Neverending Nonsense

by Neil Nisbet

Trying to make a salient point on a rapid fire radio programme is no easy task, as I found out the hard way whilst appearing on a live programme a few weeks ago on BBC Radio 4.

Summing up important arguments about why funding the arts is actually a really good idea into pithy one-liners is not something I would encourage others to do, even if you’re good at it, which I’m not!

It is particularly difficult when you are facing arguments that are so ridiculous all you really want to do is sit back and say “huh?”, such as the attacks made by Stephen Pollard (editor of the Jewish Chronicle) on street theatre. Perhaps the cheapest and most accessible of all the things funded by Arts Council England.

Such debates/discussions are perhaps better had in less time constrained formats. The bun-fight of a radio debate might be fun for half an hour but it doesn’t really help when you’re trying to get a point across.

Killer Yoghurt

Over the last few months, since the new coalition government was formed and they began their relentless, negative, puerile threats against pretty much everything, the arguments for and against arts funding have been flowing thick and fast.

From comment threads to the editorial pages in broadsheet newspapers, from the extreme left to the extreme right, a lot of folks have been expressing their views.

Arguments against state funding of the arts are, more often than not, largely based on falsely connecting thing A to thing B. For example; “why should we spend money on the arts and not on the NHS (the UK’s National Health Service)?”

First of all you have to ignore the ludicrous assumption that people might be dying for lack of healthcare because a young dance-maker has been given a £5000 grant to make some new work.

These arguments always overlook the fact that in this country the government spends £105Billion, or thereabouts, on health services per year vs £430Million on centralized arts funding.

The entire budget for the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) is dwarfed by the funding for the Department of Health (DoH). The rhetoric doesn’t fit the facts but if you’re an ideologue then what does that matter?

While we’re on the subject let’s take a quick look at health care spending (which is being protected by the coalition government from any cuts). Whenever politicians, or anybody else for that matter, talk about health care the one thing they never actually discuss is health. In other words, why are so many people in dire need of medical treatment in the first place?

Imagine going into your local branch of Tesco and being presented with a choice of two yoghurts. One is healthy and the other one is responsible for killing more than 100,000 people every year in this country and another 4-5 million people world-wide.

Would you or anybody still buy the killer yogurt? Do you think the killer yoghurt would still be legal? Would the people who made that yoghurt be sent to prison?

The British Heart Foundation puts the cost of treating smoking relating illness at £5Billion per year and that’s a conservative estimate at best. When asked, the DoH agreed with the estimate. Illness related to alcohol abuse? Well, that’s another £2.7Billion. All of this expense is completely avoidable because it’s all self inflicted.

Yes, it’s smoking that kills more than 100,000 people every year and you can buy tobacco products in Tesco.

One of the main reasons that health care spending is so high and why services are so stretched is not just because of bureaucracy or poor management it’s also down to far too many people deliberately and willfully neglecting their own health. It’s easier to blame a faceless, nameless administrator than it is to look inward however.

Arts funding has nothing to do with it.

Toys for the Rich

Common misconception number two is that the arts are only for the rich, with opera being the goto art-form to substantiate that particular argument.

Well, I hate to break it to the working classes, but most people in this country aren’t rich at all, depending on your definition of the term that is. You know those people who help you at the bank? The ones behind the counter? They’re not rich either and they work in a bank.

There are plenty of opera seats available for not a lot of money but the arts are comprised of a vast range of performances, events and opportunities happening in almost every part of the country. Opera is a very small part of the overall equation.

So, either the few people who are very wealthy are running around the country at breakneck speed perpetually attending theaters, galleries, and museums or that assumption, to be blunt, is a load of crap.

Issues of accessibility are a complete red herring when it comes to arts funding. Any individual is free to attend any arts performance they wish no matter where it is in the country. If your argument is that people cannot afford to attend then you are inadvertently making the case for increased subsidy, not the other way around.

If your argument is why spend money on things some people don’t want then I would counter by suggesting how do you know you don’t want it if you’ve never seen it or experienced it?

Much like health it’s your own choice how much or how little you choose to engage with the society you live in.

One more example. Arts subsidy detractors should ask themselves why those with no children should help fund the primary and secondary education system through their taxes? They derive no personal benefit from it so isn’t that unfair? Of course it’s not unfair because everybody realises (one would hope) that a good education system is vital to the development and progression of any country.

Like the arts in many ways.

Looking for the Bad Guy

When it comes to funding cuts politicians and many others are always looking for a bad guy. If it’s not context free public spending trivia (like pot plants in offices) then it’s the CEO of a quango making an inordinate amount of money or it’s arts funding.

It is often the case that the things that cost the least amount of money are the things we derive the most benefit from. All too often though it is the relatively inexpensive things that get set upon first.

From a politician’s point of view though petulantly cutting arts budgets is a lot easier than telling people that they need to stop eating garbage, stop smoking and take some exercise. All of which can be done for free!

That involves trying to tell people what to do for their own good though and Conservatives don’t like that.

Cutting arts budgets is a lot easier than tackling transportation infrastructure problems that causes air pollution that cause respiratory illness that costs the NHS a huge amount of money to treat.

It’s a lot easier than trying to persuade this country to stop acting like a militaristic world power and cut the massive defence budget from £40Billion to £5Billion.

The list is almost endless.

Ironically so much of what goes on in public life is nothing more than political theatre. It’s doing things to placate the political base of a particular party rather than actually achieving anything tangible or long lasting. The ultimate goal of too many in power is nothing more than to keep it.

Until we have a political machine that actually works intelligently and diligently for the good of all its people and appreciates the fundamental values of education, scientific and cultural advancement then this nonsense will never end.

That last sentence probably would have sounded good on the radio! Typical.

[ Photo by Vlasula from Flickr ]