The British arts world is a self-regarding, left-wing clique.
That seems to be the view of Ed Vaizey, until recently Minister for the Arts. Indeed, as he was keen to tell anyone who would listen, he was the country’s longest-serving arts minister. So, in his six years in the post he had plenty of time to study the country’s playwrights, poets, actors, artists and administrators up close.
It seems Vaizey didn’t always like what he saw. This was his conclusion, delivered very recently, in one of the first speeches he could give unfettered by the constraints of having to work day in day out with the arts community. He said: “Let’s not beat about the bush: the arts are relentlessly left wing.”
He added: “As the former [London] mayor’s head of culture once said: there is no pro-fox hunting play. Indeed, there are no plays about over-powerful trade unions letting down their members. As a Remainer [myself], there is no pro-Brexit play attacking unaccountable Brussels bureaucrats building a European superstate. There’s no play exposing the corruption and abuse in a country like Venezuela – why not?”
Vaizey talked of people in the arts community that “sit in a bubble”, reinforce each others’ thinking “and cold-shoulder people with different points of view”. “You have to subscribe to the groupthink to get on, and that is not healthy,” he said.
Healthy or unhealthy, the groupthink was alive and kicking over the last week, with the arts world united as always in its response to Donald Trump’s election victory. Artist David Shrigley posted an image on Instagram of an apple pie and a skull:
Fellow award-winning artist Jake Chapman reacted by posting the word “Idiocracy”.
And Turner-prize winning, cross-dressing Grayson Perry, who has a new book on male identity, managed to castigate Trump and plug his book in one seamless piece of rhetoric, saying on Twitter that Trump’s views were “out-of-control, backward looking masculinity”.
And spare a thought for another high-profile artist, poor Cornelia Parker, who was unable to speak at all, declaring herself “catatonic with shock”.
To be fair, that was the reaction of much of Great Britain to the Trump victory. But British views on Brexit were not so uniform. A majority, of course, voted for Brexit.
Not so the arts world, which again spoke with one grieving voice after the referendum. Sir Nicholas Hytner, former head of the National Theatre, warned that our creative industries would be “miserably impoverished.” The former Tate trustee and Turner Prize-winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans summoned up the Churchillian spirit to exhort us: “The only thing that helps is not to lose courage.”
In his lecture to the Royal Society of Arts, Ed Vaizey also claimed theatre and arts leaders only ever lobbied the government for more money and were not offering “radical” suggestions or solutions.
Now I know something about attitudes to funding. When I was arts editor of The Independent, I wrote a counter-intuitive piece about arts funding, suggesting some alternative solutions to simply demanding more money. I wondered for example why so many publicly-funded arts bodies with their own publicly-funded publicity departments still hired hugely expensive commercial PR firms.
I wondered why our publicly-funded bodies never once sought advice from the likes of the Royal Academy and Glyndebourne opera festival on how they manage to thrive without a single penny of public funding. I wondered whether London really needed four publicly-funded symphony orchestras.
To my surprise, I was summoned for a meeting with the then Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, who told me mine was the first article of its kind he had seen.
Well, there is much that a Secretary of State for Culture and the rest of the population won’t see. It’s not just the pro-fox-hunting play, it’s any play at all at our major playhouses from a right-of-centre perspective.
The discontent that led to the Brexit vote, worries about austerity, globalisation, lack of controls on immigration, may have been right, may have been wrong. The only certainty is that they are completely ignored on our stages.
The world-view of the likes of David Hare and Tom Stoppard continue to dominate, as they have for decades, what we see on stage. There is nothing wrong with their world-view, nothing wrong with their constantly brilliant work. But isn’t it the job of the arts to put forward other world-views to their audiences?
In Britain at the moment there is praise on an almost daily basis for the latest film by left-wing polemicist Ken Loach. I Daniel Blake is told from the standpoint of a casualty of the welfare system. Fair enough. But show me one single movie which includes welfare abuses. A bit of balance, a bit of proper curiosity about ‘the other side’ is what one should rightly expect from the arts.
— John McDonnell MP (@johnmcdonnellMP) November 14, 2016
Nor will we see, ever, artists marching in favour of a right-of-centre cause, though celebs take to the streets at the drop of a hat for more fashionable left-wing causes.
Does no one from the right of the spectrum ever consider a career in the arts? Or are they there – but see it as a bad career move to publicize their views?
Maybe one day we will get more independence of thought from the arts world.
Maybe we will get a willingness to explore and examine thinking from all sides of the political spectrum. Maybe we will get that play at the National Theatre about the unaccountable bureaucrats of Brussels.
But if that all happens, I won’t be able to comment on it. I will be catatonic with shock.
David Lister is former arts editor of The Independent