Editorial – January 2017

Has The Arts Council Betrayed Its Origins?

Serota takes over at the Arts Council this month, 47 years after first being employed by the same google_ad_height = 90; body as a regional arts officer in what was his first job after university. In the interval the Council has developed into a blunt instrument by which State Art, an ethos it co-authored with Serota during his 27-year dictatorship at the Tate, has been forcibly imposed throughout the contemporary art field. Assisted by less important bodies (including a number of charities google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; who ought to know better), half a dozen influential dealers and a legion of devoted apostles and brand-obsessed superrich collectors, the Arts Council and Serota’s Tate evolved a common purpose. It now feels almost pre-ordained that these Yin and Yangs of a disreputable system should be united under the President-For-Life to inflict upon us more of the same.

By concisely rehearsing the Arts Council’s genesis I want to examine how a body, which didn’t start life with an exclusively extremist agenda, became the principal funding agent for what they themselves call a ‘challenging’, ‘innovative’ art; an art from which hardly anyone else but those professionally involved in it benefits, and in which the wider public – who pay

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for it – express no interest save indifference or derision.

So what happened to produce


the monster we have today, with its Westminster HQ, exaggerated sense of entitlement, uniforms, swanky websites, overmanning, pretentious drivel, gender and ethnic obsessions, and self-promoting literature concerned only with the decaying rump of the avant garde?

The Arts Council (I’ll persist with this name though it has changed regularly) evolved out of the Committee (later Council) for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts formed in December


1939. The first general Treasury grant ever for

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the arts, £25,000, was offered in April 1940 for classical music, drama and art. This matched £25,000 given by The Pilgrim Trust for touring concerts and exhibitions, seven-eighths of the money going on music. google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; Government subsidy was increased to £85,000 in 1942 when the Pilgrim Trust pulled out and when opera and ballet were added to
the roll-call of recipients; it was £175,000 a year by the war’s end.

Before CEMA was established arguments had reverberated for 20 years as to whether art should be publicly funded. A more compelling case for subsidy arrived with the war. The first awards were considered shrewd commercial investments by Exchequer mandarins. For the tiny sums cited above the morale boosting potential of art and music (especially sing-songs) for an undernourished and overworked civilian population of mainly women was considered more than compensation. The impact of these touring plays, concerts and exhibitions was so overwhelming, the public reaction so vocally grateful, that the continuation of Government support in peace time seemed a no-brainer. Additionally, throughout the war, and especially from 1942 when he took over CEMA, Maynard Keynes lobbied tirelessly for the post-war continuation of subsidy.

And things undoubtedly had to change. As William Coldstream explained in the mid-’30s, artists didn’t expect to sell work except occasionally to their friends or, if they were lucky enough to have one, to a patron. Recession had destroyed any impulse for art sales. In the wake of the 1930s Depression and then the second great war, the market for modern work being dead, the need to help painters and sculptors survive had become an imperative. Even well-known artists struggled to live. Most scraped a subsistence by teaching and

from occasional sales to a //--> few wealthy supporters. A process of rigorous, almost cruel natural selection by quality was in place. In 1939 writer Raymond Mortimer pleaded that artists “need saving”. Soon after the war critic Cyril Connolly described the practice of private art collecting as “extinct”. In proposing State subsidy Keynes suggested that “We must learn by trial and error. But anything [that is, any policy of State assistance for the visual arts] would be better than the present system. The position of artists today is disastrous”. Unless you happen to be one of those The Jackdaw calls ‘the usual suspects’, those magnificent few of State Art, a cynic might shout ‘No change there then!’.

The end of the war, with its promise of a better place for the exhausted and beaten down, provided the impetus for the creation of a supportive organization which would circulate the arts widely and thereby – crucially – stimulate over time a desire to collect artists’ work among a much broader population.

The Arts Council was founded in August 1946 and given £235,000 to spend (the equivalent of £29 million today), the bulk of which went (as before) on classical music, opera, ballet and drama with art a distant fifth – touring exhibitions and artists’ materials were altogether cheaper than the backing required by travelling orchestras, bands, troupes and reps. By the mid-’50s classical music alone received six times the subsidy spent on the visual arts. In 2015/16, the last published report available, the Arts Council spent £463 million of which a small fraction (it’s a difficult figure even to guess but it settled at between 5% and 10% in the ’70s) is spent on the

visual arts. In addition, the Council is also responsible for disbursing their slice of lottery cash, £268 million a

year, a sizeable portion of which throughout its 20-year history has been spent on capital visual arts projects and also, more recently, on revenue grants to favoured ‘core’ clients (the Serpentine Gallery, for example, has received no fewer than twelve lottery awards).

In the 70 years of the Council’s existence the State has effectively assumed complete control of visual art, whereas prior to 1939, and with the exception of funding for the national museums, the creation of the National Theatre and a one-off grant for the creating an orchestra in Birmingham, the influence of Government was non-existent: painting and sculpture had in those days been left to the market, then understood to be the best arbiter. Some, of course, argue that it still is.

