Don’t take government money, says Jan

There’s an ongoing debate as to the role of public money in the creation of art. Some say it’s essential and a natural continuation of the patronage system of days gone by while others question the strings attached to taking money from vested interests, especially when the government is involved.

Artist Jan Bowman is in the latter camp and has written an impassioned article on why artists shouldn’t accept state funding on Spiked.

Artists have always had to work around their patrons’ whims and political agendas. However, New Labour’s social agenda is more intrusive than the most autocratic client could ever be.


Were we living in a society where the arts were under attack and artists starved in garrets, there might be a case for artists to claw as much as they can out of the state. Today, there is no justification for it financially; even less from the viewpoint of artistic survival.

A comparison between the work of designers and artists is useful here. A designer only gets state support because the fundamental value of their work can be judged objectively. With fine artists this is impossible, since art deals with individual feelings and emotions and its direct value is unquantifiable. The state can only judge artists’ work in terms of how it fits in with government agendas. This is like trying to measure how blue something is with a ruler.

The result is a burgeoning fellowship of ‘artists’ and ‘arts practitioners’ who owe their careers entirely to the state and who survive by ticking the right boxes in return for accommodating to the government’s propaganda requirements. For all Tessa Jowell’s fine words about the unique, transcendent value of art, New Labour will accept an awful lot of rubbish from artists so long as the results send the right ‘message’ about smoking, drinking, child abuse, internet porn, recycling, or any other current government obsession – even better if the process involves sufficient members of the public, from nursery upwards.

I’m not sure where I stand on this, and admittedly as someone who isn’t a working artist my opinion isn’t all that relavent. On the one hand I think it’s useful to have a financially secure environment for artists to work in – doing compromised work is better than doing no work at all – but on the other hand most of the great artists I admire don’t work for the government. They’re too independent in vision for that.

With Jan’s thoughts in mind this piece on Digital Central was amusing.

Culture West Midlands are holding a symposium to address the lack of attention cultural agencies and organisations have given to the issue of climate change.

I’m sure the people involved with Culture West Midlands have everyone’s best interests at heart but there’s certainly something prescriptive about that sentence. Hmm.


  1. Dave

    Valid point, but is subjectivity to commercial interests instead a genuinely independent alternative? There has never been model for sustaining artists within Capitalism which has been genuinely free from ideological subjectivity of some kind.

  2. True, but I didn’t say it was. I said on the Spiked piece:
    “…Artists have always had to work around their patrons’ whims and political agendas. However, New Labour’s social agenda is more intrusive than the most autocratic client could ever be. In the twenty-first century, the British state has unprecedented power to intrude into our personal lives, and does so in subtle and pervasive ways. We have anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) – allowing people to be locked-up for non-criminal behaviour; the ubiquity of closed-circuit television (CCTV), which seems to be omnipresent ‘for our safety’; smoking bans; lunchbox inspections; police checks on all adults working with children; mentoring programmes for prospective parents; and jail terms for saying the wrong thing in public – all in the name of ‘supporting the community’…”

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