Culture, Government, Society

A new booklet was published by Demos yesterday, entitled ‘Culture Shock‘. Sam Jones, its author, said that he wanted to call the book ‘Culture and Government’ but decided that the former, and preferred, title would have more of an impact on would-be readers, and he also felt that it reflected some of what the pamphlet had to say.

Its thesis, very briefly, is that our definition of culture  has altered dramatically since Government first started ‘doing’ Culture – public policy debate has shifted, and there have been wider and more fundamental cultural and technological changes to how we engage with, consume and practise culture.  The pamphlet argues, logically, that the way in which culture is dealt with in Government needs to change to reflect this.  He recommends a range of mechanisms for fostering cross-Government commitment to a new, much broader, concept of culture.

All very well. Except of course, Government has changed its approach fairly comprehensively over the last 15-20 years.

What was once called the Office of Arts and Libraries, in the Department for Education, is now a fully-fledged Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with a Cabinet position and a massively increased budget.   A Creative Industries Task Force was established in 1998 engaging ten different government departments, and a wide range of departments and public bodies have signed up to the cultural and/or creative agenda in one form or another – from Education, to Communities, Foreign Office to BIS;  from CABE to the Mayor’s Design London unit.  And local authorities and RDAs across the land are investing in and championing culture.

Or, at least, they were until quite recently.  This, it seems to me, is the real ‘shock’.

Amidst the “blitzkrieg” rhetoric regarding anticipated cuts to arts funding, very few – if any – of our senior cultural commentators are commenting on the threats to the indirect funding and support for the cultural sector which now pervades so much of Government activity.

How much has been spent on culture by RDAs over the last five years? What is the Coalition government’s policy on arts teaching within Free Schools? How are LEPs being encouraged to embrace culture and the creative industries?  Will the cuts to the BBC affect their arts broadcasting?  What impact will cuts to local government have on their ability to fund the arts?  What impact will the abolition of the UK Film Council have on film, video and media production?  What are the implications of the Design Council no longer being an NDPB?

It’s unlikely that any of the current campaigns to “save” or “value” the arts are asking these questions.   But Government policies and decisions on these issues could have a massive impact on a wide range of cultural activity.

It’s not that those campaigns aren’t important, or that ‘core’ funding through the DCMS and Arts Council, aren’t critical to the strength and sustainability of our cultural sector.

But, I find it strangely depressing – and in the light of the Demos report – that, despite the huge, hard-won, achievements which have been made in writing culture and creativity into the script of Government departments and agencies right across the public sector, that it’s the cultural sector itself – not Government – who seem unable to think beyond their own back-yards. It’s shocking, really.

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