On the founding of the Arts Council, early commentators (Orwell among them) expressed serious concerns that state patronage would quickly come to imply censorship and a dictatorship of taste – obviously bad things. With hindsight how perceptive were their fears.

A lengthy discussion of precisely this potential problem took place in March 1944 when a letter appeared in The Times signed by MPs and artists, condemning what they perceived as an obvious ‘Modernistic’ bias in the selection of CEMA’s exhibitions. Signatories included printmakers D Y Cameron and Frank Short, painters Alfred Munnings (soon to be elected PRA) and Frank Salisbury and sculptor Richard Garbe. They berated the poor quality of exhibitions circulated by CEMA as being “devised to carry on the baleful influence of what is known as ‘Modernistic’ art” at the expense of “traditional glories”. Keynes’s reply to this charge is highly revealing. He lists google_ad_width = 970; the 25 exhibitions circulated to date, only six of which had been mixed shows of modern artists –


the only two one-man shows featured Sickert and Wilson Steer, neither of whom would have considered themselves remotely ‘Modernistic’. The list also included historical surveys
from national collections and selections from Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. Among the “mixed bunch of fogeys” (this is Keynes in self-deprecating mode) selecting the exhibitions were artists Tom Monnington, Duncan Grant and Henry Moore. Keynes could not have stated CEMA’s policy more clearly when he wrote in conclusion: “Our own practice and deliberate policy is to allow every form of serious endeavour its opportunity.” Supporting Keynes, other correspondents praised the “wide and catholic” choices from “modernistic to academic”. The most enthusiastic and moving letter of commendation for the touring shows came ironically from the Ashington Art Group of miner painters in Northumberland, who testified that in their community they had received three exhibitions which elicited “golden opinions” from schoolchildren, youth groups, women’s organisations and church parties. They especially enjoyed seeing original work of a kind only previously known through bad reproductions.

There is no evidence here ­­– not a scrap ­– to suggest that the precursors and founders of the Arts Council had any intention of showing only ‘Modernistic’ art, or of favouring vanguard

styles at the expense of others. The google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; reverse is demonstrably true. Their intention was to show everything of merit and the positive response of the Ashington Group is testimony of their success.

Throughout the Arts Council’s existence, and especially in its later maturity, it has undoubtedly taken to an extreme the private views and preferences of those who willed it into existence. Today the Arts Council does precisely what Fry, Bell, Keynes, Clark, Read and others wanted it to do in encouraging appreciation of the avant garde, except that it now does it to the exclusion of everything else. The Arts Council’s founding principles, written by Keynes almost word for word, were, however, pragmatic for having been argued over. In the Royal

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Charter for the Arts Council of August 9th 1946 (three months after Keynes’s death), this is
what it says should be developed: “a greater knowledge, understanding and

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practice of the fine arts exclusively and in particular

to increase the accessibility of the fine arts to the public throughout Our Realm, to improve the standard of execution of the fine arts and to /* xin2 */ advise and co-operate with Our Government Departments, local authorities and other bodies on any matters concerned directly or indirectly with those objects.”

Such slippery bureaucratic flannel is now irrelevant and has anyway long since been superseded by tinkerings and other vague ‘forms of words’, through which calculating fixers could drive their carriage and fours. The fact is the Council now exhibits, encourages and buys for its collection only what it describes as “innovative” and “challenging” work. Naturally, the Council itself decides what these words mean and to what and to whom they can be applied. The effect is that everything else has had to fight its own battle for survival. The Council no longer represents the visual arts as a naturally divers entity, as Keynes intended, but only a corner of this potentially rich tapestry. And the Council is comfortable


with this. It no longer makes any show of even-handedness where style is concerned, to the extent that it has become the censoring organization Orwell feared it google_ad_height = 90; might. Whereas in the beginning it may have paid lip service to balanced provision of styles and techniques, it now tells us to accept what we’re given whether we like it or not. Additionally,
there are //--> now also the Council’s sinister and prurient obsessions with ‘diversity’, ‘accessibility’ and gender/minority quotas. If only in place of this puerile stab at social engineering they were as interested in exhibiting a representative ‘diversity’ of approaches and mediums instead of so relentlessly monotonous a diet of conceptualism.

With the creation of the Arts Council, for the first time the State took on responsibility for funding Contemporary Art, a phrase in which ‘Contemporary’ would come to mean ‘Extreme’.

One other inheritance from CEMA requiring acknowledgement is the collecting of art. In 1942, in an attempt to increase the number of exhibitions they were capable of preparing quickly, CEMA allocated £750 for the purchase of works by living British artists. Some of this src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> cash was spent commissioning limited edition prints from the most famous artists in order that they might circulate the same collection to different venues simultaneously. All these works (including

of work by the right kinds of artists would be shown, Serota

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having already proved himself reliably on message.

