Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain

by Robert Hewison, Verso, £14.99 / $24.95 (softcover)

By J.J. Charlesworth

Sponsorship or censorship? Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is worse. But politicians and governments have always wanted to meddle in art and culture using one or the other. In Cultural Capital, Robert Hewison recounts the history of British cultural policy from 1997, when Tony Blair’s New Labour took office, to the Conservative– Liberal coalition’s realisation of the 2012 Olympics in London. It’s primarily the first 13 years of that timespan – during which New Labour presided over a ‘golden age’ of public spending on the arts – that figure here, though Hewison has had time enough to account for the coalition’s reactive, austerity-driven period of spending cuts and political drift.

Hewison is a scrupulous and accomplished historian, excavating the buried layers of thinktank reports, policy documents and other aptly named ‘grey literature’ to offer a lucid (and surprisingly entertaining) picture of how New Labour’s cultural policy was shaped inside Westminster’s corridors of power. Starting out with Blair’s opportunistic claiming of the mantle of ‘Cool Britannia’ and the hasty business of making the inherited project of the Millennium Dome happen, Cultural Capital then goes on to review, in close detail, the increasingly destructive consequences of New Labour’s obsession with instrumentalising cultural funding to meet its social policy objectives. ‘Creativity depends on taking risks; the corollary is that the risk-taker must be trusted to understand the risk being taken,’ Hewison sensibly argues, but as he shows, trusting artists and arts organisations was the last thing New Labour had on its mind. Instead, in exchange for its massively increased funding, it demanded that subsidised culture should set to work in the service of its goals of greater audience participation, education and inclusion, as if more access to the arts could somehow solve problems of social division and economic disadvantage.

This, mixed with New Labour’s borderline-delusional fascination with the idea of the ‘creative industries’ (as a way of talking itself out of the intractable problem of real economic decline), produced a policy mix that saw arts funding as part of a greater continuum in which culture is principally understood as a tool or vehicle – of economic activity, or social engineering – but not, however, something valuable in and for itself.

Cultural Capital is, if nothing else, a sobering primer on how not to do things for any trigger-happy would-be policymakers

Cultural Capital is, if nothing else, a sobering primer on how not to do things for any trigger-happy would-be policymakers; New Labour’s condescending attitude towards the public arts sector only managed to produce a toxic combination of centralisation, micromanagement and an obsession with collecting evidence to meet policy targets – the increased participation of the supposedly culturally disenfranchised – which stubbornly failed to materialise.

Yet there is a question as to whether or not Hewison is still secretly attached to the idea that subsidising culture can make society better – instrumentalism, but in a softer, less offensive guise. Hunting round for a benign model of state intervention, Hewison tends to exaggerate an overarching critique of ‘neoliberalist’ ideology at work, in which the state is seen as the servant of the market. Countering this, Hewison falls back on the old argument that ‘the role of government is not to occupy or dominate the public realm… but act as the guarantor of its integrity’.

But following on from his otherwise damning account of an administration’s constant meddling in the ‘public realm’ of noncommercial culture, it’s hard to see how this is not hopelessly nostalgic. New Labour’s experiment with cultural policy didn’t fail because of the endless shambles of petty politicking and departmental infighting that Hewison so assiduously relates; it failed because manipulating artistic activity to suit political ends – in principle – destroys culture’s only real worth – its freedom to act according to its own criteria of value, and not those of either the market or the state. And both New Labour’s and the current government’s incursions into civil liberties prove that government is not, and never was, a guarantor of any of those freedoms.

Still, Hewison is on the right track when he concludes that ‘public funding should be treated as a form of leadership, and defended… because of the possibilities of collective experience it offers, and because it sustains cultural resources and keeps them in the public realm’. But this begs the question of what ‘cultural resources’ are worth keeping in the public realm, by what criteria this should be decided and who gets to do the deciding. Questions, in a general election year, that are as pressing as ever… 

This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.