We need a radical transformative vision for the arts

When social support is cut, the arts become the preserve of the wealthy. A radical vision for arts policy should be at the heart of any progressive government.

A. Stoneman & R. Stoneman
30 November 2016
 Darkday. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Photo: Darkday. Flickr. Some rights reserved. “The arts are essential, if only one knew what for” – Jean Cocteau

Jeremy Corbyn’s arts policy focusses on reversing spending cuts and restoring cultural infrastructure without offering a substantive vision. While repairing financial support would represent a welcome change, it hardly amounts to a ‘radical transformative vision for the arts’. Its major proposals are entirely defensive: ‘reinstate arts funding’, ‘safeguard our galleries and museums’, ‘protect the BBC’.

In contrast to Labour’s recent proposals on the economy, the environment and digital democracy, Corbyn’s arts policy is disappointingly lacklustre. It does not have to be like this; in 1965 Labour Minister Jennie Lee published Britain’s first cultural white paper, ‘A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps’, in which she addressed uneven regional distribution and unequal access to the arts and committed state support for infrastructure. The paper led to the creation of countless museums, galleries and concert halls across the country and completely transformed Britain’s cultural landscape. Rather than attempting to merely return to this post-war model of funding however, we should apply its principles to the challenges of the present.

Access and involvement.

Research shows that well-educated middle-class professionals are most likely to be drawn to the areas of the cultural sector that are dependent on public funding such as opera and theatre, with those on less well-educated unskilled and semi-skilled workers tending to be more involved in the commercial culture industry. Instead of restoring a subsidy model that entrenches this division, we should seize the opportunity to change the funding system in a way that broadens and deepens the audiences that engage with publicly funded arts.

The prevalence of unpaid internships and unpaid labour in the arts presents a major financial barrier to access for those who do not come from privileged backgrounds; Corbyn acknowledges this and promises to introduce a ‘real living wage’ to protect arts workers. This is a good start but there should be a root and branch approach to tackling the lack of diversity in arts organisations, from the shop floor to upper management – of the directors of our ten most popular museums, all are white and only one is a woman.

Renewed and dynamic versions of culture need to be brought out of the institutions into the widest public sphere; for large sections of the population there are invisible barriers to entering galleries, arts centres and concert halls – we can unconsciously assume “those places are not for me”. We should be looking to bring art activities beyond existent facilities to intervene directly in public spaces and within communities. Theatre groups working on civic initiatives, artists’ placements, musical ensembles from housing estates, filmmakers in workplaces and writers conducting workshops in local libraries enable myriad forms of individual and group self-activation. A focus should be placed on facilitating and empowering marginalised communities to speak without constant mediation; this would include the funding of workshops, training and skills-based initiatives, enabling communities to shape discourse about themselves from the very beginning. Importantly this should not be sidelined into ‘community art’ as once-off, philanthropic gestures but should be a guiding principle of national arts policy.

Public art can renew the sense that urban space belongs to all of us. The success of the Fourth plinth project in Trafalgar square, or the use of billboards to display modern painting in Tehran demonstrates this well. Too much of our visual environment is dominated by commercial marketing; companies operating billboards on public land could be required to periodically devote space to classical or contemporary art.

Regional access should be inclusive, localised and democratic; London, and to a lesser extent, the other select urban centres benefit disproportionately from arts funding. Publicly funded theatre, dance, music or art exhibitions must achieve wider geographical coverage, engaging with parts of the country that have tended to miss out. In delivering all this, we should prioritise support for democratic initiatives emanating from practitioners, with artist-led galleries in the visual arts, film workshops, musicians’ and writers’ associations.


Responding to recent moves to drop art history from the A-Level curriculum, Labour’s arts policy includes plans to introduce a pupil premium in schools to remove barriers to arts education. This should be undertaken as part of a wider strategy to reinstate the arts at all levels of the educational system.

We must encourage creativity throughout national curricula; excelling at the natural sciences and mathematics requires the kind of creativity and invention that the arts develop. The teaching of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) subjects should include Art to make ‘STEAM’. This approach draws on the interconnectedness of these disciplines and leads to productive interactions. Students should be encouraged to discover the science of art and vice-versa.

Broadcasting and arts institutions.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to take on the complex question of public service broadcasting but suffice to say a radical arts policy must go beyond defending BBC funding and look to transform it into a more transparent, accountable and open institution. The BBC must serve to challenge the market logic and commercial instincts of private media.

Quangos like the Arts Council and the British Film Institute that fund and administer arts bodies are dangerously opaque and unaccountable. While the ‘arms length’ principle separating government from actual funding decisions is still correct, it is untenable that these organisations’ workings are hidden from the public and that their CEOs can enjoy inflated six figure salaries.

Leisure for all.

In 1894, alongside the call for an eight hour working day, William Morris proposed the slogan “leisure for all”, thus underlining the importance of the arts to a socialist vision of the future. In a post-industrial age in which our jobs are increasingly automated, the arts can take a more central role in our lives, replacing the ‘prosaic’ with the ‘poetic’ and providing the catalyst for new ideas and for change. Art is communal and active; it is the emotional and intellectual air we breathe and it can play a key role in the construction of different kind of society.

Corbyn is right to move beyond the narrow, instrumentalist defences of art that have dominated cultural policy since Thatcher. The positive economic and employment effects of the arts sector are relevant but not the only motivation for the creative industries; cost benefit analysis and key performance indicators should not be the primary criteria for developing and assessing policies. Arguments for the arts should not be so habitually defensive and hide behind voodoo economics.

As Gaston Kaboré, a West African filmmaker, suggested: “Culture is not as short-term an issue as the politicians think. In a deep sense it is the route to the future, a projection of how we understand our future.” For Corbyn’s Labour, and any project aiming at an emancipatory transformation of society, a radical vision for the arts is essential.


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