Theatre Critic and Journalist

Column: On Cultural Capital

Column: On Cultural Capital

Published in The Stage, 11.12.2014

Every artistic director in the country should read Robert Hewison’s new book, Cultural Capital. Actually, why stop there? Anyone with a relationship to the subsidised sector should pick up a copy.

Hewison is a cultural historian and his book is ostensibly a record of cultural policy and arts funding from the New Labour landslide on.  Its subtitle, The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain, indicates the thrust of his argument.

It starts with the creative, cultural explosion of the 1990s – Britpop, the YBAs, In-Yer-Face theatre – harnessed into New Labour’s Cool Britannia movement. Extolling the arts as a force for social reform, the Blair government increased funding, but subsidy at a price. By introducing targets, New Labour turned culture into an industry.

In very simple terms, Hewison argues that the problem comes when social instrumentalism fades or even fails, leaving only economic instrumentalism, which justifies funding on the basis of financial ends. Subsidy becomes investment, and art is judged by its profit-margins. Cue the Coalition government.

It’s easy to lose sight of where we are and how we got here and Hewison reminds us how readily society and the arts have swallowed neoliberalism. Major subsidized theatres are programming commercially-minded works to balance the books or even break into the black. The next logical step is obvious: why subsidize a profitable organisation? In July, the Spectator wondered, “Isn’t it time we asked the National Theatre to support itself?”

Profit isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, of course, but it mustn’t be prioritised over artistic quality and important ideas.

It’s easily done. Indeed, even as a journalist, I’m guilty of it. For ages, I’ve used War Horse as a go-to example, shorthand for success and widely recognised as such. True, the numbers are staggering and the show – and, of course, its management and marketing – have made a lot of other things possible; the NT Shed was entirely funded by War Horse profits. It is, undoubtedly, a cultural phenomenon.

But that doesn’t make it great art, and for all its spectacle and craft, War Horse is unbelievably sentimental. If I think back to 2007 – the annual Trueman family Christmas outing – I remember rolling my eyes at its determination to tug heartstrings and target tearducts. Since then, box office success has been melded with artistic success in cultural dialogue around the show. It’s time to disentangle the two.

War Horse isn’t alone in that. Criticism has bowed to the language of marketing departments, offering up readymade marquee quotations like sacrifices given to the gods. A West End transfer is still taken as a mark of quality, and an ingrained top-down, box-office-based hierarchy remains largely unchallenged – all of which confuses economic value with cultural worth.

Time, I feel, to guard against that, to watch what we’re programming and how we consume and comment on it. Above all to remember why any of us do this. No-one went into theatre to make money. Happy Christmas.

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