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Neoliberal economics is killing the arts

Funding cuts and reduced access are cementing the arts as a privileged realm. It’s time to resist ‘art-as-capital’ thinking, argues Tim Lutton

5 to 7 minute read

A promotional photo from a production of the play Death in Venice

The arts are in crisis. Access to the means of cultural production is increasingly relegated to those who can independently sustain themselves against a backdrop of austerity and the degradation of public services. The constant precarity and threat of closure of venues, orchestras, galleries, museums and their workers is stifling, but not careless or irrational – it is in line with the state project of neoliberal marketisation and the disciplining of workers. 

The value of the arts is as a natural, communal expression of meaning that is inseparable from our everyday lives, impulses and needs, existing in spite of the desires of capitalism and the hegemonic structures that enforce it. The scale of the problem faced by the arts today demonstrates a need for radical reform of the entire political economy.

ACE in the hole

The primary body that distributes public funding for the arts, Arts Council England (ACE), has been overseeing a real-terms spending reduction of £178 million since 2010. This corresponds to sizeable losses in arts funding in Wales and Scotland, and a staggering 63 per cent drop in Northern Ireland. 

For the 2023-26 investment round it was announced that Britten Sinfonia, Hampstead Theatre and the Oldham Coliseum would lose their National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) status, forcing the closure of the Coliseum. Glyndebourne was unable to tour in 2023 after a 50 per cent loss of ACE funding. 

The ACE dictum forcing relocation of English National Opera to the north of England from London has been a debacle: although funding – only secured after public outcry –  will help manage the transition, the move has resulted in chaotic firing-and-rehiring of chorus members and orchestra players, who were emailed their redundancy notices during a show interval

The permanent implementation of Orchestra, Theatre and Museum Tax Relief announced in the Spring 2024 Budget has been a welcome relief, but only serves to stabilise existing institutions’ income and budgeting. The arts world can, and should, fight for so much more.

Levelling the arts

A key part of ACE’s 2020-30 strategy is ‘Priority Places and Levelling Up for Culture Places’: this promises a funding increase of up to 95 per cent in 109 neglected regions (including, ironically, Oldham), with nearly £250 million to be invested outside London by 2025. Following instructions from the government to move £24 million from London to the regions each year, ACE encouraged London NPOs to voluntarily relocate, claiming 24 organisations would do so by October 2024 – though details of who exactly is relocating have been frustratingly scant. 

While much of ACE’s ‘Levelling Up’ strategy has yet to play out, the plan appears as a plaster over a deeper crisis in the country’s cultural life. Per-person cultural spending by English councils has almost halved since 2010. So far this year Birmingham, Nottingham and Suffolk County councils have announced 100 per cent cuts to their arts funding, with conciliatory but non-permanent measures for Birmingham and Suffolk announced shortly afterwards in response to protest. The crisis of local funding coincides with the loss of 16 per cent of the country’s grassroots music venues in 2023 after energy and rent increased by an average of 37 per cent. 

Arts education is also under attack. In May 2021 the government declared war on non-STEM degrees, announcing funding cuts for arts and humanities courses by 50 per cent. Since then, Kent, Roehampton, Wolverhampton, Oxford Brooke and Brighton universities have proposed or closed swathes of courses, entire departments and galleries. An ‘Arts Premium’ for schools, promised by Sunak in March 2020, has never materialised

A privileged realm

Without the spaces to perform, learn and grow, the ability to make art will become a privilege too extravagant for the working classes. As the situation with ENO alone has proven, top-down decision making that attempts to make arts funding appear more equitable across the country is undemocratic, arbitrary, and dislocated from the lives of arts workers and the needs of local communities. This entirely misguided and disastrous approach reveals the limitations of the ‘solutions’ the neoliberal system can offer.

Through each site of cultural production and the material impacts of cuts, there is a through-line that originates from the wider reconfigurations of the state and its operating ideology. When the ACE encourages its NPOs to be ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘financially resilient’ and receptive to philanthropic giving, it is in other words compelling them to act as though ACE itself will not exist. 

As Jacques Attali states in  Noise: The Political Economy of Music, the valorisation of art produced as a commodity in a market economy, creates the conditions where: ‘Music and the musician essentially become either objects of consumption like everything else… or meaningless noise’. 

Art is subject to capitalism’s fortunes, to every boom and every bust, its survival conditional on whether capital decides it has enough to spare outside of the reproduction of capitalism itself. Neoliberal austerity has little tolerance for those who are not maximally-productive workers.

Resisting ‘art-as-capital’

A fulfilling cultural life means not only funding established institutions and the reproduction of their prestige and gatekeeping of a ‘high culture’ they have cultivated. It must also facilitate participation at all levels, regardless of age, geography, ability and employment, so that every individual and community can tell their own story. 

Sadly, arguments for the arts are often couched in the economism of the ‘creative industries’ – a term which lumps together after-school arts programmes with multi-million pound TV and film production – which frames the arts as valued only as an investment that would guarantee growth. 

At the March Labour Creatives Conference, for example, Keir Starmer claimed Labour would end the ’war on culture’ and make the arts a ‘strategic priority’ – points praised across the arts world, and a possible step in the right direction. Starmer however also emphasised the value of the arts as ‘essential to our economic growth and our national identity’. 

Without the spaces to perform, learn and grow, the ability to make art will become a privilege too extravagant for the working classes

The speech placed conditions on the existence of the arts related to their utility within a state project for a reformed, friendlier capitalism that is ‘pro-worker and pro-business’ – with no mention of how much funding Labour would actually commit. Given Rachel Reeves’ reluctance to bail out broke local councils, there is little reason to trust that a Starmer government would lift the arts from its present freefall.

As a society, we must resist art-as-capital, where it is reduced to pure exchange value in a market of commodities. There, any politically-charged and counter-hegemonic content is rendered powerless, constituted as a stable harmonisation of the dominant socio-political order and drowning out all contradictions. 

At the same time, we must recognise that artistic production is inseparable from capitalism itself. The invention of the bourgeois concert hall in the eighteenth century as a site of desacralisation of music and commodity exchange anticipated the whole political economy of the nineteenth century. As Attali states: ‘[music] soars in the immaterial. It is an economy without quantity… the political economy of music is not marginal, but premonitory. The noises of a society are in advance of its images and material conflicts.’ 

In the present era, the tendency towards total marketisation of artistic production accompanies perpetual austerity and an atomised rentier economy that is shrinking public and social life. Without a rupture from neoliberal capitalism in general, the means to make new, generative and disruptive art disappears, and much else that is meaningful in our lives will follow after. The rest is silence.

Tim Lutton is a London-based musician, photographer and occasional writer

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