Culture and the arts are lined up for exceptional public spending cuts. In this series, Alistair Cartwright looks at the ideology behind the ConDem cuts to the arts, and the role of art in the movement resisting the cuts.

As part of the October spending review that announced cuts totalling over £80bn, the Arts Council will lose about £100 million by 2014. These cuts are massive even compared to the ones that Thatcher implemented. In 1979-80 the Arts Council budget was cut by about 8 percent. Today, the Arts Council is facing a cut of 30 percent. This is also significantly higher than the average 19 percent that most government departments are facing. Similarly, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is losing a third of its public bodies; things like the UK Film Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council are to be abolished or merged.

In the current political atmosphere the arts are an easy target and these particularly harsh cuts are no surprise. As long as the government can get away with telling people ‘there is no alternative’, the arts will always feature at the bottom of the priority list. A classic example of this was Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell (renowned for his conservatism, culturally and otherwise) calling for council-run galleries to sell off their paintings in order to protect other public services. We’re living in hard times, the non-essentials of society, including frivolous luxuries like the arts, have to be jettisoned. So the argument goes.

But just the same as other sectors, when it comes to the arts, the weakest will be hit hardest. The government’s cuts package includes a clause to supposedly safeguard major arts institutions: Regularly Funded Organisations or RFOs (places like the Tate, the National Theatre, British Museum etc.) should ‘only’ suffer cuts of 15 percent. By implication, smaller organisations, one-off events, community arts projects etc. will bear the brunt of the cuts.

In the government’s thinking, big institutions are the ‘frontline’ of the arts. Again as with other sectors, the distinction is false. According to the logic of the cuts something like the Creative Partnerships programme, which brings artists into schools, is a piece of back-room bureaucracy.

Community arts projects will be doubly affected by the cuts. As well as the Arts Council and DCMS, much of their funding comes from Local Authorities, which are being cut by 27 percent.

But it’s not just the un-sung heroes of the arts, the community projects and outreach schemes, that will be hit hard. Big initiatives like Manchester International Festival, National Theatre Live, and all the national touring schemes will also face the full force of the cuts. This is not only the ‘salami tactics’ of the Thatcher era but shock and awe, and it applies across the board, including the arts.

Of course responsibility for applying the cuts, including the 15 percent clause, is passed onto the Arts Council itself. Funding is already notoriously tight for newcomers and those already on it wholeheartedly depend on it. So far the Arts Council has passed on 6.9 percent cuts to all its RFOs. More significantly, all 850 organisations getting regular funding had to reapply in early November 2010 and a new application procedure with stricter criteria was introduced. The results of those applications will come through in spring 2011. About 100 of these major organisations are expected to lose their funding. As Michael Boyd, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company puts it ”that is when the blood is really going to flow”.

In general we can expect a more cautious Arts Council to opt for more cautious art. Market-friendly ventures and a few old favourites may survive without too much damage but more radical artists, collectives and organisations will find it nearly impossible to get funding.

The other area that is taking the heaviest hit is the Arts Council itself. It already had £23 million cut from its annual budget before the spending review even took place. Recipients of its funds were largely shielded by the Council using up over half its historic reserve funds to cover the cost. Before that it had gone through major restructuring, with more than 1 in 5 jobs lost. Now the Arts Council is being asked to reduce its own operating costs by 50 percent. In total then, over the last year, the Arts Council itself will be cut by over 70 percent. This is a very pure instance of the logic of the frontline and its mythical other; administrators working in the arts are the softest of soft targets.

Austerity Aesthetics

During the last days of the previous government conservative MP Ed Vaizey, then in opposition and now the culture minister, made the point that “we’re not going to save the economy by cutting the arts – but you could damage the arts by cutting the arts”. He wasn’t lying. The annual budget for the arts (before it was cut) was equivalent to less than 0.3 percent of the national deficit; which is also less than it costs the British Army to occupy Afghanistan for 2 weeks. This hasn’t however held him back from applying the most vicious cuts since the 1930s to his own particular area of responsibility.

