A lifelong theatre critic has called for all arts funding to be scrapped immediately, as publicly subsidised art is always “no good” while the private sector manages to generate “amazing things” all by itself.
Douglas McPherson, who, alongside journalism and fiction, writes theatre reviews for publications including The Stage and What’s On In London, has a “simple plea”, delivered via the The Telegraph to culture secretary Ed Vaisey: “stop all public funding of the arts, now!”
Mr McPherson continues: “I don’t say that because I believe the burden should be transferred to corporate sponsorship or American-style philanthropy. I say it having just come back from the Norfolk and the Norwich Festival where I sat through a show called What Will Have Been – an awful mix of contemporary circus and dance that could only exist through state funding”.
He describes the show as “dreary, pretentious”, and “self-consciously arty” – much like every other publicly subsidised show he has sat through during his long tenure as a critic.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees arts spending in the UK, was allocated more than £6 billion for 2015. The BBC swallowed up just over half of that, but a further £460 million was handed to the Arts Council, which funds grass-roots arts projects via an open application process. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland was allocated £8 million, Wales was given £17 million, and Scotland was handed £27 million.
The Arts Council hands out grants to anyone who cares to apply for them. As long as a project is considered by the council’s panel to have artistic merit, thousands can be awarded: in 2013 the Taxpayer’s Alliance uncovered a £95,000 bill for an installation comprising of a skip covered in yellow lights.
Those who support public arts funding often argue that the spending makes for a more democratic, less elitist arts culture. But Mr McPherson argues that the opposite is true – that the market is more democratic by far.
“Arts funding creates a culture of long term state dependency where companies are more focused on securing healthy salaries through grants than on producing work the public might actually want to see,” he wrote.
“The oldest rule in the arts is he who pays the piper calls the tune, and funders, from Arts Council England to local authorities, tend to have very narrow tastes. Getting their support is more about ticking boxes and satisfying the political ideals of committees than developing a genuine creative idea. That’s the antithesis of true artistic endeavour and it’s why so much subsidised theatre has a generic look and feel.
“Nor do we need heavily-funded outreach projects to encourage participation in the arts. Historically, many great talents have come from impoverished backgrounds without any government help and achieved fame and fortune in a commercial world that rewards artists for what they can do rather than where they come from.
“In that respect, the commercial world is actually more democratic than the subsidised arts. You need the right background and education to work the public funding system.”
Mr McPherson calls for the government to scrap the public subsidy in favour of tax breaks, pointing out that “letting people keep more of the money they make is a very different incentive to giving them hand-outs, as it puts the onus on becoming self-supporting.”
And he says that anyone with the talent and drive to make it in the arts world will do so, regardless of whether or not the state is there to give them handouts.
“No artist or impresario was ever put off their vocation by the lack of a guaranteed wage,” he says. “You don’t need a grant to write a West End smash. You just need talent, dedication and something worth saying.”
Meanwhile, those who sneer at the populist output of commercial companies as catering to the “lowest tastes” are dismissed as snobs, guilty of a snobbery “directed more at audiences than artists.”
If they looked for it, he said, they’d find that “there are also plenty of pop songs, movies and West End shows that scale great artistic heights, provide insight into the human condition, make political points and do all the other things that the supposedly higher arts claim to do. The difference is, they touch many millions more lives by virtue of being accessible and popular.”