You’ve got to feel sorry for the arts world. Decades of self-imposed diversity drives and community outreach schemes and still – still! – they’re told they’re not being inclusive enough.
‘Even from the cheapest seats in the [Royal Opera] house,’ Harriet Harman said yesterday, ‘I couldn’t see in the audience anyone who wasn’t like myself: white, metropolitan and middle class.’
Tory culture minister Sajid Javid had the same message last week, noting how few people from black and ethnic backgrounds are given grants from the Arts Council. Before this Jeremy Paxman was banging on about how poetry needed to engage with ordinary people.
It reminds me of another age. ‘The ability of good music to enthral the masses,’ wrote Joseph Stalin in a 1936 Pravda article, ‘has been sacrificed on the altar of petit-bourgeois formalism.’ That’s basically still the message: stop the wanky formalist crap and start making proper art that people like.
It’s hardly surprising that Harriet Harman takes such a socialist realist position considering she was part of a government that instrumentalised the crap out of art till all that was left was a vast ocean of out-of-tune community choirs and concrete doves on plinths. And I expect simplicities from Paxman – why we think anyone who’s made their career just from asking people questions should be the font of all knowledge baffles me. But I am surprised at Javid’s misstep.
Hating the new culture secretary doesn’t come as naturally to me as it does my colleagues. I like the fact that he’s not cultured. I like culture secretaries that aren’t parti pris. Being culture secretary shouldn’t be about personal taste; it should be about economics. Javid is there to balance the books, not decide who to put in the next Tate show. Besides, his taste isn’t all bad; he came to my festival. More fundamentally I buy Fraser Nelson’s argument that it’s a virtue to have someone in this department who isn’t also a shop steward for the arts.
But his opening gambit as culture secretary – his querying the low levels of arts participation among ethnic minorities and the poor – while understandable worries me. On ironic grounds, of course, it’s delicious. Here we have a Tory former banker censuring the art world on their commitment to an equal society. LOL.
Of course, statistically, he’s absolutely right. Compared to the City, ethnic minorities make up an embarrassing percentage of the arts workforce. All those equality monitors: they don’t seem to be helping one bit. Doing nothing on the other hand, or being ruthlessly shitty – which I think is the City’s equivalent of an equality monitor – seems to foster ethnic and socio-economic equality like nothing else.
But that the arts industries are failing at equality and diversity doesn’t mean that we should rage against them for not doing enough. I mean seriously: do we really think anyone in the world has done more to try to get black and ethnic minority audiences? Short of chaining minorites to seats, arts institutions couldn’t have done any more.
If anything the instinct within the arts is to engage in reverse racism. Thus, for example, the conveyor belt of increasingly obscure Venezualan youth orchestras flown over at our expense taking precedence over homegrown ones. Besides, it should not be the art industry’s job to get more ethnic minorities through their doors. Producing high quality art is quite enough for them to be getting on with without us demanding they change society too.
It’s too late to ask adults to change their mind on the arts anyway. The problem lies deeper. It’s at school stage that things needs to change. And it’s in schools that governments – both Left and Right – have failed on the arts. The Right has demoted the importance of arts subjects and cut funding, while the Left has meddled with the curriculum and instituted politically correct biases.
The result is that the poorest and most marginalised in society go out into the world not knowing anything about that bit of culture that their taxes will be used to subsidise. And then we wonder why they don’t go to the opera? Or the theatre. Or dance. It’s quite simple really. Teach all kids about opera and theatre and dance, and they will go to the opera and theatre and dance. Don’t, and they won’t.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.