Tuesday 8 June 2010

On Arts Subsidy, the Beatles and Brian Eno's 'Scenius'.

A few months back, I was reading Jonathan Holmes' article 'Why We Must Fund the Arts' (Guardian, 27/2/10) and the online comments. Many of these were predictable anti-subsidy rants, deploying the classic Daily Mail argument - 'I-don't-like-it-therefore-it-shouldn't-exist' - and a curious preoccupation with Tracy Emin's Bed - a work produced, by the way, entirely without government aid.

One comment, a bit more interesting, came from a poster who called him/herself 'liveanddangerous' and read, in its entirety: 'The Beatles never received an Arts Council Grant. Why should anyone else?'

It's a worthwhile question, because it highlights a problem in the whole way we talk about great achievers in the arts and, by implication, in any other field.

The achievement of the Beatles lay in their fusion of diverse, almost contradictory influences - American rhythm and blues, skiffle-inflected folk and country, music hall, Lennon's art-school surrealism - into something entirely original. Once they settled in London, their tastes got, if anything, even more eclectic - Ian MacDonald's brilliant Revolution in the Head chronicles their visits to theatres, galleries, classical concerts, alternative bookshops, all of them, ultimately, informing the work.

Surprisingly, it was Paul McCartney, rather than the more obviously intellectual Lennon, who was the band's real explorer of the avant garde. MacDonald, describing the genesis of 'Paperback Writer' in the Indica bookshop, makes the connection explicit:

'English culture of the period benefited immensely from the patronage of Jenny Lee, Harold Wilson's Minister for the Arts. Under her direction, theatres, concert halls, galleries and libraries received vital funding while the Arts Council, chaired by Lord Goodman, gained new grant-giving powers and expanded financial resources. In this atmosphere, creativity flourished in every walk of cultural life.' (Revolution in the Head, p.174)

There's a broader point here - we tend to consume (and study) art through a number of Great Men (mostly) and their Masterpieces - a Hamlet, a Citizen Kane, a Sergeant Pepper - and to ignore the soil in which they grew. Brian Eno has a useful concept here - 'scenius', which he defines as 'the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene' (A Year With Swollen Appendices, p.354), as opposed to the individual 'genius', and gives a few examples of particularly productive ones - Russia 1905-1915, the Dadists in France, the punk era in London.

To create a strong scenius, you need a few things - communication and co-operation, a receptive audience, committed critics, and, yes, enough money (from whatever source) to ensure that the financially unsuccessful - who might be the most creative - aren't forced out.

Did the Beatles ever receive an Arts Council grant? Not directly, no, though they played in venues that did, and recorded sessions for the BBC. Was their work enhanced by contact with people who did? Unquestionably.

P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel I should mention that I have myself been the recipient of arts subsidy. In 1987, I got £500 to tour The Tempest round parks and other open-air venues in Norfolk. Just making it clear.


  1. Hi David, congratulations on starting the blog, and with a nice contentious topic too! I find myself torn on the subsidy issue; I think artists make art for the people who pay them, whether that's patrons or the Arts Council, so even if the Arts Council thinks it is simply enabling art I don't think it is, it's shaping it too and if you read your Bourdieu it's hard to argue against the view that subsidy is how the ruling classes promote the arts which present their privileged position as the norm.

    I'm not arguing that subsidised artists shouldn't be supported but the influence of subsidy needs to be considered; which art forms get it and why (ballet, opera, speech-based theatre and gallery art do, novels, films, popular music and musical theatre don't), which artists within those art forms get it and how they modify their work to ensure the subsidy keeps coming.

  2. How to reconcile Eno and Bourdieu? Having been a long term advocate of both its a tricky one, I'll grant you...(sic)

    PS I must contest the earlier PS disclosure and disclose I was also the recipient of that Norfolk investment.

    There, I think that does it

  3. Arts Council insiders privately agree it was the best £500 they ever spent.