How the Arts Council Cancels Art

How the Arts Council Cancels Art

Arts March 31, 2016 / By Ben Irvine
How the Arts Council Cancels Art

Great art flourishes amid great freedom. The same goes for most of the ‘results’ a civilised society should strive to achieve.

Whenever he disagreed with the mainstream on some matter or other, the comedian Bill Hicks was fond of asking ‘Did I miss a meeting?’. I couldn’t help wondering the same thing this morning when I perused the Arts Council’s website, after a friend suggested that I should ‘apply for funding’ for my new book. 

I confess that I was already sceptical about the idea of a government organisation being responsible for funding the arts. Since when was it the state’s job to decide what art gets created? The very notion ought to send a shiver down the spine of anyone with even a tenuous knowledge of twentieth-century history. 

Still, the prospect of funding my book through a grant rather than through my part-time job as a delivery boy was enough for me to put my reservations aside. 

I was soon disabused of my open-mindedness. 

The Arts Council’s ‘Who we are’ page proudly boasts that the organisation will spend £1.1 billion of ‘public money’ and £700 million ‘from the National Lottery’ over the next three years on ‘great art and culture’. Immediately I wondered whether that phrase is supposed to imply ‘great culture’ or just ‘culture’. I suppose it doesn’t matter, because neither means anything much – at least, not without further elaboration, which wasn’t forthcoming. Let’s hope most of the £1.1 billion will indeed be spent on great art rather than on the pursuit of vacuity. 

The relentless shoddiness of the writing on the Arts Council website is alarming given that these people are supposed to be the gatekeepers of creative work that, in their words, ‘teaches us about ourselves and the world around us’. How can people who are such wretched communicators be in a position to judge which artists are good teachers? 

We are told: ‘The Royal Charter is our governing document that incorporates the Arts Council as a legal entity as well as setting out our charitable objects and powers was also updated in line with the organisation review changes’. Now there’s a writer who knows what edification looks like.

Here’s another – Ed Vaizey, the ‘Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries’, who spells out the ‘funding agreement’ between the Arts Council and the government in a letter which is published on the ‘Who we are’ webpage.

Vaizey begins: ‘I am writing to set out the way in which I would like our two organisations to work together over the rest of this spending review period. This letter sets out my priorities, the indicators which will be used to measure performance and the way I would like us to work together’.

Vaizey’s keenness to specify (or is it measure?) how he would like the two organisations to work together raises doubts about the sincerity of his use of the term ‘together’. But at least he is magnanimous enough to ‘thank’ the Arts Council for ‘its contribution to delivering departmental priorities’ – a contribution all the more impressive given its grammatical nonsensicality. Later in the letter, we find out that one of those departmental priorities is ‘minimising bureaucracy’. What follows from Vaizey is so self-satirising it is almost endearing:

I am keen to minimise bureaucracy by ensuring that any targets and performance indicators are limited, focussed and useful. We have therefore agreed that there will be three performance indicators for Arts Council England during this spending review period:

  • An increase in contributed income in National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) and Major Partner Museums (MPMs) between 2012-2015.
  • An increase in the amount of activity made available to audiences digitally through NPOs and MPMs.
  • Sustained attendance/visitor numbers in NPOs/MPMs over the period 2012-2015.

Alongside these key performance indicators, I know there are a number of other pieces of performance data that Arts Council England has agreed it will collect.

Towards the end of the briefing, Vaizey adds: ‘I am sending with this letter a copy of the key data sheet summarising the spending review allocation, delegated limits, performance indicators, management information requirements and spend controls for Arts Council England over the rest of the spending review period’.

Because we all know that the best way to reduce bureaucracy in the arts is to monitor the activities of artists! And, more importantly, we all know that the best way to measure ‘great art’ is through collecting performance data!

And we all know – or we should know – that the idea of governments minimising bureaucracy makes about as much sense as fish minimising water.

Call me cynical, but I’m not sure that the Arts Council has taken on board its ‘agreement’ with the government. The website proudly links to a document called ‘Great art and culture for everyone, our 10-year strategic framework for the arts’. The document consists of 67 pages of bureaucratic guff so pure you could dissolve a diamond in it. For example: 

We are the main body charged with developing the arts in England through the shrewd investment of public funds. With our national reach and our network of local cultural expertise, we are in a strong position to identify challenges to the sector in achieving our shared goals, as well as opportunities for growth. We use strategic funds to address these, and use our knowledge and expertise to shape what we do.

