Within weeks, the fulcrum of power in the country will shift as the government changes, and it’s still anyone’s guess quite what the outcome will be. Despite election coverage spanning the economy, the budget deficit, the EU and taxes, one topic that doesn’t often come up is the country’s cultural landscape and the sticky wicket of its funding, or lack thereof.
It’s obvious why – with cuts being made to essential public services like the NHS, who is going to put their energy into championing more money for something like regional opera? But those who work in, or care about, the country’s artistic and cultural legacy would say that view is short-sighted. Those voices had the backing of MP Jennie Lee (1904–1988), whose life and legacy we celebrate in the May issue. Jennie was the author of the only white paper on the arts ever written. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Policy for the Arts – First Steps (you can read it here: http://b.3cdn.net/labouruk/e30626bec6f30f5893_mlbrotg01.pdf) and, weeks from a general election, it seems an apposite moment to compare the situation today with that of the time of Jennie’s call to action in 1965.
Then, as now, there were obviously other priorities for government cash in the post-war period. Jenny identified the problem thus: ‘People who had never known what they were missing did not press for galleries, theatres and concert halls. Certain sections of the press, by constantly sniping at cultural expenditure, made philistinism appear patriotic.’ She suggested that the solution was to start them young, and make creative pursuits as much of a priority in the education system as the widely-established pillars of reading, writing and arithmetic: ‘If children at an early age become accustomed to the idea of the arts as a part of everyday life, they are more likely in maturity first to accept and then to demand them.’ She also stressed that there was a need for new arts venues nationwide – ultimately, plays and musical performances could only reach those in the provinces if there was somewhere for them to perform.
So, has Jennie’s vision come to pass? Well, as she herself predicted, ‘There is no short-term solution for what is by its very nature a long-term problem.’ Those who were at primary school in 1965, when the paper was published, are now in their 50s, and yet the demands Jennie made for the needs of arts education sound as relevant today as ever.
London still gets the lion’s share of the Arts Council’s funding (what’s left of it) and music education in schools still needs to be extended to reach every child as a matter of course, rather than the postcode lottery it still is. Though the government-backed In Harmony project (based on Venezuela’s phenomenally successful El Sistema) has had a huge impact in the six areas where it functions, there are still many parts of the UK in which children simply do not receive anything approaching a well-rounded music education at school.
Neglecting to support the arts all over the UK, not just in the capital, could prove a false economy. The fact that the contribution of art galleries, libraries and musical performances to the nation’s economy and mental health can’t be measured doesn’t mean it is non-existent. Local services have been a boon to autodidacts over the years – journalist and author Caitlin Moran [live link to http://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk], who grew up in Wolverhampton and was home-educated, says: ‘A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.’
There’s also a deep, unquantifiable value in the kind of intellectual stimulation that inspires the mind to wander from the narrow annals of the everyday to a slightly higher – or simply more entertaining – plane. I can’t put it better than Jennie herself: ‘In an age of increasing automaton bringing more leisure to more people than ever before, both young and old will increasingly need the stimulus and refreshment that the arts can bring. If one side of life is highly mechanised, another side must provide for diversity, adventure, opportunities both to appreciate and to participate in a wide range of individual pursuits. An enlightened government has a duty to respond to these needs.’
Do you hear her, party leaders? In fifty years there has still been no update on Jennie Lee’s pioneering work, so we must refer to it still. As the nation goes to the polls, those who care about the country’s cultural and artistic future have Jennie to thank for opening up a discussion about the purpose and meaning of the arts to the country as a whole. Let’s hope it won’t be forgotten.
By Catherine Smith