Accompanying Arts Council cheques came the inevitable coercion. For the Council, paying the piper now meant calling the tune and by the early ’80s strings had become blackmail with menaces.

I had personal knowledge of this now

​ ubiquitous practice. During the ’80s I contributed to a photography magazine whose existence relied exclusively on Arts Council subsidy. This money, a pittance, was not awarded because this was a seriously edited publication with an international reputation commanding tremendous devotion google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; among informed devotees. It was given in order to further the Council’s own ends in what might crudely be termed its snowballing social engineering agenda. The editor of Creative Camera, who was a friend and a person of considerably greater knowledge and accomplishments than anyone then working in the Council’s visual art and photography departments, was told that continuation of his grant depended on demonstrable conformity to what would later become known as Political Correctness. He once casually confided to me that he had been asked by his paymasters to supply immediately the names of black photographers whose works had appeared on the cover. As

he explained to me, he didn’t know the answer because it had never occurred to him to ask. Flippant non-compliance, he was told, would seriously affect his next annual application. The Council also demanded representation on the google_ad_width = 970; magazine’s governing board. This now insidious and common  tactic is employed by the Council as a first step to takeover. A short time afterwards my friend quit in disgust, the magazine becoming a shadow of what it had been, forced as it now was into chasing approval from its paymasters. The Council’s determinism was now shameless.

Also during the Thatcher years Arts Council policy in the visual arts overlapped exactly with activist leftism. As a common enemy  Thatcher unified src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> in animosity everybody of other political persuasions. In the visual arts the Arts Council became nakedly left wing. It said it wasn’t, but you didn’t need to look further than the revolutionary agendas of some of their revenue clients, especially in the photographic field, for evidence of the contrary.

This politicising bias wasn’t the only area for which the Arts Council began to attract regular mockery. They were now prepared to support anything at all Progressive, especially if it endorsed the Council’s anti-bourgeois credentials. Increasingly public subsidy became associated with stunts that offered nothing remotely interesting to the public. From the ’80s onwards newspapers were weekly exposing the ridiculous antics the taxpayer was funding. The fact that there were scores of these enormities, all of which were claimed as significant by their protagonists, and which now are

forgotten, is indicative of the shocking waste of scarce resources they represented. Nothing has remained of them. The most infamous incident, and the harbinger of what was to come, was the award in 1975 given to three men to walk around the countryside with poles on their heads. The Council later admitted its mistake. Unfortunately, having nailed their colours to the mast of novelty for its own sake, it was
an error their regional outposts couldn’t resist repeating in pursuit of vanguard credibility.

From the early ’80s onwards newspaper and magazine readers were treated to regular exposés of the Council’s perverse modus operandi in the visual arts. In a series of articles in Art Monthly Michael Daley demonstrated the relationships between recipients of funds and those who were on the Council’s committees; too often, he discovered by meticulous research, they were the same person. Membership of the Council’s visual arts committee had also been engineered to be doctrinally compliant. They comprised directors of Council-created and -funded galleries who were now among the major recipients of Council funds. Not surprisingly they awarded themselves more and more money. Exposed by a Sunday newspaper as corrupt conflicts of interest these committees were quietly disbanded.

When Serota, the Council’s own man, went to the Tate in 1989 and institutionalised Contemporary Art in a new version of the Turner Prize, publicity about which would monopolise visual art coverage throughout the year, the emergence of State Art was complete. Its disconnection from anything wider society might recognise as art was achieved. From now on it would be four legs good. We entered the New Age of the Modern Art Evangelist, the robot who floats about in black trying to look and sound like ‘one of us’ and whose career depends on saying and writing the right things. There was no longer any pretence in Arts Council galleries that they would show all contemporary art or even acknowledge that any recent art history other than their own had ever existed. We had entered the Year Zero age when Contemporary Art fixers believed art history had begun the previous week. They no longer wanted or needed to know anything that had happened prior to that. Another small matter was the language they invented in order to explain their preferences to the rest of us: unfortunately it wasn’t English.

And this is the condition we find ourselves in now. Fuelled by the taxpayer and the working class gambler here is the finished article of State Art, whose functionaries operate with impunity and who are knighted and medalled, and whose policies both main political parties cravenly support.

The crucial position of the Arts Council in dictating what we see in the visual arts is not likely to be

relaxed whilst absolutist Serota is in charge, for he is State Art. More likely, under him power will be centralised even further. As local authority funding is squeezed to a drip, help from the Arts Council will become even more essential and, therefore, the potential for coercion and dictatorship proportionately increased.

If ever there was an intended attempt to socially engineer a new constituency for visual art it has failed miserably. In order to achieve this an audience is needed and this is


precisely what the State Art exhibited by the Arts Council doesn’t have. Indeed, it is even more exclusive than the allegedly old fashioned, class-exclusive work it replaced. There is no audience for the