We work closely with the Department for Education to manage a portfolio of programmes which aim to improve standards, reach and sustainability of music and cultural education in England, following the recommendations of the National Plan for Music Education and Cultural Education Plan.

We conduct research, create partnerships, and promote the value of arts and culture. We know that arts and culture play an important role in local regeneration, in attracting tourists, in the development of talent and innovation, in improving health and well-being, and in delivering essential services.

The most that can be said for the idea that great art plays an important role in delivering essential services is that it is at least wrong, as opposed to meaningless.     

I could quote ad nauseum from this vomit-inducing document, but perhaps the most significant passages are found in the lead-in piece from Sir Peter Bazalgette, the Chair of the Arts Council. He sets the tone of the strategy with his chunkily phrased grandiosity:

We are a custodian of public investment, and we are charged with getting the maximum value out of this: the enlightenment and entertainment arts and culture bring us; the enriching of our lives and the inspiring of our education; the vital contribution to our health and well-being and the powering of regional regeneration, tourism and our standing abroad. 

So who is this guru? Who is this man who assures us that ‘With the brilliance of our creative ideas, a clear sense of direction and increasing commercial acumen, I know that our artists will continue to change lives’? He is the TV broadcaster who brought us Ready Steady Cook, Deal or No Deal, Changing Rooms and Big Brother – those bastions of enlightenment. Big Brother, let us recall, is a live show featuring contestants holed up in a house-cum-studio for a month, during which they have to periodically vote each other off the show, until only one person is left, the winner. Over the years, Big Brother has had no scruples about broadcasting the tensions, titillations and tedium caused by its format, including episodes of racism, bullying, prolific swearing, a contestant pleasuring herself with a wine bottle, live heavy petting in a jacuzzi, and generally a stream of banal drivel that is the very opposite of enrichment. Writing in The Evening Standard, Victor Lewis Smith suggested that Bazalgette had ‘done more to debase television over the past decade than anyone else’.

And now Bazalgette is Chair of an organisation with a billion pound budget to fund art that ‘inspires us’ and ‘brings us together’. It would be laughable, if it was even remotely funny.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking about the prospect of delivering curries for another six months. I might well be willing to demonstrate the strength of my hypocrisy if I could acquire some of Bazalgette’s bounty. I decided to delve deeper, and find out ‘How to Apply’. 

The document explaining the application process was a bureaucracy-minimising 88 pages long. I confess that I haven’t read it from cover to cover; it is, as Schopenhauer described Hegel’s philosophy, ‘mind-destroying’. But, having tip-toed over the coals, I have been able to get a feel for the terrain. 

First of all, I was told, I would need to log on to the horribly-named ‘Grantium’, the ‘online application system’. This is the Arts Council’s new ‘portal’, which is supposedly ‘more interactive’. So it goes: ‘Once you have created an account, all activities are managed online – you can make a Grants for the Arts application, receive your decision and (if successful) upload any required documentation for your payment request.’ I metaphorically raised an eyebrow. 

My metaphorically raised eyebrow soon turned into a literally wrinkled forehead once I realised that there was another document which I would need to be read before I logged onto the portal: the 57-page ‘How to create and manage your account and applicant profile guidance document’. This begins by explaining why Grantium is part of ‘the cost saving requirements set by the government’, and features such bureaucracy-minimising flowcharts as the following: 













I went swiftly back to the How to Apply guidance. There was a long list of things I could and couldn’t apply for (funny how you can legislate for creativity in advance). I’d need to answer an epic series of questions about my ‘activity’, including ‘its artistic quality’ (is anyone, ever, going to provide this information objectively, assuming objective information about such a thing is even possible?). I’d need to specify my ‘artistic track record’, the ‘artistic idea behind [my] activity’ and what I aim ‘to achieve by doing the activity’. I’d need to say who will ‘benefit from the activity’ and the ‘results of [my] activity’. I’d need to stipulate whether my activity is ‘aimed at a specific audience group’ (age, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, male, female, trans, etc) and I’d need to identify the ‘participants’ in my activity, meaning ‘people who are actively involved in the activity’ (once again: age, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, male, female, trans, etc). I’d need to explain ‘who will engage with the activity’, as well as my ‘marketing activities’ and my ‘finances’. I’d need to read a section about ‘how to present my expenditure lines’, and provide details of ‘the other arts related costs of delivering the activity’. I’d need to show how I would ‘[make my] performance accessible’, and how I would ‘develop my organisation and people’. I’d need to describe my ‘management experience’, the ‘location’ of my activity, and a full ‘activity plan’. Last but not least (far from it), I’d need to reveal how I ‘plan to monitor the progress of [my] activity’ and ‘evaluate [my] achievements throughout the activity’. This, I am reassured, will help me ‘make decisions during [my] activity’, ‘improve [my] work’, and ‘show what happened as a result of [my] activity’. 

