Julian Gallant: Politics can support the arts without disturbing the artist

12 Feb

Jullian Gallent is a conductor, composer, pianist, impresario and Treasurer at Conservative Friends of The Arts (Instagram; Facebook).

I’ve been actively involved in Conservative campaigning since 2013, fought the 2019 GE as candidate for Ealing Central and Acton and am currently a Londonwide candidate for the GLA. My profession, though, is music and I’ve never quite understood the stranglehold the left has had on the arts, ever since “left” and “right” have been political concepts.

Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro was certainly considered subversive; the star of the opera is a servant, not a prince. Beethoven’s belief in The Rights of Man, which he grandly expressed by setting Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the Ninth Symphony, probably raised the aristocratic eyebrows of some of his patrons. But this is nothing compared to the outright socialism espoused in the 20th century by artists like Frida Kahlo, John Steinbeck and Ken Russell. It became the thing to be “left-wing” as if the right was too interested in money-making, moralising and nationalism to care about the true, humanist religion of art.

The arts are the product of a natural urge to create in the abstract and a hunger for more than we see lying around us. It is hard to imagine a world without art yet, as Oscar Wilde said in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is quite useless”. People die if they don’t eat, therefore food production is bankable. Illness must be treated, so doctors must be paid. The same for teachers, soldiers and lawyers. And politicians?

Music starts with a heartbeat, a voice and then other voices; rhythm, melody and harmony. Some of the world’s greatest paintings are the ancient ones on the walls of caves. Fine, but professional music, theatre, writing and painting must be rewarded if they are to thrive and this is always uncertain. The first commercial opera theatre opened in Venice in 1630, yet opera and capitalism have never happily coexisted. Handel in the 1720s famously had to seek regal patronage because the fees of Italian opera stars exceeded the entire box office take. I’ve experienced the same when putting on a world famous classical singer in a major London hall.

And don’t think you can just increase the ticket prices; that skews the image of the venue and they won’t have it. People will pay up but they won’t pay over the odds, even at the Royal Opera House. Stall tickets are eye-wateringly expensive for the big shows, yet other seats are sold at much lower prices. On the cost side, there can be over a thousand souls working on one operatic production, all quite rightly expecting a reasonable wage.

So there must be an extraneous financial input, which means some combination of donation, commercial sponsorship and state subsidy. In the USA state subsidies are negligible; donating is at once the main source of funding for big arts organisations and a measure of your social standing. In Germany and France state subsidy is the mainstay. In Britain, it’s a more even distribution of all three; the fundraising departments, known euphemistically as development offices, work overtime.

The gap between ticket income and cost creates opportunities for interference, especially in our big-state era. It’s pointless to cite a smooth transition from rich sponsors like Tchaikovsky’s Nadezhda von Meck (whom he famously never met) to state largesse. The rich patron wants to outlay on creating something beautiful, hence Paul Sacher’s commissioning of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste in 1936. The state wants something back, in the form of allegiance or national glorification or worse.

In the brave new world of the young USSR, artistic freedom and modernism was encouraged. By 1930 the picture was very different; professional writers, painters, actors and musicians had to join All-Soviet Unions. One of my heroes is the composer Nikolai Roslavets, who was published widely in the 1920s. By 1932 he had been forced into obscurity because an unpleasant and ideologically “sound” organisation called RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) thought his music was decadently complicated. He was accused of spying! Dmitri Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony from performance, aware of Stalin’s prudish criticism of his erotically charged opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The composer feared for his life.

All of that still happens, without the threat of the gulag of course. Artists are interfered with, because they do or don’t sign up to this or that ideology. And one of the worst of these ideologies is that public taste is vulgar and the enemy of true creativity. That wasn’t true for Beethoven or Debussy or Prokofiev, who were all big stars and marvellously original in their thinking. The state should carefully determine what needs support and then get out of the way, much easier said than done.

Politics has a constructive role to play, supporting artistic creativity without interfering with content, and there are some good things a-happening. Witness cross-party interest in establishing a 90-day touring visa for UK performing artists in Europe and vice-versa, which were debated in Parliament on February 8, 2021. That should transcend any post-Brexit blame game.

