Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Matters of the Arts…

Stewert Steven reviews "Arts matters" by John Tusa

I have no doubt as to what is my book of the year. The author is John Tusa. The book is "Art Matters". It is described on the dust cover with a precision unusual in a publisher's blurb as "a series of passionately reasoned reflections on the current state of the arts in Britain." It is that but much, much more besides.

John Tusa who is Managing Director of the Barbican Centre in London does something that is both daring and admirable. He addresses the need for the arts because as he puts it they embrace, express and define the soul of civilisation. Not for him the arguments so many of us have felt forced to descend to in recent years - that the arts provide employment, or assist urban regeneration, or bring in vast income from tourism. For John Tusa the arts need to be supported because, well, as the title puts it so succinctly, arts matters.

And why? "Because they are universal; because they are non-material; because they deal with daily experience in a transforming way; because they question the way we look at the world; because they offer different explanations of that world; because they link us to our past and open the door to the future; because they work beyond and outside routine categories; because they take us out of ourselves; because they make order out of disorder and stir up the stagnant; because they offer a shared experience rather than an isolated one; because they encourage the imagination and attempt the pointless; because they offer beauty and confront us with the fact of ugliness; present a vision of integration rather than disintegration; because they force us to think about the difference between the good and the bad. the false and the true."

That, in my judgement, is magnificent stuff.

Tusa is at his most persuasive where he shows, I think conclusively, that when the arts takes on the language of business, something which has sometimes been forced upon it, it is bound to end up on the losing side. It is both the strength and the weakness of the arts that expressions like "value for money" or "performance indicators" and all the rest which make perfectly good sense in judging most activities, are singularly inappropriate to judging the artistic experience. A theatrical two-hander is probably always better "value for money" than a play with a cast of a dozen. In business terms, there's no contest. If you can charge the same price for seats who in his right mind would want to pay 12 salaries when he can get away with two? As Tusa says, down the years a lot of industries that have created a large number of jobs have gone under, so why should the arts be different? The answer to that is they quite simply are different and it is up to everyone involved to make that argument stick.

One of the problems is that the arts community itself has in recent years lost a lot of confidence in itself. operating as it has for so long in an environment in which words like "access" are regarded as more meritorious than words like "quality" this is maybe unsurprising but it is dangerous nevertheless.

It has led to highly respectable people in the arts finding it necessary to argue that all the boundaries between high and low art must come down. That horrible word "elitist" is never far away from any argument about the arts these days. .

But there is now and always has been a difference between what is entertainment and what is art. This is not to say that one cannot be entertained while taking part in the arts but what is undeniably true is that popular entertainment for it to work requires a quick-fix stream of stimuli which is the antithesis of the artistic experience. Art involves a huge range of responses, including ones that are challenging, and difficult. As Tusa puts it: "There are no cheap thrills in art, but there are real thrills. They come slowly, gradually, over years, and as a result of effort."

Is that elitist? In the sense that a comparatively small percentage of the population know enough to appreciate the finer points and that only a tiny number can ever possess the skills to permit them to be performers it undeniably is. But it's nonsense to believe this excludes. To say that David Beckham can do things with a football that others can only dream of doesn't denigrate the people who turn out every weekend kicking a ball about with various degrees of enthusiasm on the Hackney Marshes.

To claim that there is something called "high art" doesn't mean that we despise popular music or great Hollywood blockbusters or the like. Our lives would be incomparably poorer without popular culture. But we must always remember that real art literally takes us into new territory. Art is priceless. Art, says Tusa in a splendid phrase, is all the things that the rest of life is not. We need to learn a bit more how to protect and cherish it.

Buy yourself this book for Christmas and hand it out as presents to others. It is in my judgement an absolutely essential part of the kit of all those who think the arts are worth fighting for and, in 2001, intend to do something about it.

author:Stewert Steven, Chair, National Campaign for the Arts

original source: Arts News, The Magazine of the National Campaign for the Arts
01 December 2000


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