If we’re going to fund the arts, I’d rather give a tenner to Dappy than Debussy

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“Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive” – Moliere  (French playwright and actor, 1622 – 1673)

We’re told, almost constantly, that we’ve got a deficit problem. A debt problem. That there’s no money left. You would think in these austere times we would be keeping a tight grip on public finances, and spending only where and when necessary. The topic of this issue of Canvas is the arts, and the purpose of this article is not to say that the arts should be funded by the state – I’m sure another article will cover this, but if not, have a Google or walk into nearly any politics seminar on political theory. The arguments are tired, stale and show no sign of moving forward.

Let us accept the fact that the arts will continue to be funded by the state, and the question we need to explore becomes different. How should we allocate funds amongst competing interests? One answer is as clear as it is controversial: we need to scrap funding for opera and redirect it to other forms of arts, specifically types which would be up for a chance of winning the MOBOs. There are multiple reasons for this, but two will be explored here; elitism and impact.

Covering this topic makes me reminisce of second year seminars, discussing the work of John Stuart Mill, and more specifically his distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Explaining this distinction to the group, our seminar tutor claimed that opera would be considered a higher pleasure whilst N-Dubz would be very much considered a lower pleasure, if a pleasure at all.

I don’t hold this against Mill – he never had the honour of listening to such great pieces of art as ‘Shoulda Put Something On’, a powerful piece that explores ideas of sexuality, responsibility and the sense of frustration both genders feel over the choice of abortion, ‘Girls’, a track that addresses how males in hugely misogynistic sub-cultures are unequipped to develop feelings of respect towards powerful women, resulting in insecurity, or ‘Sex’, a frank discussion of the politics of a post-monogamous understanding of sexual relationships.

No, the fault here was that my seminar tutor felt comfortable enough to declare that one form of art was more important than another, that opera was intrinsically better than the work of Dappy, Tulisa, and Fazer. Why? There seems to be nothing more to this than mere opinion, or, if I was being less kind in my judgement, an elitist approach to the arts that seeks to marginalise the voice of artists from the ‘slum’. It is this elitism – or snobbery – that has resulted in the poor allocation of funding of the arts.

The Royal Opera House (in London, quelle surprise) alone received £26.3m in the 2011/12 financial year from the Arts Council, and is set to receive another £10m on top of that. That’s £36.3m given to a single opera house, and is a perverse waste of money on a form of art that simply does not resonate with normal people – one does not have to look far to see demand for N-Dubz’s last arena tour significantly outstripped the Royal Opera House’s Tosca – and yet we fund the latter over the former. This essentially represents a transfer of taxpayers’ money from the poor to the upper-middle class and the rich, and in 21st century Britain this is perverse. Even the Royal Opera House’s own claims of using public money to widen inclusion in the arts ring hollow; they boast that in 2008-9 over half of the 700,000 tickets they sold were priced at less than £50. How many working class families can afford a jolly to London, and then the cost of a £49.99 ticket? This allocation is indeed elitist and half-hearted. The money does not make a significant enough difference to the opening of opera, and so should be spent in areas where it would be more effectively used.

Indeed, the fact money is spent on opera is doubly wrong; not just because it is the preserve of the rich, but also because it has no long term benefit for society. As playwright David Edgar writes in The Guardian, “almost all the documented social benefits of the arts have been achieved not by people attending plays and concerts but by those who participate in them.” As nice as it may be for the cultural elite to enjoy a bit of Nessun Dorma, the wider benefits to society are almost non-existent. However, according to a National Endowment for the Arts report in 2012, youths from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who are involved in the arts enjoy better academic outcomes, have higher aspirations and are more civically engaged. It would be almost cruel to deny these youths (and indeed other troublesome sections of society) the benefits of arts outreach programmes, whilst we continue to fund bodies such as the Royal Opera House. The £36m would be much better spent on grassroots groups that allow youths to express themselves in the raw and passionate manner that N-Dubz are famous for.

The arts can provide a sense of identity, a recognition of one’s culture, and a way to come together to explore ideas and histories that shape our heritage. The arts can be a powerful tool for developing key skills and giving value to lives that are so often written off. But to make this happen, we need to shift this money from the rich to the poor, the comfortable to the needy, and from the opera halls to the slums, because not every child from problem areas are lucky enough to have their own Uncle B, and escape a near pre-destined future Against All Odds.

Article by David Jeffery. Edited by Joe Austin.

  • James

    Opera needs funding more than NDubz. As you point out, NDubz sold out an arena tour, and hardly need money from the state. What’s more, I’d like to see a comparison of the cost of production. For NDubz all you need is a working soundsystem, a few sound engineers, lighting people, etc. For an opera, you need to pay an entire orchestra full of specialist, world class musicians and actors, as well as all the behind the scenes staff. All this can’t be covered by a few thousand people paying ~£50. By its very nature ‘urban’ music is cheap to produce, and so is less in need of subsidisation. You imply that only the ‘cultural elite’ can enjoy Nessun Dorma (bit patronising?) but also you are guilty of reverse snobbery, by claiming that opera is less important because only rich people like it (a generalisation which isn’t backed up with any facts).

    • http://www.chairmandavey.wordpress.com David

      Hi James, thanks for commenting.

      Opera as an art form has no inherent right to continue if it is unprofitable. As I mentioned in my article, the power of the arts is felt when it involves people, which a traditional trip to a subsidised opera performance does not provide. My implicit point is that if the state spends money, there should be an aim to spread the social benefits as wide as possible. That is currently not the case with opera spending, and increasing subsidies to bring down prices further wouldn’t change the fact visiting an opera has no real wider social benefit.

      As you say, urban music is cheaper to produce, and I would hazard a guess it is more popular with people who would benefit the most from the benefits from arts involvement listed in the article. So shifting funds from opera to urban music workshops etc. would be doubly beneficial, actually targeting those who would benefit from that help, and delivering more help per pound.

  • James

    Honestly, I’d prefer it that the state funded far less ‘art’ than it does at the moment. Given that, as you say, it seems likely this will never happen, it is probably better to fund more ‘elitist’ arts. As people are going to see whatever the hell N-Dubz is, and pay for it out of their own pocket, the state might as well support those arts that could die out completely. A comparison could be made with the BBC and Channel 5. The Beeb, as a state funded broadcaster, should broadcast more ‘highbrow’ programs, as these have less of a market share and thus would not be broadcast by the likes of Channel 5, which cater to the absolute lowest common denominator.

    • http://www.chairmandavey.wordpress.com David

      Despite the risk of drawing this debate out a bit, I’d like to point out that my argument wasn’t to fund N-Dubz (they do fine as it is at the moment), but for money allocated to the ‘arts’ to be spent on community projects involving projects similar to what N-Dubz produce, because;

      *this is how we get a wide social benefit from the arts, unlike funding tickets to the opera
      *it is these people who would benefit most from the power of the arts (i.e. it is more relevant).

      However, if there were grass roots opera programmes that delivered the same (or near the same) benefit and relevance then I would be all for that.

      Ps. If you’ve not considered it, ‘like’ Canvas on Facebook and perhaps write something for the journal? The next issue is on the Middle East if that tickles your fancy.