Culture Wars: 'If everything is creative, what is different about the arts?'
Mark Ryan talks to John Tusa
John Tusa's new book, Art Matters, is a defence of artistic excellence against the pressures imposed on artists and administrators, particularly since New Labour came to power. He has drawn fire from the secretary of state for culture Chris Smith, and a sniffy review from Labour peer, and doyen of the arts world, Melvyn Bragg.
Tusa, managing director of the Barbican Centre in London, admits that government policy has shifted somewhat since he wrote the book. Cool Britannia has been quietly forgotten and, since the pop world proved feckless allies, there has been less schmoozing of the Gallagher brothers. What remains is Creative Britain.
'All the industries and activities which Chris Smith lists as being part of Creative Britain are clearly creative, valuable and important. But that phrase doesn't tell you anything about art. If everything is creative, you don't answer the question of what is different about the arts. Unless and until you answer that question, you can't really begin to formulate a policy for the arts. And I think they still haven't really got there.
'The other thing that has changed is that they have put a lot more money into the arts. But you know and I know that even those sums of money have left a large number of institutions, from orchestras to theatres, in a very difficult condition. So it hasn't solved everything by any means.'
Tusa is critical of the bureaucratic system of quotas and performance indicators which government imposes on art centres. Monitoring the numbers of ethnic minorities, children and disabled who pass through a centre can leave administrators aswim in paper-work - and alter the criteria by which directors decide what to put on. 'Everybody is saying, for God's sake we had better do something which will get an audience which meets the government's prescriptions. The danger is that this is regardless of whether the programme is artistically good or bad. Most of the things the government asks for are not about art - access, education, and so on. If those are the drivers, rather than the excellence of the art, then you're going to be in difficulty.'
The ambivalent title of Tusa's book reflects the unresolved tension between trying to defend the integrity of art today while running an arts institution which is being drawn into the wider cultural industry. Art matters, in the sense that an institution should put artistic criteria first. But art also matters in the completely opposite sense that it can be good for the economy, society, community relations and a lot more. Tusa thinks it is possible to reconcile these pulls, that it is a question of priorities - put art first but be mindful of the other responsibilities.
'People expect more of the arts and of the role they play, whether in education or urban regeneration. This places the arts far more at the centre of political life. And therefore people running arts institutions have a lot more responsibility. I'd much rather that people question, force us to explain why it matters.
'It is no accident that there has been a transfer of people from the churches to the museums on a Sunday. People are always looking for something, a different way of looking at the world. Art has always been part consolation and part an attempt at a solution, and if that is what more people are trying to find in it then that's fine. At least it shows that the art is being taken seriously, and for a lot of people that the experience of art is providing some sort of non-material, metaphysical satisfaction.'
'We need a dialogue', he says, 'about the needs of the arts, and the broad range of activities that the arts can provide to society. Very often society is saying "we want the arts because they do this, that and the other, urban regeneration or whatever. On the other hand we don't want to pay for the arts because we'd rather have a hospital or school". If you look at arts policy in the north east of England, a number of major institutions are being created because local authorities believe that this is the way to revive the north east. Now half the argument is there. If these institutions are there you really have to fund them. But that is when the dialogue falls down'.
I suggested that perhaps all this funding did not match any real level of artistic creativity. 'With a bit of luck', Tusa said, 'once an organisation is created, it taps into some resources of originality and creativity. It's very nice to see local authorities and politicians using the arts to make life a little better for everybody. In 20 years' time, maybe sooner, we'll know better whether the level of art merited the investment. But there is so much more arts activity than there was before. The question is, can we sustain it? It would be disappointing if we couldn't and it would be disappointing if we didn't try'.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999