It is hardly a new phenomenon but once again, as part of its culture wars strategy, the UK government appears to have introduced a fresh, value for money interpretation of culture. More widely, the arts are finding themselves squeezed by ignorance on a number of fronts.
On one level, you might have thought that the current cabinet would be very supportive of our cultural heritage. After all, the Prime Minister is a journalist and reputedly the aspiring or actual author of a book about William Shakespeare. His culture minister also loves reminding us that she is a published novelist. Therefore, on the face of it, these are hardly Philistines, although their actions hardly support such a proposition.
Given that Nadine Dorries’s official title is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, it can be baffling to discover the extent to which she is ignorant of almost every aspect her brief. This minister has repeatedly made it clear that she has little or no respect for artistic excellence, except when it comes to her own novels. Nor has she any understanding of the commercial giant over which she presides.
Even worse, unlike her predecessor, the now under-employed Oliver Dowden, she doesn’t even have the intellect to look like a sports fanatic, though the only cheering she does manage is on behalf of her increasingly bereft leader.
While it might be acceptable for the man or woman in the street to struggle with the difference between rugby codes, the Minister responsible for sports should be severely embarrassed after claiming that she enjoyed the greatest moment in Rugby League history when Johnny Wilkinson kicked a winning drop goal in a Rugby Union World Cup.
It isn’t just the government either. Recently, a new contributor to the Today programme, who had better remain nameless, introduced a prerecorded interview with a man whom she identified as possibly the greatest living American composer, while repeatedly mispronouncing Steve Reich’s name.
This might seem nothing more than a minor embarrassment until you discover that the lady in question is that estimable polymath Will Gompertz’s successor as the BBC’s Culture Editor.
However, minor idiocies pale into insignificance when a more direct indication of the government’s direction of travel is made plain.
We have constantly been hearing about funding issues relating to the arts generally and more specifically in education, where funding for arts subjects was cut by 50% last year.
Even so, few could have expected that Sheffield Hallam University would withdraw its English Literature degree courses, with tacit encouragement from those running the country. More positively for the cultural sector, the university is spending some of the resulting savings on awarding an honorary degree to former Spice Girl Geri Horner (née Halliwell).
It appears that BJ and his acolytes would prefer students to study more practical subjects, since arts and humanities degrees do not necessarily lead to very highly paid jobs.
On the face of it, this might seem like a charitable gesture towards youngsters who could otherwise find themselves on the employment scrapheap after graduating. However, we cynics will inevitably suspect that something more sinister is going on.
Nowadays, the median average student is likely to leave university with something like £50,000 of debt. Much of that is owed to HM Government and will only be repaid if the graduates eventually get lucrative jobs.
Ironically, since so many who study arts and humanities degrees and up as schoolteachers, the fact that the teaching profession offers very low salaries to anyone that it can actually find to stay in a job enhances the problem.
Speaking their own language, the point that Boris Johnson, Nadine Dorries and others have completely missed is the money that which the arts, including theatre, bring to the UK in terms of exports and by drawing in tourists to our lovely country. Any cuts of this type might help the balance of payments in the short term but will harm the economy to a far greater extent in future.
Given that theatres and other arts organisations are spread relatively evenly across the country, supporting culture might represent a genuine opportunity for the government to put its money where its mouth is with regard to what currently seems like a mythical desire for “levelling up”. If we starve the arts of the next generation of creative superstars, the theatre, TV and the movie industry across the world will be the poorer, as well our economy.
Looking a little more tangentially, there is little doubt that the arts quietly protect and support the mental health and well-being of millions of people, which is of incalculable value.
To be fair, this threat to the arts can be viewed as part of a regular cycle during which successive Conservative governments have used austerity as a weapon against culture, while their Labour alternatives have typically been considerably more generous.
As sleaze threatens to reduce an 80-seat majority in parliament to little more than zero, at a time when the Prime Minister has a full-time job trying to defend his own reputation, perhaps the pendulum is about to swing the other way for our beleaguered sector?