Last night, I went to the Dutch Centre in the City of London, to listen to Ramsey Nasr, the former Poet Laureate of Holland, reading from the first English-language collection of his poems. The Palestinian-born Nasr possesses an intelligence, humility, and erudition that makes him a pleasure to listen to. My (female) companion at the event said that he is also very sexy.
He was interviewed by Titia Ketelaar, correspondent at NRC Handelsblad, and the conversation was wide-ranging but generally centred on the arts, especially poetry and theatre. Mostly Nasr had sensible and perceptive things to say. But there was one comment that he made that caused me to wonder. Ms Ketelaar asked him about public funding of the arts, and Nasr replied that the arts are a fundamental good in human society, and valuable in their own right. They do not stand in need of economic justification, he said.
I don't think that that quite addresses the issue. Opponents of public-funding of arts do not, in general question the value of the arts as such. Rather, their claim is that it is wrong for the government to forcibly take money from hard-working tax payers and hand it over to artists. It is that act of forcible redistribution of wealth that needs justifying. If you were to calculate the proportion of your tax that goes toward the arts, and withhold it -- perhaps because you would rather pay local artists directly for works that you like, or perhaps because you think the arts are a waste of money -- then you would be prosecuted by the authorities and ultimately imprisoned. Yes, we need to justify demanding money with menaces from people in order to fund arts projects.
In fact, the arts 'industry' (as it is bizarrely called in economics) is worth about £11 billion annually in the UK. And about £4 billion of that is the film 'industry', which I'm particularly find of. A decade ago, the Arts Council commissioned Michelle Reeves to review the economic impact, and her study study shows many and various measurable ways in which arts contributes to the economy and general functioning of society. ["Measuring the economic and social impact of the arts", Michelle Reeves, Arts Council, 2002.] But seeing the arts only as a commodity whose trade contributes numbers to the economy is to turn a blind spot on the central point of the arts. If the only function of the arts is to make money, then the intrinsic value of the arts drops out of the equation. The arts slip down to a par with recreation and entertainment. The tension between 'instrumental' arguments for the arts and arguments from their 'intrinsic' value is one that John Knell and Matthew Taylor scrutinised in their pamphlet ["Arts Funding, Austerity, and Big Society", RSA, 2011].
But this is where the debate runs into a political impasse, which Nasr touched upon last night. For, in our egalitarian era, everyone's opinion is equally weighty. The specific example that Nasr discussed was the hypothetical case of a rap rendition of Shakespeare. Yes, he said, it would be great, it would be fun, it could be exciting. But it wouldn't be Shakespeare. It would not have the multi-layered depth of meaning and resonance that Shakespeare wove into his plays. He said that he knew this was the wrong answer for pleasing the crowd, but he really believed in the intrinsic value of Shakespeare's plays.
Well, but so what? I think some of the acuity of this philosophical debate is blunted by the vastness of the Arts Council and the whole machinery of tax gathering and disbursement. Philosophers like to use thought-experiments, so let's try this one. Imagine a world where the government still allocates tax money to the arts, but it is up to the individual artists to collect the tax from the citizen. So, imagine William Shakepeare (transported to the present day) walking into HMV and accosting a punter who is about to buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto.
Shakespeare: "Good sir, I prithee give me your money. Spend it not on the video game but render it to me for my theatre."
Punter: "You what? Fuck off you poncey git. It's my money, I can spend it how I wants."
Shakespeare: "Hold you your manhood so cheap?"
Punter: "I'm a man same as what you is, mate. I got me rights, innit? If wants to spend me money on nasty little video games, that's my business, not yours"
Shakespeare: "Aye, in the catalogue ye go for a man, as hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept all by the name of dogs.But, if you have a rank in the file, not i' th' worst rank of manhood, say
Punter: "I'm as good as the next man, mate"
Shakespeare: "Thy horizons are o'ergrown with brambles, and thou see'st not for looking. Thou'd toss thy soul to the merchant of snake oil if he but entertain you for an hour. Here, hand me your purse, you cur! As the osprey to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature, so I commandeer your credit card"
[Strikes the punter down and takes his wallet]
And there's the rub: for, to demand public money for the sake of the supposed intrinsic value of arts is to assert "sovereignty of nature", it is to assert that the the arts community knows the intrinsic value of the arts better than does the man on the Clapham Omnibus, it is to assert that "the man from the ministry knows best".
What other option is there? If instrumentalism demeans art as a commodity., and if an appeal to intrinsic value implies that some people's judgement is more valuable than others, what other defence can there be for the public funding of arts?
I think my answer is this: The arts create the cultural depth within which all social relations can evolve, deepen, and consolidate: from commerce to design to industry, and from personal reflection to family life to societal leadership. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined society is not worth living in, and the compendious and inextricably linked arts provide the lexicon and grammar of ideas with which to examine society and everything in it. You cannot build the Shard, you cannot develop new medicines, you cannot run a transportation system, without a hinterland of shared culture. And without susbsidised arts, the enterprise of shared culture would wither.