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!