An Alternative History of the Arts Council

Richard Witts

Warner Books, London, 1998.

The refreshing feeling that a musician can derive from putting this mutant body on the dissecting board is enough to make it worth ploughing through a 400-page study (or 500-page, according to a Guardian review quoted on the back cover).

The great detail is spiced with grotesque anecdotes featuring the leading lights of arts bureaucracy since Maynard Keynes and the revolting founder of Glyndebourne Opera, John Christie, a crony of the pro-Hitler Appeasers in the 1930s.

The ancestor of the Arts Council, in 1940, was the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, mercifully but vulnerably acronymed as CEMA, and hence widely known as "Classical Earache, Mostly Awful" or "Couldn't Entertain My Arse".

The huge amount of behind-the-scenes insights includes the inglorious saga of the battling symphony orchestras of London, the tribulations of repertory theatre and the bearded gods of luvviedom, Hall and Nunn, and the toffs' favourite financial black hole, Covent Garden Opera.

Here we find Rees-Mogg, known to some as Chairman Mogadon, gaining that post apparently as a result of a bright idea by Tory minister Paul Channon's 12-year-old son.

Witts rightly complains of the dismal vocabulary of commerce imposing itself on the arts:

"unwise words such as 'innovation' and 'cultural industry', which are there to make businessfolk more approving of arts management as a profession."

Of Culture minister Chris Smith, he observes that,

"he has taken up an interest in haute couture, rock music and computer software manufacture, none of which need his cash nor his solicitude - though maybe he needs theirs."

There is a fine side-swipe at a familiar target:

"a contraption called the Millenium Commission which was really a relic of the rejoicerism of the eighties, whereby for some obscure reason a multi-ethnic, secular society was urged to celebrate the supposed 2000th birthday of Jesus by spinning in a ferris wheel on the South Bank or plodding round a reconditioned rubbish tip in Greenwich."

Such sentiments chime well with our own Dome poem.

The Council is yet again undergoing a shake-up. Witts has a radical proposal:

"[it] should be led by characters with genuine, enduring arts experience. The Chairman should be drawn from the performing arts."

We'll be lucky.



Paul Taylor 2001