Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Philistines ... or putting the boot in

It all started in March when Tony Blair reminisced about the 'golden age of the arts' in a speech in the Tate Modern, in which he 'opined that arts and culture were absolutely at the heart of what the new modern Britain was all about, actually' according to the deliciously funny article in the Guardian. He suggests that the last 10 years have been a golden age for the arts, what with all the funding that the labour government has thrown at the arts (much of which may have been lottery funded - mainly by poorer people).

Other people are more sceptical - the Guardian suggests that he might have mentioned arts and culture once or twice in the last ten years, and of course he had Noel Gallagher of Oasis round for tea. Not forgetting his much loved Fender guitar which he donated to the Royal Scottish Museum. And I believe he attended the reopening of the Royal Opera House where I believe he had to sit through a Wagner Opera. One of his culture ministers, Chris Smith, was however seen attending the Edinburgh festival, and the late Donald Dewar, Scotland's first First Minister, also attended performances very regularly, without any bodyguards. And of course there was the moment when Sam Galbraith, leaving his post as culture minister of Scotland, quickly bunged Scottish Opera another few million to keep them going. But the latter two were in Scotland (arts are devolved), and neither are in politics any longer.

Since this talk, the great and the good have railed against Blair and his government, with the word count of 'philistines' very high indeed. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the Queen's Master of Music, describes the current government as 'utterly philistine'; John Tusa, chief executive of the Barbican is 'sick to death of meddling philistines' in the Treasury, who need an economic case made for every penny invested into arts funding. Let's not say that the government is not sensitive to public opinion; after a TV series on a new choir in a difficult school showed the impact on this on the children generally, the government decided to invest 10 million GBP into music education. That's singing. There's no talk of instrumental teaching.

Compare this to the famous 'sistema' in Venezuela which is funded by the Health and Social Security Ministry and which enables thousands of children to play in orchestras, including the very highest quality orchestra. Consider the state of North Rhine Westphalia in Germany which has introduced a pilot scheme of 'An instrument for every child' in the Ruhr area in anticipation of it being the European Capital of Culture in 2010. Consider the opera performances and concertsspecially for children in Lithuania and other Eastern European countries which are usually packed out, and come and see the number of young people attending opera and ballet performances, and particularly those of modern music! Consider the excellent children's and youth work carried out by orchestras in the UK and Germany, but are children supported by the state in learning instruments, or broadly in learning anything about music, including reading music? The costs of supporting a musical child in the UK are considerable, especially if the child turns out to be gifted - so children from poor families have no chance to benefit from the many useful aspects of a musical training, including concentration, discipline, teamwork and so on. But it's not only poor families who deprive their children - a few months ago I met a highly educated British academic whose children have no access to music because he and his wife did not and they are worried about not being able to support them in their endeavours. I found this astonishing - a bit of a feeble excuse, if you ask me! Even if I had had a child who wanted to, say, play football, or learn to fence, I would have made an effort to find out about these things....
What chance does the arts world in Britain have under this government?