Culturally, it seems to have been a long and winding road of a summer doesn’t it? Summer began with the anti-climactic Queen’s diamond jubilee, with its pathetic fallacy weather and ostentatious showcasing of unearned wealth, privilege and influence. Unsurprisingly, it conspicuously failed to “unite the nation” in patriotic fervour or even great affection for the institution of monarchy. Instead it was the Olympics, that hugely expensive mega-event with its enormous “site of exception” to the normal laws of the land, that created a mood of goodwill and harmony that I have never before experienced in the country.
Maybe it is more accurate to say that it was the evidence of the UK doing well – exceptionally well – in the Olympics that made the difference. That turned us at least temporarily from being a gradgrind nation that counts the cost of everything, and a shallow stupid nation that overly celebrates vacuous celebrity, to one that suddenly remembered that the human spirit allows us to be better. Equally, I think it was the opportunity to show-off internationally, and to be acknowledged and validated internationally, that temporarily halted the endless inward-looking nitpicking we habitually engage in.
From the quality of the opening ceremony to the tolerance of a disappointing closing ceremony, the UK took a break from rhetorically tearing itself apart (even as the divisive policies continued to be implemented). For me, David Aaronovitch’s tweet about the opening ceremony captures it best: “Parts of this are so close to what I hope our country is like.” Even I, barely a patriot with no interest in sports, felt the emotion as another ecstatic British athlete won another gold medal, even as I cringed at the lyrics of our national anthem.
There appeared to be tacit agreement for a 17 day moratorium on the reporting of crime, war and bonkers politics and instead a concentration on promoting the UK as a country of world-class champions. Was it just me who noticed what a difference that made? It was a welcome and rare relief, but let us never doubt the power and influence of our national media, and let us always keep it independent and free.
But it is also hard to escape the knowledge that London 2012 and the Cultural Olympiad are our last hurrah for quite a while. Summer is well and truly over and autumn is well entrenched. Talking to colleagues in the cultural public sector, it is clear that morale is low. We are six months into the first year of stringent public sector cuts, and they have bitten hard into the operations and delivery of our arts sector (amongst many other worthy sectors) as The Guardian reports. Organisations have closed, significant redundancies have been made and programmes have been cut back, noticeably. The days of high profile flagship arts projects have long gone, along with large-scale expensive public realm works that are likely to now seem ostentatious and no longer socially, politically or economically acceptable. Jeremy Hunt may have commissioned a report into the feasibility of some kind of continued large-scale arts festival, but it is hard to see how this could credibly argue a case to do so.
The signs are that more cuts are on their way. Not only are we not through the worst, I don’t think we have reached the bottom of managed decline for the many, and sustained budgets for the flagship arts organisations. We have a new Minister at DCMS – itself considered under threat – and a new Chair-apparent of ACE. How consequential is each appointment in terms of specific personalities? In the short-term at least, both roles are significantly constrained by their political and economic context. Both are presumably tasked to finish the job their predecessors started. Maria Miller hasn’t had enough time in post at the DCMS to reveal any personal agenda. She holds the future of ACE in her hands, but the arguments for its abolition are now less strong given its increased responsibilities and the lack of a credible alternative mechanism. 80 jobs are expected to go in her department, reducing staff numbers to 330 by summer 2012, but this is a figure less than previously expected.
A political appointment, Peter Bazalgette is an influential personality, but must be presumed aligned to Tory policy. His background in TV suggests a greater emphasis on creative industries and digital over traditional artforms, as well as more connectivity. Will he champion the Arts Council and if he does, will he be listened to, and to what extent? We need to wait and see.
In the summer, there was much praise for the impact of increased Lottery spending on UK athletes’ sporting achievement. I was reminded what a mistake it was that John Major’s government allowed the lottery administration to go to a private sector profit-making company. Imagine the transformation of Goivernment finances, subsequently and now, if the Lottery had been kept in-house, with all that phenomenal profit providing additional income to the Government of the day.
Summer now seems quite distant, and it seems we are heading for a Narnian winter, one that will last at least until the next election, two and a half years away. For many delivering vital services in the public sector, cultural or otherwise, surviving till then may be the best they can do.
Review of Whitstable Biennial for New Statesman
Liverpool Biennial: Big, Ambitious and of the City for a-n artsnews
David Blandy’s Digital Odysseys for a-n artsnews