Publically funded and independent arts: an essential aspect of a genuine democracy

The 2013 festival is almost over and I haven’t seen any dance this year at all. The programme is full of diversity, interdisciplinarity, multiculturalism and fruitful collaboration; it is so rich with diversity and delectable temptations it would be easy to cancel everything in my diary for three weeks and dedicate myself entirely to the festival. I had to make choices and difficult ones too.

In many respects, the work I have seen is also about making choices, in life as much as during the creative process. I set out to investigate the ways that the arts are responding to our present-day predicament by developing forms that would be suitable to treat such overarching themes and overwhelming crises. While everything around us seems to be stagnating, will the arts stagnate too?

If the work on offer at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts is anything to go by, the arts are definitely alive and positively kicking all around the globe. Talking to the artists involved, I often heard them speak about the search for forms to fit the content, rather than the other way round. For our societies in transition to new ways of living, the arts will play an imaginative role in exploring the potential trajectories and possible futures.

And this is why we must have public funding for the arts. They must remain independent from the pressures of big business that already beset the commercialised mass media. But they must also remain independent from government meddling too.

It was no accident that the wealth of British political theatre that existed in the UK prior to the introduction of Thatcherite policies suddenly started to disappear. In the early ‘80s there were boisterously bolshie and entertaining companies working in the spirit of John McGrath and Joan Littlewood: 7:84, Red Ladder, Belt and Braces Roadshow, Joint Stock, to mention but a few.

They were killed off because they contradicted the free-market capitalism Thatcher intended to introduce into Britain. She had them assassinated and it became obvious that the ‘arms-length policy’ of the English Arts Council was, and still is, an illusion masking a political bias and a government agenda (see my article Tony and the Arts’ Council).

The performing arts, publically funded and independent, are an essential aspect of any genuine democracy. They provide the space where the imagination can be liberated from the hum-drum concerns of daily life to inspire creative thought, social discourses or simply to inspire. In these times of austerity and steadily encroaching fear, don’t we all dream of a better world?

The piece of music theatre directed by Kris Verdonck in the Kaaitheater as part of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts makes this point, both implicitly and explicitly. Engaged theatre is not dead, it just has a brand new wardrobe.