Theatre in Wales

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Governance, Nation & State: A Right Tangle

Summing It Up

More Clarity Would Help , the Arts of Wales , August 1, 2020
Summing It Up by More Clarity Would Help Words, deeds. They are not the same. It is the latter which matter mainly; only writers get to be judged by their words. Public language is judged by the acts that it engenders. In this terrible time the public rating of the First Minister of Scotland has soared to the same extent that the polling of approval in the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has dropped.

The reasons that people give are twofold. The first is consistency. On every day for months- bar two- the Scots' leader has appeared to deliver her government's latest assessment. The second, and greater, factor is the clarity, the choice of words and the emphatic quality of the tone. The language is authoritative and clear. The actions that the citizenry of Scotland go on to perform are reflection of that clarity.

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The first quality for readers is clarity.

It is a commonplace to say that Wales is deficient in its own media. The recession has weakened the UK groups with titles in Wales. Delyth Jewell in the Senedd put it bluntly: “a serious weakness of our media. Last week newspapers that were being sold in Wales had a front-page advert, paid for by the UK Government with the ‘stay alert’ message that did not apply to Wales”.

The Welsh state puts cash into a range of media. Most have their good aspects but they have not developed voices of stature to command the intellectual life and the public arena.

It is not usual that political voices express a view on culture. Darren Millar was a rare voice when he wrote for Gwydir on 24th July “Why do we actually need Literature Wales?” He continued with “What value does the Design Commission for Wales actually bring? Why is the taxpayer funding the Wales Union Learning Fund?”

He ends with “These are hard questions not just because they are challenging but because they have never been asked before.” That is true. Questions are rarely asked. My own article, below 12th March, suggested opposition to the notion that questions be asked at all. That is to misunderstand the necessity of variation within a political ecology. The heart of a political entity, if it is to thrive, is enquiry. Its thriving is homeostatic, depending on a fearlessness to address challenge.

The status of arts funding in the United Kingdom was set up 75-plus years ago. It has had its history, its higher points and its lesser. Jennie Lee's ministerial tenure is generally rated as a high point. Her Chair was a man of qualities. Arnold Goodman declared the role of the government.

“If the Arts Council operates as it should, it has no need of ministerial control and no means of conforming to it...The Minister's function is to provide the money, to seek to procure the greatest amount possible and, in discussion with the chairman, to learn of the intended policy and if necessary to express his views. But his views can have no greater cogency than any member of the Council and probably less since they are not aired at the relevant moment of discussion.

...A large independent body of people who rate him as a useful animal for finding money, respect him if he finds it in greater abundance than hitherto, but have no real use for his views on artistic matters, since they have a duty to base their views on the best professional and public opinions that obtain. The Minister's tiny circle of advisers can show no such expertise...The Minister should exercise only the restricted functions that an autonomous Council assigns to him.”

The role of the Chair is to fob off power, a task made the more important when Ministers spout nonsense. Thus, on 3rd March 2017, government voiced a view that the Arts Council should look to “the creation of an A55 cultural corridor with the aim of making this one of Europe's major cultural routes.” It is a statement somewhere between the weird and the unworldly.

The Arts Council’s aims are set out in its Royal Charter:

“to develop and improve the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts;
to increase the accessibility of the arts to the public in Wales;
to advise and co-operate with the Welsh Government and relevant bodies;
and to carry out the objects through the medium of both the English and Welsh languages.”

I do not know what “co-ooperate” means. Public art is not there for private benefit, to suit the fancy of individuals, particularly those of privilege and high rank. If a Minister happens to dislike something does the “co-operation” means it does not get to happen. There has not been a public row about an item of performance since 2004. This is not an indicator of a culture in full vigour.

Words and acts; not the same thing. But the way that institutions speak about themselves are revealing. Culture is never so powerful as when it acts invisibly. So the public arena of Wales is in receipt of a Letter of Remit that defines the relationship with our Arts Council. It runs to 1474 words and over its length comprises oddities, misunderstandings and evasions.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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