And all that – I emphasise – is merely a smattering of the instructions set out in this 88-page document, which I am required to read before reading the 57-page guidance on how to use the online application portal, and before I even get to the stage of filling out the application, after which, if I’m successful, I’ll need to manage my project online, which requires reading another three documents (‘How to acknowledge a decision’, ‘How to claim a payment’ and ‘How to submit a report’). Oh, and there are 34 ‘Information Sheets’ which I might need to read, and various videos to watch which will help me with my application.

I was demoralised, and you should be too.  

Think of all the manpower (admittedly limited manpower) that must have gone into writing all those documents – all those strategies and instructions – and building all those baroque online systems. Think of the time that is wasted, above all, by artists, who must jump through all the patronising hoops held out by the bureaucrats. Sometimes artists need to be patronised – but not in that sense. 

In the end, my perusal of the Arts Council website only served to increase my scepticism about the very idea of government-funded arts, with the exception perhaps of major national museums and art galleries. The Arts Council is funded principally by compulsory taxation; the idea is that only benevolent government intervention will ensure that everyone in society has ‘access’ to the arts, hence the Arts Council’s obsession with ‘Impact’, ‘Engagement’, ‘Participation’, and so on. But in reality, the beneficiaries of the Arts Council’s funding tend to be artists who are sufficiently educated to be able to cope with the rigours of the application process. And despite all the chunkily expressed grandiosity about helping ‘everyone’ get involved in the Arts, in reality the people who engage with the kinds of projects funded by the Arts Council tend to be middle class types who would rather go to a cliquey art event than, say, watch a TV show, film or sports game.

The travesty, of course, is that many of the people who fund the Arts Council are low-income taxpayers. In effect, the government takes their money and gives it to government-worshipping artists, who crow bogusly about how ‘inclusive’ and ‘Impactful’ their art is. Moreover, people who buy National Lottery tickets tend to be among the least educated members of society; it isn’t called the ‘Stupid Tax’ for nothing. Whether through compulsory taxation or the National Lottery, the Arts Council exercises its largesse by way of a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. And the beneficiaries of that transfer tend to be, above all, the talentless folk, whether ‘artists’ or bureaucrats, who feel at home in an ecosystem of ostentatious abstraction and phoney benevolence, of social prowess masquerading as compassion. 

‘Collectively’, says the Arts Council website, ‘we can tell a powerful story about the value of public investment in arts and culture’. A powerful story! What better way of describing the history of statist collectivism: the exercise of power based on a fiction. State planning doesn’t create great art. If it did, the Arts Council’s seventy year history of increasing spending would have brought forth an artistic golden era rather than the arts ‘crisis’ which you often hear talked about today. Or, to put the point another way: Shakespeare, Monet and Bob Dylan didn’t fiddle around with online application systems so as to acquire government funding. No, these true artists were out there finding and making opportunities in the real world, a world in which the resources of the economy hadn’t been corralled by the state, not to today’s extent; in Britain the government accounts for almost 50% of national spending, and in the US the figure is around 42%. 

Great art flourishes amid great freedom. The same goes for most of the ‘results’ a civilised society should strive to achieve, including the flourishing of the poor.    

I’d like to see most of the Arts Council’s money left in taxpayers’ pockets. Indeed, I’d like to see much of the apparatus of the state wither away, leaving fertile soil upon which genuine communities will form, whose members, in inspiring and consoling each other in an authentic way, will enjoy art – creating, patronising and consuming it – without the government’s say-so.  


Ben Irvine was born in Albury, Australia, in 1979, and grew up in East London. He studied Natural Sciences (BSc) and Philosophy (MA) at the University of Durham, then moved to Cambridge University, where he completed his PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science, in 2008.

In his work as a writer, entrepreneur and campaigner, Ben uses insights from a range of academic disciplines – including evolutionary psychology, biology, sociology, history and economics – to promote the concept of wellbeing to a wider public.

Describing himself as a ‘recovered philosophical hypochondriac’, Ben seeks to reorient philosophy (and humanities disciplines influenced by philosophy) away from traditional theorising and towards solving problems in living, whether concerning individuals or groups.

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