Why Britain needs a culture secretary who cares about liberty – not art

A CULTURE secretary from the Treasury – it is what John Maynard Keynes, the founder of the Arts Council, would have wanted.

That hasn’t been the mainstream reaction: Sajid Javid, newly-appointed to the Cabinet in the wake of Maria Miller’s departure, has been given a cool reception from arts quarters. A former banker, an economic policy wonk with no special interest in matters aesthetic – what sort of an ambassador for Britain’s culture is this?

Keynes saw it rather differently. The Arts Council began as an arm of the Treasury, at his request. The idea was simple: if you were going to do something as controversial as involve the state in funding art, the last thing you wanted was politicians getting involved. A corner of the Treasury was, he felt, just out of the way enough to prevent official interference. Politicians were qualified to distribute arts funding only if they could be trusted not to get involved.

On this, as on other matters, Keynes was insightful but over-optimistic. He imagined that short-term funding could prime the pump of the nation’s artistic enthusiasm, before withering away quickly enough that it wouldn’t become a power base. He was wrong, and the arms-length, temporary expedient he dreamt up has become a permanent bureaucracy, with a succession of secretaries of state taking altogether too much interest in the content of state-sanctioned culture.

The title of culture secretary should be a chilling one to a free people. Tyrants are fond of art: they use it to carve more biddable habits into their subjects. Joseph Stalin called writers the engineers of mens’ souls. Our government art tends to be more wasteful than sinister, but the country of Austen, Turner and Tallis does not need to rely on taxpayers to produce men and women of genius.

All the more reason then to welcome a former banker to the role. Bankers have played an heroic role in the private funding of artistic excellence since the days of the Medici. Deutsche Bank, Javid’s former employer, is just one example of a modern bank with a world-class reputation as an art collector and patron.

Above all, Britain needs a replacement for Miller who can champion the culture of freedom. Freedom empowers great art, as it does all human achievement. It brings new ideas together and provides a marketplace where the goods of the whole world can mingle through trade. It lets talent travel across borders. It creates the wealth for patronage, the economic resilience for risky experimentation, and the liberty to attempt work without waiting for the approval of a narrow, state-controlled academy.

It is as the great French liberal Frederic Bastiat once said, “Our adversaries consider that an activity which is neither aided by supplies, nor regulated by government, is an activity destroyed. We think just the contrary. Their faith is in the legislator, not in mankind; ours is in mankind, not in the legislator.” Britain’s department of culture needs an optimist who cares about liberty, not art.

First published: City A.M., 10/4/14

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