Sunday, 19 September 2010

Cultural Shock Doctrine Part Two - Hunt Attacks Progessive Cultural Policy

Jeremy-culture-vandal-Hunt (who is fast becoming a favourite subject of this Blog) used his speech at the Media Festival Arts in London to reiterate his “long term commitment to the arts sector”. Hunt talked of sharing pain, future growth, blah blah blah...

But what shape is this sector going to take? Hunt also took the opportunity to take a swipe at instrumental aspects of cultural funding under New Labour, according to The Mail:

“Public money will no longer be given to arts organisations simply because they hire a high proportion of women or ethnic minorities”. The “days of securing taxpayer funds purely by box ticking – getting cash simply because a diversity target has been hit – are now over.”

This suggests a number of things about the politics of the cultural shock doctrine.

Firstly, the idea that organisations were hiring a high proportion of women or ethnic minorities to get cash is laughable – the problem has always been that were not hiring a fair proportion, ie one that reflects the population as a whole, the local area or the audience. Instrumental policies, where they actually existed, were designed to address systemic racism and sexism by increasing diversity to more equal levels. Attacks on policies that attempt to make the cultural sector a more equal place are, of course, quite natural Tory territory.

Secondly, there has been a popular and sector perception of this sort of reverse discrimination going back to the cultural industries days of the Greater London Council in the 1980s. However, the extent to which this ever informed creative industries policies in their post-1997 incarnation is debatable (The Mail can only give the example of one book of ethnic minority poetry, although, to be fair, this may represent poor journalism). New Labour were able, through the discourse of the creative industries, to draw together the genuinely politically progressive sections of the cultural sector that developed in the 1980s behind the idea of market-led diversity. To take an example from film policy:

“Diversity is both a catalyst for creativity and is key to the success of the UK film sector. However, the profile of the sector’s workforce shows it has a long way to go before it can demonstrate that it is inclusive of the diversity of contemporary British society. Inevitably, this has a significant impact on the stories that are told, the way they are told on screen, the levels of access to film for potential audiences and, in terms of content and portrayal, the images of Britain and the concepts of “Britishness” around the globe.” (Report here, page 5)

This is a reflection of a cultural policy that managed to align a progressive cultural politics with commercial interests. While this discourse paid lip-service to diversity, multi-culturalism and so on, its real focus was always the market. It therefore found it hard to interfere with areas of the market that worked but also happened to be white-male dominated. As a result, New Labour cultural policy was seemingly unable to make a case for diversity that is not based on commercial success; a moral or political argument, for instance. As mentioned in a previous post, after thirteen years of this, research has shown that the film industry is still inherently racist and sexist. Furthermore, in employment terms the cultural sector is more male dominated than the rest of the economy (63% compared to 53% - figure here, page 47). The idea that the last thirteen years were a bonanza in public funding for members of ethnic minorities and women regardless of talent or quality is a myth promoted by arseholes such as this one.

For the Tories, attacks on this sort of thinking are a coded way of attacking the principle of anything remotely politically progressive in cultural policy in general and clearly they are signalling that they are withdrawing support and political influence from the liberal cultural intelligentsia. Further, this works to deflect criticism from the cultural shock doctrine – the cuts in cultural funding are about withdrawing the tax burden created by rampant political correctness and restoring cultural authority to the white middle-classes, as opposed to hamstringing the cultural sector. As Kristine Landon-Smith argues in the Newstateman, “we are seeing a retrogressive new conservatism at work.”

At the same time, this ties into a genuine hostility to the cultural management mechanisms favoured by New Labour – the hysterical emphasis on targets, application forms, report-writing; a bureaucratic centralised system which effectively stifled autonomy.

New Labour came to power in 1997 with a relatively coherent cultural policy developed during time in opposition with clear differences to their predecessors. Cultural conservatism was to be dispelled in favour of modernisation; the heritage industries became creative industries. So far the ConDems have only demonstrated slash and burn dressed up as right wing dogma. We can undoubtedly expect more of this sort of thing in the coming months and years.

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