A ‘cultured’ culture minister? Be careful what you wish for9:00, 5th June 2017
Even if Theresa May triumphs at the general election, there’s every chance the UK will get a new culture minister in the wake of the process. And we know what that means: a frenzied trawl through the internet to learn whether or not the new incumbent has ever crossed the threshold of a theatre, concert hall or opera house or made so much as a passing comment on anything resembling art.
On that front, erstwhile post-holder Maria Miller set the bar pretty low when she reacted with all the lucid eloquence of Donald Trump when asked if she’d ever been to the Old Vic. Then along came Karen Bradley, whose list of interests at the time of her appointment, according to the website They Work For You, got no more creative than ‘organ donor cards and tyres’.
Having a PhD in the chamber music of E J Moeran is no more likely to induce clear-headed arts policy than having number crunched for KPMG for three decades. It would be wonderful to welcome a culture minister who believed in art for art’s sake and didn’t hitch artistic activity to economic benefit, but in 2017 that seems like wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, those in Europe – and I count myself as one nowadays – can appear pretty smug when spotting politicians of assorted portfolios at the opera or hearing about their passions for Locatelli and Sartre. Shortly after moving to Denmark I heard a live broadcast of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait narrated by the then culture minister Bertel Haarder. I remember the warm feelings it prompted, not long before Haarder launched an ideological ransacking of the arts in his country.
Haarder, who has a passion for folksong, one or two composing credits, and who once appeared on Denmark’s equivalent of Newsnight wearing a tie with a musical score plastered across it, undoubtedly wanted the best for Denmark’s creative life. But his loose-canon energy, political idealism and specific knowledge led him to take action with frightening acuity. His turn-on-a-sixpence decisions and personal artistic preferences made arts professionals in Denmark pine for a minister whose sensitivities probed no deeper than Eurovision.
Haarder never really got into his stride. Anyway, his various noises-off were a mere hors d’oeuvre to what came next. When a new government was formed by negotiation in late 2016, he was replaced by Mette Bock – a former programme director at state broadcaster DR who immediately began discussing the various orchestrations of Handel’s Messiah in the media. Bock knows that Messiah calls for small forces and sells tickets, so why, she argued, should performances of this popular work in December be mounted by state-funded ensembles?
Once again, that proved the tip of the iceberg. In the last few months in Denmark, we have witnessed politicians discussing Fabio Luisi’s interpretations as part of a flawed argument to remove the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra from the auspices of DR. We have heard politicians propose the merger of choirs and the moving of musicians from symphony orchestra A to symphony orchestra B. We have seen politicians pushing far-right agendas of ‘national identity’ in relation to a cultural policy that would deliver a cultural landscape founded entirely on the worship of a handful of historical artists, writers and composers (invariably white men). Such is the political power of the Danish People’s Party, whose own culture spokesperson has an academic background in Greek literature, that its ideas almost always end up shaping government policy.
Uncomfortable questions about the status quo of state arts funding are to be welcomed. But the frightening reality, in northern European countries where total state support for certain cultural institutions has often been viewed from abroad as a sort of utopia, is that politicians can close an orchestra at the click of a mouse simply by shutting off the funds. Such organisations are, therefore, totally beholden to the state. The politicians’ closeness to and familiarity with the cultural life of their countries can be heartening on the surface, but in reality it seems only to foster interference. Whoever lands the job of UK culture minister, it may well be a case, for those who work in the arts, of better the devil who knows nothing.