Culture secretary James Purnell has been widely reported as signalling a new approach in the funding of the arts, as laid out in a review by Sir Brian McMaster, to be published this week. It is trailed as marking a shift away from the pursuit of audience targets towards judgement of worth, and a focus on “excellence.” (See an interview in Saturday’s Guardian.) One of McMaster’s former colleagues at the Arts Council, Paddy Masefield, has described the views expressed as “elitist and now out-of-touch and ageist”.
Historically, what I think is interesting is how we got to this point. In the very early wartime and post-war days, the Arts Council, and its predecessor CEMA, would have made no bones about the primacy of ‘excellence’, and would have had no qualms about who should adjudicate. We knew what art was, and who was good at it. For religious commentators, this consensus was founded on the enduring core of ‘Christian civilisation’, although many thought it under threat even then. With the enormous diversification in artistic activity since then, there would seem to have been a catastrophic loss of confidence in the criteria by which ‘excellence’ might be judged. That story, of the disintegration of an integral idea of culture, is one that is yet to be written.
It remains to be seen how easy it is now to recover that confidence in our judgement. (For what it’s worth, I think it high time that the word “elitist” be gracefully retired. It now serves no useful non-polemical purpose.)