Your excellent leader (Die Guardian-siening oor Klein Amal: die onsmaaklike waarheid vertel, 20 Oktober) is a timely reminder of the proper value of art in an era when irony seems to have expired with the appointment of culture secretaries such as Oliver Dowden and Nadine Dorries. In England, this apparent decline in how we see our culture has been accompanied by the slow erosion of integrity, over the past 35 jare, in an increasingly politically compromised Arts Council.
This trend began in 1985 under William Rees-Mogg’s chairmanship, when the Arts Council’s annual bid to the Treasury was published as a glossy “prospectus” at the time of Thatcher’s privatisation of public assets. It was entitled A Great British Success Story: An Invitation to the Nation to Invest in the Arts. The cover design consisted of ticket stubs for events, showing admission prices. No increase in annual grant resulted. It then took the centralising control-freakery of New Labour’s two culture ministry Tessas – Jowell and Blackstone – in 2001 to destroy the close relationships built up over decades with local government across England by sanctioning the Arts Council’s hostile takeover of the regional arts boards – the same boards that had taken on this role after the central body’s casual abandonment of regional arts events in 1956 and the inevitable ensuing bias towards metropolitan London.
Your editorial highlights both the beauty and brutality of art, whether in the form of objects, paintings, books or plays. I have been following “the walk” undertaken by the giant puppet Little Amal from the Turkey-Syria border to the UK, and am reminded of a novel by the author Peter Barry, also called The Walk, in which a young Ethiopian man is encouraged to walk from Heathrow to Trafalgar Square to raise money for famine relief in Africa, despite being weak with hunger. Both walks are for charity; both illustrate the axiom that seeing is believing; both were successful in their aim to raise money and awareness; and both sadly resulted in public loathing as well as empathy. Should life imitate art, or should art imitate life? I think the hatred of some people for beauty and good means that art must, as you argue, provide education as well as joy, otherwise that hatred will continue unchallenged.
Your editorial describes how the puppet of a young girl being walked from Turkey to the UK charmed but also disturbed audiences en route. It also refers to Lucy Kirkwood’s new short play, Maryland, as “a terrible thing to watch: a howl of pain and anger about violence against women”. Art acting as society’s conscience is what drove Ibsen to write: “My plays make people uncomfortable because when they see them they have to think … people want to be effortlessly entertained, not to be told unpleasant truths.” A script-in-hand performance at the Royal Court theatre and a puppet being carried overland from Turkey: one a reminder of the horror of violence against women, the other a chance to imagine a refugee child’s desperate journey across Europe. Both examples of what makes theatre so relevant and so important.
As a wise person once said: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”