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Walking blindfold over the precipice

The title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, seems to sum up what is happening at British universities and in the wider world, as cuts in funding for the arts takes its toll.

Prominent cultural and academic figures have expressed their fears about the impact of government spending cuts on universities. “The challenges facing the country and the world cannot be addressed without the arts and humanities,” they say. “Subjects such as literature, philosophy and history teach students to look at the world from a different perspective, to challenge ideas and communicate effectively, to bring the flexibility and imagination that employers need and welcome.”

New Labour has different ideas, however, evidenced by the fact that £600 million cuts in university spending were announced by the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson. He wants much closer relationships between universities and business, switching resources from arts and humanities. For example, London’s art colleges have had a 35% cut in research resources because they are not deemed to contribute as much to the economy as, say, science subjects.

Luminaries who have joined the fray in The Observer include Geoffrey Crossick of London’s Goldsmiths College, the University of the Arts; Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery; Rick Trainor, principal, King's College London; Sir Nicholas Kenyon, managing director, the Barbican; Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery and other top university and arts leaders. Protests have begun. Students at the University of Sussex have launched weekly protests and a Facebook protest is active against cuts at King’s College, London.

There are other serious straws in the wind. The Northcott Theatre in Exeter has gone into administration and there is a major crisis at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. The ICA has played a pioneering role since its formation by in 1947 but is now struggling on an operating deficit of around £1m. The Arts Council is not committing itself to a bail-out. One third of the 78 full-time and 32 part-time jobs are expected to be slashed.

Although its predicament is not directly attributable to cuts, the ICA’s fundraising efforts have reflected the effects of the recession – and the turn away from cutting edge, experimental arts programming. The ICA’s crisis is symptomatic of how cuts and censorship go together. There have recently been significant programming shifts by top institutions like the National Gallery towards a much more artistically conservative direction. Meanwhile safe blockbusters are used to generate income with huge admission fees.

Perhaps the biggest shock has come in Canada, where the Winter Olympics have just closed. After spending untold millions on the Games, British Columbia is cutting public spending on the arts by 88%, to the shock and horror of its practitioners. One playwright, Mark Leiren-Young says: “That’s not belt-tightening – that’s premeditated murder by strangulation.”

Writer Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaiden’s Tale and Year of the Flood, has noted that hostility to the arts has a sinister subtext: censorship and “control over the story through the annihilation of the story tellers”.

The Observer letter writers appeal for arts and humanities spending by citing potential economic benefits for employers and the economy. This is walking blindfold over the precipice. If the arts can only be defended on a utilitarian basis, then we are truly doomed.

As Atwood argues, art and culture is part of human evolution itself. The question is what is education and the making of art for? Is it for society as a whole or is it only alright if it can contribute to corporate profits? New Labour’s has made its choice. We have to make ours.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
2 March 2010

Your Say

Fona says:

This is a depressing scenario. If it doesn't make a profit, or grow the economy, or is not business friendly then it's worthless. Culture and the arts are seen, in this utilitarian view, as merely decorative and not fundamentally necessary. The Culture section of the Manifesto on the other hand points out vividly how absolutely vital the arts are in every aspect of our lives. Art and science/technology should be complemantary not mutually exclusive.

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