‘When will I be loved?’

I’ve been made blue, I’ve been lied to

When will I be loved?

I’ve been turned down, I’ve been pushed round

When will I be loved?

Phil Everly (1960)Ania Martin as Emma in the 1972 BBC production

For three decades, at least, the subsidised arts world has been sending love letters to the political class in the form of reports explaining why it matters. It started with A Great British Success Story, published in 1986 by the Arts Council, and clearly addressed to the monetarists in government. Subtitled ‘An invitation to the nation to invest in the arts’, it was met with indifference and is forgotten by all but a few historians. According to Santayana, those who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps that’s why the phrase ‘a great British success story’ was used in July 2010 to argue against cutting the arts in the new government’s spending review; perhaps without it, Arts Council England’s grant might have been cut by more than 29.4%.

This year has already seen a small library of arts reports published by ACE and others (to say nothing of the relentless production of the academic industry). So my heart sank a little when I saw the latest Arts Council publication on the value of culture: 156 pages of graphs, tables and dense text compiled by an American consultancy firm. Serious and interesting – to judge by the summary, which is all I’ve managed – it is still likely to join the pile of unread reports filed for a day of leisure or boredom that never comes. In truth, I don’t have enough time to do the work I want to do, still less read what I wnt to read. And weighed against all the historians, philosophers and poets I haven’t yet discovered, or want to revisit, most arts reports seem of fleeting interest.

But if I, with a long commitment to these ideas, cannot summon up the energy to read this latest report, who will, other than benighted students of cultural policy and management? The political class ultimately targeted by these arguments is preoccupied with other crises, real and artificial. They also know, and better than most, the Mandy Rice-Davis rebuttal. The day the arts world publishes a report concluding that artistic experiences aren’t, after all, quite as beneficial as was previously thought, the lamb may safely dwell with the wolf.

In trying to persuade the political class that it is lovable, the subsidised arts world seems oblivious to the ancient human truth, so often explored in literature, that nothing is less attractive to the object of desire than pleading. Nor do argument, wheedling, persuasion or unsolicited gifts work well.

All this effort and expense is not so much wasted as misdirected. There is a great deal to be learned about the place of art in people’s lives and an urgent need to improve the quality of discourse about art in our society, but neither objective will be advanced by work that aims to impress people who care nothing for them.

If the subsidised art world rediscovered some self-respect in the face of power it might improve its own discourse and earn some respect – if not love – from politicians.*


* (One might say as much about politicians, of course, but that’s another story.)