A Letter to John Whittingdale

A Letter to John Whittingdale

Dear Mr Whittingdale,

Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Forgive me for writing at what I am sure is a busy time, but I wanted to express my concerns about the way in which the country’s arts and culture have been approached by successive governments.

It is clear that many of your predecessors have been unable to measure the value of the arts in anything other than economic terms. The infinitely more vital qualities that the arts bring to the country have been assumed to be essentially unquantifiable and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. It is a frame of reference from which there can be no understanding of why, for example, somebody like myself would spend months at a time devoting every free moment (whilst doing a full time job) to putting on a piece of family theatre at a personal financial loss: it is happening all over the country, for all that it doesn’t make sense in financial terms and is not a sustainable model (though ironically it is a model on which the Arts Council is currently absolutely dependent).

I have been a beneficiary of Grants for the Arts, but have also several times fallen foul of its ambiguities, uncertain remit and lack of money: to make an application one has to make solid commitments, only to find oneself in a lottery, one of but a third of eligible applications that can be funded. It is not bad planning that has seen me covering the shortfall from these projects – in fact it is successful planning that has kept those losses to a manageable level. But I am painfully aware that I am one of many people who might, far too easily, throw in years of experience (and indeed expertise) because we are simply not supported in the way we deserve to be. There are few areas of life where people reach such excellence and achieve so little security, and the people who lose out are the audiences, the next generation, or British culture if you want to look at the big picture.

Even more troubling is the potential for an entire group of people to be denied these outlets for self-expression altogether: the message coming from above is that the arts are non-essential, that we have to deal with core subjects and sort out financial problems before tackling such trifling things as music and theatre. (It is an attitude which unwittingly contributes hugely to the assumption that music is for those who can afford it.) I quote David Cameron on music education: ‘I think sometimes we get ourselves in a bit of a muddle about this […] you’ve got to get the basics right’. To which I would respond, music is a basic. I could list the academic qualities of the subject, the transferable skills, the advanced understanding of communication – but at its heart is the fundamental, basic human need that is not given the serious consideration it deserves, that of creative expression and interaction.

A few years ago I had the privilege of running music outreach projects for, not to mince words, poor children. I invented ways to coax group compositions out of large classes, sometimes using pretty rudimentary instruments, and I saw wonders: a deeply insecure boy standing and conducting his classmates in front of an audience of parents; children with poor communication skills discovering a language that brought tears to their teachers’ eyes; children with poorly developed social skills working as a team. But whilst I was amazed and delighted by what they achieved, I was conscious that my visits were an exception, a one-off opportunity, that these schools lacked the resources and the expertise to sustain such activity. They were beneficiaries of one public school’s initiative (as, in fact, was I): most are not that lucky. I also find it hard to believe that what I saw in a cosmopolitan town was any more than the tip of the iceberg in terms of artistic deprivation.

What I would ask you to consider is that if this transformative, creative activity is not seen as a ‘basic’ essential, other things take its place. If we don’t equip people to create, teach children the value of art, make sure that culture is available to everyone, we have no surety that the appreciation of British art and culture will be shared or even understood. Destruction is as powerful a force as creativity, and perhaps offers more instant gratification: certainly it requires less education.

Let me put it bluntly: it doesn’t surprise me that there are children who, in the absence of anything else to pour their energy and self-expression into, head to Syria to join what they perceive to be something to believe in – even something to do.

If that sounds reductive, I would ask you to consider how simplistic is the Department for Education’s directive to schools to teach ‘British Values’. Values can’t be instilled from the front of a classroom: the only way people will grow up respecting British values is by experiencing them, and artistic engagement offers just that experience.

The future of the country’s arts and culture is a matter that ought to be looked upon with huge concern not just by your department but also by the Department for Education and Home Office. I urge you to press for a radical rethink of how this government both views and funds this vital area.

Good luck and best wishes.

Yours sincerely,

James Lark

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