, on a bad day), is the artworld the same as the arts.

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.


  1. Great piece. No Boundaries is such a bullsh*t name, having a meeting like that run by the organisations it was run by, funded by the organisations it was funded by automatically made the meeting a boundary, it’s like the whole Open Space concept that if ‘if you’re here the right people are here’. No, many of the right people are not there because they’ve not been invited because they’ve not been thought of OR they have been invited but feel like outsiders. It’s one big clique. It’s an event for the same old inward looking crowd with a culture of entitlement. Oh, no sorry they do sometimes have the plucky new ‘artist’ who brings new blood so they can say they’re in touch with ‘youth’ or ‘diverse audiences’ or ‘digital’ (see the introduction of a 17 year old at No Boundaries as an example). Live streaming an event does not make it inclusive or cutting edge it just means you have a funder as clueless as the organiser.

    When will this part of the arts sector realise they need to engage others outside of the arts and that’s not politicians or public sector it’s the f*cking audience. How much money has been wasted on this, the State of the Arts event, and all the other seemingly weekly navel gazing get-togethers that have by and large led to absolutely no change?

    Damn these things annoy me and yes I have been to a number of them but no more. NO MORE.

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