The motivation for attacking the arts is an ideological one. Once again, the battle over the arts forms a very clear instance of the Tory agenda. The underlying ideology has two elements to it:

First it involves a kind of elite, right-wing philistinism. From the position of an elite that is waging war on the working class, it claims that art is an elitist pursuit in which the masses have no interest. Often this is reduced to saying that no one likes modern art or ‘high culture’ anyway, so why not get rid of them now?

Speaking about the UK Film Council being scrapped, Cameron urged filmmakers to look to the Harry Potter movies for inspiration: “we have got to make films that people want to watch and films which will benefit beyond themselves”.

The first element of the ideology is then an almost entirely negative one: it criticises, attacks, undermines, disparages – without putting forward a genuine alternative. At most it celebrates a caricature of commercialism – Cameron’s idea that culture should be reduced to Harry Potter franchising is not a suggestion that the senior management of the culture industry can take seriously. Hence the outbursts against this form of primitive Tory philistinism from the likes of Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate.

There are, however, figures waiting in the wings, who are capable and willing to concoct an alternative vision for the new age of aesthetic austerity. Mostly they are cultural managers in similar positions to Serota. This is the second ideological element underlying the arts cuts.

Nicholas Kenyon, director of the Barbican, captures the new discourse: “As the arts brace themselves for the inevitable funding cuts… there can be no doubt that radical change will come.” The argument is predicated on accepting the inevitability of the cuts. Radical change (of the regressive type) will inevitably be thrust upon us, but conveniently enough this change is in line with an equally radical change in the nature of the arts and their audiences: “One of the biggest lessons of the past decade is that people’s priorities have radically changed. At the end of the last decade, you still sensed a thirst for more things, more to own, more glamorous goods. Now what people want is great experiences, moments that take them out of themselves and offer a new perspective on life.”

Kenyon gives an example of what this might mean in practice: “The Barbican… went off-site with the CREATE Festival, to a disused office block in Bethnal Green for… a fantastic show that involved some 200 volunteer performers but only one audience member at a time – a literally unique encounter.”

Regardless of the artistic merits of this piece of experimental theatre, what we have is 200 unpaid actors, delivering performances to an audience of one, against a backdrop of urban degradation and unemployment in one of the poorest boroughs in London. This is an image skewed through the distorting lens of ‘pure’ objectivity, but it helps to correct the hyperbolic perspective of Kenyon’s post-consumer, immaterial, participatory, volunteer society, thriving in the age of austerity on nothing but thin air and pure creativity.

However, the grounds for this kind of image are very real and fairly pervasive. The stereotype used to be that art took place in a desert – a desert of attention, space, materials, funding etc. Now many (particularly young) artists have the impression of operating in a jungle – swamped, crowded out, asphyxiated. Seen as part of the general apparatus of cultural hegemony, the prospect of a body like the Arts Council getting axed is taken by some as a welcome clearing of the ground, opening up the possibility of greater creative space.

In a similar vein, others see the cuts as an opportunity to bolster public faith in the arts: Jonathan Jones, Guardian art critic says, “Now, we face a new cultural age, and frankly it would be healthier for visual art if it was seen as a poor relation, a feeble charity case.”

These positions collapse the difference between the art market and public funding; but the cultural sphere, like other areas of society, is not a homogenous space, but a contested one. More importantly, these positions involve siding with the Tories’ message of cultural austerity and the corresponding programme of government cuts.

The new vision for the arts fits in nicely with the Tories’ Big Society, offering an aesthetic translation of Cameron’s thoroughly old-fashioned, thoroughly right-wing, postmodern conservatism. “Arts leaders and organisations occupy a major place in the Big Society: as civic leaders they contribute to the cohesion of their local communities, civic pride and quality of life.” This is Tory Lite, writ large in the smooth complexion of Cameron himself, the same but different.

While it may reference some of the latest artistic trends, just like the Big Society aesthetic, austerity is nothing new. Beneath the new gloss is an old image: art closed off from public access, secured in private collections and vaunted in performances to the events calendars of the rich – while artists shiver in their garrets, enduring poverty as the natural condition of creative production.

This is how the Tories would like to imagine the arts. To find a fighting alternative we need to look at the different voices contending for cultural hegemony – from the art market, to state funding for the arts, to the culture industry and to cultural and creative resistance.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.