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Con-Demmed to the Bleakest of Futures: Report from the UK

In the last three months I’ve been organizing a series of public seminars at CUNY Graduate Center on “deskilling” in the arts since 1945, and in the article that follows I may have undergone some deskilling myself—from an art historian/critic who writes about art to a commentator on cultural policy. I apologize if the results are bland, bureaucratic and statistical; I’m finding my feet here. In what follows, I will argue that in the wake of the general election in May 2010, which resulted in a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition—the UK’s first coalition government since 1945—the ensuing cuts to culture cannot be seen as separate from an assault on welfare, education, and social equality. The rhetoric of an “age of austerity” is being used as a cloak for the privatization of all public services and a reinstatement of class privilege: a sad retreat from the most civilized Keynesian initiatives of the post-war period, in which education, healthcare, and culture were understood to be a democratic right freely available to all.

In the UK, public funding for the arts is administered by Arts Council England via a government body called the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Following the change of power in May 2010, the DCMS asked Arts Council England to take a 29.6 percent cut to its budget. This translates as a cut from £449 million for the arts each year, to £350 million—the biggest cut to the arts since government funding began in 1940. In the years that followed, public expenditure on the arts was established with a mandate to promote the accessibility of culture to the British public and to operate at an “arm’s length” from government policy (an autonomy principle typical of the Cold War period).

In recent decades, the Arts Council’s “arm’s length” policy has been severely strained, and particularly so since the neoliberal turn of Thatcher’s Conservative government (1979–1997), and again under Blair’s and Brown’s New Labour government (1997–2010). Both parties instrumentalized culture, but to different ends. Detecting that the arts were a vehicle of dissent, Thatcher enforced a populist, profit-making model: weaning culture off a welfare-state mentality and encouraging an entrepreneurial approach in which “bums on seats” became a more important criterion than “ideas in the head.” The shift did not close down culture but led to some powerful expressions of resistance, especially in film and theatre—even if the popular successes of this period were primarily musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber. New Labour also viewed culture as an economic generator, but in a different fashion, recognizing the role of creativity and culture in commerce and growth in the “knowledge economy.” This included museums as a source of regeneration, but also investment in the “creative industries” as alternatives to traditional manufacturing. As such, New Labour adopted a far more openly instrumental approach to cultural policy than previous UK governments, and this extended to intervening in the National Curriculum to facilitate the development of creativity within schools as an equal to literacy and numeracy. They also introduced free admission to all museums, which—along with the Turner Prize, Saatchi’s collection, and the opening of Tate Modern in 2000—generated a massive popular audience for the consumption of culture in Britain. Labour advocated greater public participation in the arts, sought to develop culture in the regions, and to support the training and integration of black and ethnic minorities into positions of cultural power through positive action “cultural diversity” schemes.

Read the full article here.