Friday, 13 February 2015

Save the ENO : British culture and phoney class war

The Arts Council England has announced that it's placing the ENO in a "special funding arrangement" and removing it from the portfolio of national organizations given a place at the funding table. Within that two-year period, the ENO will have to present accounts on a monthly baisis and meet milestones set by the ACE, in return for a short-term £I million grant to repair the rumoured shortfall in this year's budget. That there is a shortfall is hardly surprising as the ENO's new business model has yet to kick in.  On the surface, this looks simple enough that some observers think the ENO is "saved".  It's an irony that the ENO is housed in a building called the Coliseum. Photo above shows the sacking of Rome, by the Visigoths.

The ENO has never been a money cow. The primary purpose of any arts organization is to produce good art. Even the ACE acknowledges the role the ENO has played with groundbreaking work. But good art means taking risks: no arts organization is foolproof. For every Satyagraha, Peter Grimes or Mastersingers  there are bound to be some flops, just as everywhere else. That's the nature of the business. I don't hold much hope for aspects of the new business plan which predicate on duplicating what the West End already provides, ie smart cafés. One thing the ENO's critics miss entirely is that all opera companies these days operate in connection with each other, nationally and internationally. Scrapping the ENO would have a drastic knock-on effect on the rest of the industry. The loss of the ENO would create such a huge hole in the business that it would take more than a few million to fix.  The ACE, and the government, needs to think long term, and on a wider scale. Read more about what I've written on the interconnectedness of the industry HERE.

Far too much emphasis has been placed on the recent resignations. Henriette Gõtz was a lovely person but not experienced enough to deal with the scale of the problems the company faces, which go back way before she was even born. Strangely,  part of the ACE measures is to look for a "qualified" Executive Director, which is a bit rich,  given that the ACE is itself headed from Classic FM whose claim to wider arts policy nous lies in suggesting the formation of education "hubs". Or a Head of BBC Radio 3 with no broadcasting experience. Obviously education is part of arts policy, but only as an adjunct: it can't replace the wider context of arts education in schools and adult education. Yet the interim ENO Executive  Director is a man probably better placed than anyone else to solve problems  Anthony Whitworth-Jones (more HERE) oversaw the new building at Glyndebourne and came to the rescue of Garsington Opera when Leonard Ingram died. Look at Garsington Opera now.  Whitworth-Jones also wasn't part of the turbulence that hit the ENO three years ago, so he carries no baggage. If the ACE sincerely wants to set the ENO on a good footing, they'd be wise to back someone who just might, against all odds, be able to do the job.

There are some who'd like to replace tha arts altogether with, for example, performance theatre. That kind of writing is to journalism what busking is to grand opera.  Fact is, the arts are an important  part of this nation's economy.  London is a critical player in the world arts network, bringing in unquantifiable cultural and foreign policy influence. It's not clever to scrap the nation's patrimony simply because Harriet Harman's constituents don't go the the ROH (read more HERE). Everyone in this country has a stake in the continued health of the arts, whether they're directly involved or not.  The ENO has a unique place because it connects to English theatre tradition, from Purcell and Handel to Philip Glass and more. It's also championed British opera, which strictly speaking didn't exist before Benjamin Britten. It's also a springboard for nurturing English-speaking singers, some of whom, like Stuart Skelton and Iain Paterson, have developed international careers. Scrap that and it would cost a whole lot more to fix the mess the industry would then be in.  So what if only a minority enjoy the arts? Only a minority work in the banking system, so should we stop propping it up? If we were to support things with mass appeal,  maybe the state should be funding pornography. Some have been known to claim that on expenses.
But does the ACE, and whatever government that supports it, really want to save the ENO. The current ACE policy was set up under the last administration, but the present government has endorsed it without demur. It doesn't matter that much whether a Minister of Culture  like Sajid Javid, should be a luvvie. What really matters is whether he has a sensible business head (in which case being a luvvie is a disadvantage). The fundamental problem is that the arts do attract votes. Thus it's tempting for politicians like Harriet Harman to use the arts as a weapon of class war.

Unfortunately whipping up class hatred against the perceived "elitism" of the arts grabs headlines, and feeds resentment. There will always be thousands more who think that the arts don't matter because they don't participate. There's infinitely more mileage in stirring up class resentment than in explaining the wider role of the arts in the economy. The ACE's anti-London bias is part of this Phoney Class War. London dominates the UK because it's big, demographically and economically.  Downgrading London arts funding won't do anything to redress that balance. But "regionalism" buys votes, especially if it comes in the form of big capital projects where everyone benefits, except artists. Never forget the Sheffield National Centre for Popular Culture which looked PC but fell flat. No-one advocates London because the constituency for the arts is spread too thinly. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is far too busy with his pet Olympics project, which the government has funded to the tune of £141 million, which only marginally impacts on the realities of performance. For that kind of money, one could do a lot for the rest of London arts.

 The arts have become a pawn in the dismantling of this nation's heritage. Once, schools had decent music and arts programmes.  Arts organizations are expected to do the work schools used to do. Obviously, some form of "education" is essential but we need to rethink the whole concept of arts education. Instead, we have an arts policy that stakes so much on the need to replace that shortfall in basic arts education by forcing arts organizations to take up the slack, to the detriment of their primary purpose, which is to create art.  Instead of creation, we now have  a navel-gazing tick-box mentality, based on meeting targets instead of creativity.  There's also a lot more to arts education than teaching people what to think, like the ludicrous "Ten Pieces" programme. Some of these projects work counter-productively, reinforcing the notion that the arts are unapproachable. We can't expect the arts to carry the burden of changing a society when what causes inequality stems from something much more fundamental.

 But do politicians really care?  Or is chasing the short-term vote more fruitful?   Britain is now infinitely more diverse than in the old cloth-cap tribalism of class war. People of all classes and ethnic backgrounds are relatively upwardly mobile and aspirational. That's where the future really lies. A potential renaissance of the arts, if intelligently addressed, and not in the patronizing way it's done at present, where the emphasis is on dumbing down, not smarting up. Heed the prescient warnings of Hans Sachs! A society without culture falls apart. (Read more here.)

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