Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain, by Robert Hewison

Andrew Blake on a study of politics and the arts in the New Labour era

January 29, 2015

New Labour came to power at a moment of hubristic success for Britain’s arts. The global demand for UK culture had been invigorated by the Young British Artists, Britpop bands and the Spice Girls, and films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Trainspotting. The new government rode the Cool Britannia wave, increasing investment in the arts and creating the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to encourage and oversee them. But the DCMS was interested neither in creating work of lasting aesthetic value, nor in funding risk-taking by talented practitioners. Its aims were to stimulate the economy through the affirmation of a market in cultural production and consumption, and to increase participation by the socially excluded. So the new funds came with a Mephistophelian contract: in order to ensure that economic and social agendas were met, the DCMS (and arts councils) imposed target-driven regulatory systems. Where public funding was involved, the watchword was: if it moves, audit.

One result was the creation and empowerment of a level of largely unnecessary, and expensive, management and administration. A member of an arts faculty during the New Labour ascendancy, I was a participant observer in this process. Every few months I’d attend a conference on “creative Britain” along with 100 or so other suits. Our nearly new Fiestas and Golfs parked outside a hotel conference suite, we’d listen to a government adviser’s jargon-rich, vacuous PowerPoint presentation about the cultural industries, and a panel of lower-level speakers enthusing about community engagement. Nothing aesthetically creative or original was proposed, debated or achieved. This jaw-dropping waste of everyone’s time and money was the New Labour creative economy at work.

It’s an easy target, and Robert Hewison hits it repeatedly and disdainfully. The bigger failures – the Millennium Dome and The Public arts centre in West Bromwich – get a particular kicking, alongside a more general assessment of the philistine actions of a government that sensed that the public good could be served through investment in the arts, but did not seem to care that the arts might be good (or not) in themselves. And yet, as Hewison agrees, despite the choking managerialism, the result was often positive: success stories from Tate Modern to the Sage Gateshead fuelled a renewed sense of national cultural achievement that was reflected in the opening ceremony of London’s 2012 Olympic Games.

But after this moment of – again – hubristic success, Hewison’s vision of the immediate future for the arts in Britain is unremittingly bleak as he turns his attention to the coalition government’s cultural policy. While the philistinism remains, funding has been massively reduced.

As to the effects of those cuts, it’s simply too early to tell, as funding does not necessarily produce aesthetic dividends, and I look forward to Hewison’s more considered thoughts on the arts in the twenty-teens. Meanwhile, cultural philistinism remains a consensual position well beyond government. Hewison gives a surprising amount of space to the sillier left- and right-wing responses to the 2012 Games’ opening ceremony. He doesn’t mention the crisis talks held a few days before the event as the organisers tried, with only partial success, to persuade the BBC to broadcast the carefully planned musical content of the ceremony without talking over it. The result was, risibly, like an opera with sports commentary. The national broadcaster’s assumption that it could best fulfil its remit by obscuring a key component of this globally important event indicates that the many lobbyists on behalf of renewed funding for the arts, Hewison among them, are going to have to work harder than ever to convince the UK elite of their value, significance and integrity.

Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain

By Robert Hewison
Verso, 288pp, £14.99 and £7.50
ISBN 9781781685914 and 5921 (e-book)
Published 3 November 2014

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