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Will the arts world in the UK miss Maria Miller?

9 April 2014

This article first appeared on Culture House Daily

The arts world will not shed a tear at the news that Maria Miller has resigned. Though it was Jeremy Hunt who wielded the axe to the arts budget, it was Maria Miller who spearheaded a shift in philosophy in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that arguably annoyed the luvvies even more than the cuts had done.

Breaking the only rule that the arts world still deem sacred, Miller demanded, in her only keynote arts speech last April, that culture ditched the art-for-art’s-sake argument for its existence and replace it with an art-for-the-economy’s-sake argument.

‘When times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact,’ she said.

This tilt to instrumentalism, to art having to prove itself useful as well as appealing to the ear, eye or brain, began under New Labour, when former culture secretary Chris Smith had exhorted arts institutions to find stats (even if they didn’t strictly exist) to demonstrate that art was socially, psychologically or economically helpful.

Art became a key part of regeneration schemes. Vast quantities of dodgy public art would be dumped on unsuspecting town centres and housing estates in the hope that X would become the Venice of the [insert compass point]. All of which in fact made grim areas even grimmer.

When the Tories got into power, the new culture secretary Jeremy Hunt quite rightly began the policy of disengagement, extracting the state from artistic decision making. But with this came economic disengagement too. Miller stalled this process. She wasn’t brave enough to make the case for cuts – a case that needed to be made. Instead she resurrected and amplified the New Labour agenda, making it crudely explicit that the government were now in the business of deciding how and why art should be made.

It betrayed an intellectual feebleness that few would forgive her for. She’d failed to grasp the fundamental point about art. The best art is that which triumphs as art. Art that attempts to triumph on other grounds – social, economic, political – is likely to fail. Whatever you thought of the cuts, everyone within the arts could agree on this. Which is why there was not a whisper of support for her from the arts community. And why there will be a huge sigh of relief that she’s gone.

But some of us will wonder why we have to stop here. The only way to prevent culturally illiterate politicians like Miller telling us how culture should look is to take government out of arts policy-making altogether. With Miller gone, David Cameron should regain the initiative and get rid of the DCMS completely. Culture is a negotiation between the people, the artists and the taste-makers. It has nothing to do with the likes of Miller.