The Arts Council meets Alain de Botton

October 21 2015

Video: ACE

Regular readers may remember Alain de Botton's starring role in a series of excellent 'Guffwatches' a while back, when he re-labelled pictures in the Rijksmuseum. Now he has been enlisted by the Arts Council here in the UK (that's the government funded body which supports and champions arts institutions and museums) to help 'make the case' for the arts ahead of the next Spending Review due in November.

The case for arts funding in the UK seems to swing endlessly between art's 'intrinsic' value (that is, art for art's sake) and its 'instrumental' value (that is, we fund the arts because it makes us healthier, cuts crime, that sort of thing). The problem with the latter is that it sounds great, but a) isn't really true, and b) even if it was true, it is impossible to prove to the satisfaction of Treasury beancounters. How do you show that because Joe Bloggs saw a Velasquez, he was less likely to rob a bank? 

De Botton has gone for the full 'instrumental' argument in the Arts Council's latest piece of arts lobbying:

The purpose of art isn’t always necessarily to help people to think for themselves. It might be to console or to enliven, to reopen eyes or rebalance character. But the underlying point is that the arts should be able to do something – however minor or diffuse – for you. And this is the point so often missed in our culture, which still clings mistakenly to an ‘art for art’s sake’ mantra – and refuses to accord to art the power it so patently possesses to guide and inform our lives.

I wonder how much taxpayer's money the Arts Council spent on this attempt to get more taxpayer's money. The video above is another curious example, and I'd love to know how much that cost. It's had just 567 views on You Tube since it was uploaded in December 2014.

It's a shame to see the Arts Council trumpeting the 'instrumental' approach to arts funding, because it was all the rage in the early 2000s, and most people (especially the Treasury) have moved on since then. We shouldn't be shy about supporting the arts because of their own intrinsic value. If we seek to find other ways to justify supporting the arts, with feel-good but spurious claims about health and crime, then by definition we concede that the arts are just a luxury, and can thus be cut. 

Update - the Grumpy Art Historian looks at the question in more depth here.

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