Rees-Mogg squared: the end of funding for the arts?

On Monday, The Stage announced that the government is to conduct a review of ‘arm’s-length bodies’, including Arts Council England, under culture-warrior-in-chief, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Despite Andrzej Łukowski’s caveat that the review’s remit includes some 295 organisations and may not, therefore, constitute a direct, legislative assault on arts funding, many took to social media to predict a bonfire of cultural provision under Boris Johnson’s unquestionably hostile government. After all, no one who values the arts puts them into the hands of Nadine Dorries (for reasons too numerous and well publicised to repeat here). Others argued that wrecking our cultural sector and dispensing with the Treasury receipts and ‘soft power’ it offers couldn’t possibly be high on any government’s legislative agenda, and this is much more likely to be a flailing attempt to signal for support to the kinds of right-wing populist outriders who might say ‘I could do that’ when confronted by a Picasso.

Either of these perspectives could easily be right. My own view is that the government is certainly hostile to arts funding, but not really hostile to the arts. The July 2020 announcement of a £1.57 billion support package for the arts tells us a lot, however, about the kinds of arts they want to support. Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden chose Shakespeare’s Globe as the back-drop for their performance of cultural munificence, a theatre that receives no subsidy from Arts Council England, but relies on commercial income, personal philanthropy and corporate giving to sustain itself. The Globe, of course, has access to these revenue streams because of its prominent position on the tourist circuit and the fact that, thanks to British colonial power and then American imperialism, Shakespeare remains firmly lodged in the firmament of global cultural significance into which he was catapulted in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps, then, JRM’s private brief is to hack the cultural sector down to a formula of elite evening entertainment multiplied by tourism. That theory is supported by an obvious precedent. As Chair of the Arts Council in the 1980s, JRM’s father, William Rees-Mogg, presided over a regime of cutting and restructuring that placed the arts under semi-permanent threat for over a decade, their funding only justified by increasingly bureaucratic measures designed to produce justifications for their straitened existence. WRM’s cuts were to a large extent reversed by a significant injection of cash under New Labour, but the managerialism remained and even increased, as did the requirements that organisations increase their income from other sources — principally commercial activities. This produced — in very broad terms — a sector structurally weakened by its marketisation, but still dependent upon public money. Will Rees-Mogg squared prove to be its death?

I expect not, but it’s very likely, nonetheless, that the present government will be content to allow the structural weakness of the sector to diminish it further. As Gargi Bhattacharyya has argued in other contexts, wilful dereliction of the public sector can be a very effective and efficient approach to shrinking it without spending energy and political capital in an all-out assault. Certainly, the current round of National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) funding applications would suggest as much, with applicants told by Arts Council England how much they can apply for based on the arbitrary application of a multiplier to their size at a given historical point. The vast majority of current NPO applications are therefore spent justifying a ceiling-level of subsidy, followed by an optional, small, additional application for extra support. Presumably this approach is designed to limit aspirations and require elaborate justifications for the status quo to be maintained, and is therefore the prelude to salami-slicing the sector, with the most each organisation can realistically hope for being to remain where they are. Doubtless this mess will be papered over by a few strategically placed good news stories about increased funding outside London, possibly involving the white working class (TM).

But if an end to arts funding isn’t on the immediate horizon, is it possible in the foreseeable future? Here, I think we need a longer historical view, to which I suggest we apply the Copernican principle. This states — basically — that you are very unlikely to find yourself at the start or end of anything and much more likely to be somewhere in the middle. It was tested in 1993 by the American astrophysicist, J. Richard Gott, who used it to predict (with considerable accuracy) the dates by which Broadway shows running at that time would close (thanks to David Runciman, whose use of this to think about the end of democracy I have lifted wholesale here). Gott simply assumed that — on a random day — the probability of a Broadway show closing would be a function of how long it had been running, and he was proved right. Almost all the shows he surveyed — even those that had only been open a matter of days or weeks — turned out to have been in the middle of their run.

The capitalist theatre started in England in the 1570s, so the Copernican principle would strongly suggest that none of us will live to see its end or anything like it. The mixed subsidised-commercial theatre sector, by contrast, which is the currently the hegemonic form of theatre in the UK, is a creation of the post-war period, and it’s therefore not inconceivable that its days are numbered. Using an average theatre-goer age of 52, we might reasonably assume that your median pundit first attended the theatre as an adult around 1990, when the Arts Council was 44 years old and our leading subsidised theatres about 30 years old. We’re now 32 years on from then, so there’s every likelihood that we are on the downward slide of the subsidised theatre’s bell curve. That doesn’t mean that the subsidised sector’s going to fold next week or even next year, but by the end of the decade? Maybe. By 2040? Very possibly.

So what should we make of this? Well, I don’t think JRM — or even Nadine Dorries — has a secret plan to destroy the National Theatre. But I do think that we have to beware defaulting to thinking of the years from 1945 to 1975 as some kind of historical norm to which we can and should return. Historically, it seems to me much more likely that they were a blip (that benefitted a relatively small cohort who were racialized as white and mostly male), fuelled by the need to create a new national infrastructure (see David Edgerton on this), and halted by the neoliberal revolution from the mid-seventies. This blip was later partially and superficially revived as part of a still decidedly neoliberal project from 1997 until 2008. That revival was funded not by direct investment in infrastructure but by financialisation and leveraging measures such as public-private partnerships that were engaged in the surreptitious privatisation of public spaces and services (this has ratcheted up since the noughties — see this report by Anna Minton). Since 2010, we have seen cuts upon cuts to arts funding, and even if the current government aren’t determined to follow them with a killer blow, they show no sign whatsoever of reversing them.

It may be, then, that Rees-Mogg Jnr is doubling down on his father’s project, but we should not accept any version of that narrative in which he is the cartoon villain pitted against the brave defenders of ‘culture for everyone’. For one thing, defenders of culture have almost always been defenders of privilege and structural hierarchy, sometimes offering concessions but almost invariably as the price of sustaining their advantage. For another, I think it’s very likely that JRM and his cronies will preside over a period of mismanaged decline. That process will pit workers in the cultural sector against each other and seek to co-opt them to its project by ensuring there is no sustainable alternative to compliance. If it is to be the future of arts funding, mismanaged decline will be a messy, entangled process of competition for shrinking rewards in which cultural vandals and defenders are not easily distinguished. The challenge is to see that process for what it is and fight it with collective power and creative resistance. The first step will be to set aside the dream of a return to how arts funding supposedly was or how it is supposed to be. The next will be to search instead for approaches to making culture that do not keep the arts dependent upon people who really don’t care about them and might not notice if they live or die.

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