The APPG for Music, chaired by David Warburton, a former composer, has the largest membership of any such group. There’s another APPG for Music Education: one call I was on was attended by over 250 stakeholders nationwide. A £1.5 billion grant by this government, supporting arts organisations during the covid pandemic, puts the lie once and for all to the idea that true Tories are somehow closet Philistines.

I’m part of the recently-founded Conservative Friends of The Arts. We meet once a month to talk about the arts and to share short performances. One such was a recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnet No.18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) by Giles Watling, which sounded bizarrely wonderful over Zoom. I got the impression that day that Shakespeare had no idea at all where the line lay between high art and superb entertainment!

David Skelton and Sam Bowman: Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth should be replaced with a Commonwealth hero

6 Aug

David Skelton is author of ‘Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map’. Sam Bowman is Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

The latest piece of modern art hosted on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth left many people bewildered when it was unveiled last week.

Called ‘The End’, it is a large plastic sculpture of whipped cream with a cherry, a fly and a drone on it. Whatever it is supposed to mean, it is vapid and ugly. Given this is one of Britain’s most important public spaces, we can do better.

One way might be to install a permanent statue of one of the many black, Asian, and minority ethnic people who have made contributions to Britain throughout her history. In particular, the contribution of Empire and Commonwealth soldiers to the British war effort in the First and Second World Wars was immense, and has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves, such as with the Commonwealth Memorial Gates at Hyde Park Corner, put up in 2002.

At a time when existing statues have led to debate and division about the representation of ethnic minorities in public monuments, a statue of a Commonwealth war hero on the fourth plinth could be a fitting tribute to the millions of people who helped Britain to triumph in those struggles and a sign to all that they will never be forgotten.

One such hero is Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Khan, born in the late 19th Century, in what is now Pakistan, served as a machine-gunner during the First World War in the 129th Baluchis.

He was at the front-line as allied forces were desperately trying to protect the ports of Boulogne and Nieuwpoort from the advancing German forces. Both ports were crucial to the Allied war effort. At various points, the German advance looked relentless, with many of the defensive forces being pushed back and the Baluchis being outnumbered five to one. Khan’s machine gun team, though, along with one other, was able to continue the fight until eventually even they were overrun, with all the members of Khan’s team being killed.

Khan was able to play dead until the Germans had gone, when he made his way, badly wounded, back to the regiment. The heroism of Khan and his fellow Baluchis meant that the Germans were held off long enough for Allied reinforcements to arrive, and the ports were kept out of German hands.

His story is a remarkable one, but not as isolated one. In the First World War, some three million soldiers from across the Empire and Commonwealth became involved in the war effort, including 1.5 million from India, 600,000 Canadians, 400,000 Australians, 180,000 from East and West Africa, 100,000 Kiwis and 15,000 from the West Indies. Over five million Commonwealth troops were involved in the struggle against Nazism during World War Two. These were invaluable contributions in these conflicts.

A permanent commemoration of the valour and bravery of Commonwealth troops over the centuries would be a fitting use for the fourth plinth. This could be unifying, reminding people that those who want Nelson’s column to fall are a tiny minority, and that most Britons are proud of the contributions their ancestors have made to the country’s history. It would recognise the contributions of people who have hitherto been given less credit than they deserved.

All of this would be far more meaningful and inspiring than the art that has occupied the fourth plinth since the late 1990s (it had been empty until then). Recent occupants have included a large blue cockerel (“a feminist sculpture”, according to its creator) and ‘Really Good’, a giant bronze thumbs up, which the Guardian described as “a sly parody of the emptiness of public art”. The problem with art like this is that the rest of us have to look at it.

Trafalgar Square should be about commemorating the valour and bravery of British and Commonwealth troops and their contribution to great military victories, not ugly, shallow gimmicks. You might call this campaign “Whipped Cream Must Fall”, although the current occupant should still see out its normal term on the plinth…

But once that’s over, we could take that moment to recognise the sacrifices made by Commonwealth soldiers throughout Britain’s history, saying to them that they deserve pride of place in Britain’s most important celebration of its military past.

A statue of Khudadad Khan, or another hero like him, on the fourth plinth would be the perfect reminder of the sacrifices that so many troops from around the Commonwealth made for our freedom, and a chance to put up a new statue instead of tearing one down.