Let's abolish the Arts Council


Let's abolish the Arts Council. There's something repugnant about a state agency that dishes out taxpayers' money for arts projects. It somehow makes me think of the appalling art that was condoned and encouraged by the governments of Soviet Russia, or Nazi Germany, or Maoist China (the image of 'Revolutionary Ballet', danced with rifles and machine guns, will stay with me for the rest of my days). Give the government a monopoly or near-monopoly of arts funding, and you're going to get art that appeals to bureaucrats. It might be really dull, or really 'challenging', but it will be the bureaucrats' choice, not the public's choice.

It's no surprise that art, literature, music, architecture as well as science and technology have flourished in capitalist societies rather than in socialist ones. Capitalist societies have had the wealth to look beyond subsistence to art and culture. They have given people the freedom to explore new approaches in the arts and sciences too. Even Russia's greatest buildings, and its greatest music, were created for private families and firms, not for soviet planning boards.

The freedom that is allowed in capitalist societies produces the freedom and elbow room that artists need. If your arts are funded and dominated by the state, you have only one place to go for support and sponsorship. If the officials like what you do and your face fits, you might get support. If not, you won't. In the capitalist society it is quite different. There are no end of people around with crazy ideas about art just like you, and wealth enough to back them. If you want to try out your ideas, all you have to do is to find one or two of those people, and you are in business. While the state system is exclusive, the capitalist system lets diversity flourish.

Of course, if we closed down the Arts Council – actually, I think it's more a matter of when – people say that there would be a funding gap, that private philanthropy would be insufficient to step into the breach, and that the nation's production of good art would fall.

In the first place, this begs the question of what the optimum quantity of arts production is, of course. Perhaps, with less public subsidy, production would fall, but perhaps the loss would bother nobody except a few artists. I do not know. The state can no more identify and plan the right quantity of painting or theatre or sculpture than it can identify and plan how many 50mm brass screws the nation needs. That is why we leave these things to the free market to deliver.

But even if we accept that the nation does indeed need and want greater output from the arts sectors, how best to encourage philanthropy to bring that on? Here I think we need reform of the charitable sector. Gordon Brown's gift aid was a revolution in charitable funding: no longer did they have to get subscribers to fill out complicated covenant forms before they could get tax relief. One simple form was perfectly sufficient. But the United States does it better, by making the tax benefit automatic, and giving it to the donor. The result is that people in all walks of life give willingly, and give much more, to charitable causes. They somehow think that they are cheating the tax collectors out of some money if they do. As a motivator for arts funding, I can think of none better.