Christopher Frayling

Pushing the boundaries

Christopher Frayling on the importance of supporting the innovative and experimental in art

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Like myself, both the Arts Council and the Arts Council Collection are celebrating their 60th birthdays this year. I was born just as the modern concept of the welfare state was being incubated, which is why I find so moving that moment in Humphrey Jennings’s film Diary for Timothy (1945) when E.M. Forster’s commentary asks whether or not Timothy will be able to make all these post-war dreams come true. As part of this year’s celebrations, the Hayward Gallery’s current exhibition, How to Improve the World: 60 Years of British Art (until 19 November), features a selection of works from the collection, exploring what I believe to be one of the most fertile periods — ever — of British art, a period when Britain and its visual artists have become world leaders.

Containing works from the past 60 years, the exhibition — and more widely the collection — offers a fascinating history, not the history but a history, of British contemporary art and also of the debate and controversy which has surrounded it. The list of artists featured reads like a who’s who of postwar art, from national icons such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to the Young British Artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Many of the works were acquired when the artists were about to make their names, before the critics and curators and even the dealers had caught on.

Yet why is it that we are so reticent about celebrating the achievements and world-class reputations of some of our younger artists? One need only look at the vitriol and glee expressed in much of the press when many works, including Tracey Emin’s tent, were destroyed in the fire at Momart — a warehouse where many artworks are stored. Such critics are, I believe, uncomfortable with the very idea of a visual art which is not painting or sculpture. But surely art is meant to make us reflect, to challenge and provoke, to push the boundaries not only of how we view art but also how we view the world around us. There’s a deep confusion around between ‘medium’ and ‘artform’ which is not at all helpful. Painting may be art and it may not. Ditto installations and other forms of conceptual art.

I for one am proud of the range of work in the Arts Council Collection — a signal of the Arts Council’s continued commitment to support the innovative and the experimental. Walking through the Hayward exhibition, one is struck by the sheer breadth of the work and by the many changes and innovations in artistic practice since 1946, from Lucian Freud’s figurative ‘Girl in Green Dress’ (1954) to Bridget Riley’s ‘Op Art Movement in Squares’ (1961), through to Damien Hirst’s installation ‘He Tried to Internalise Everything’ (1992–4).

Obviously, given my positions as chairman of the Arts Council and rector of the Royal College of Art, it could and no doubt will be said that my view is biased. But the unrivalled popularity of Tate Modern, and the success of contemporary galleries such as the Baltic in Newcastle–Gateshead, pointedly show that the public has a strong appetite for such work. Indeed the Arts Council Collection itself, established as a national resource, a loan collection to be shared and enjoyed across the country, is testament to this. With some 7,500 works by over 2,000 artists, the collection is now the most widely used and circulated collection of contemporary British art. As a ‘museum without walls’, this year Arts Council Collection exhibitions will be shown in 49 venues across the UK. In fact, the phrase ‘museum without walls’ — coined by André Malraux — dates from much the same time as the origins of the Arts Council.

Which reminds us that the collection is only a small part of what the Arts Council has achieved over the past 60 years, and only a small part of the debate surrounding the role of the arts and public funding. Instituted under the chairmanship of John Maynard Keynes, the Arts Council was part of the country’s wider postwar reform. For Keynes, the arts, and public funding for the arts, were an integral part of that reform. Writing in 1946, he said: ‘there can be no better memorial of a war save the freedom of the spirit of the individual. We look forward to a time when the theatre and the concert hall and the gallery will be a living element in everyone’s upbringing....’

A lofty ambition indeed, but it is one that the Arts Council still holds dear, albeit in a much more egalitarian, less establishment way than Keynes could have envisaged. In 1946 the Arts Council funded just four organisations on a regular basis. Today we support thousands of artists and arts organisations across all art forms, varying from ballet and theatre to carnival and folk music. The Bloomsbury people would no doubt have found today’s arts ecology completely baffling. But some things don’t change. Keynes had to defend the Arts Council Collection when it came under fire in a House of Lords debate, saying that the Council ‘is not ashamed show itself the patron of contemporary work, and if it so happens controversial work’. Quite right.

Is there still such a strong justification for public money to fund the arts? My answer is, of course, there is. Stronger, actually. Whereas the Arts Council was originally envisaged helping to rebuild the country, today it has an equally important role to play. First and foremost, the arts deserve support because the process of creating and enjoying art has a value in itself, both spiritual and emotional, and the questions that the best art poses are vital to a healthy society.

The arts have an amazing capacity to unify communities, to bring enjoyment. Just this year the Sultan’s Elephant theatre performance took over the streets of London for three magical days. Over a million people, young and old, from all social and ethnic backgrounds came out in force to enjoy the event. Now if you had asked anyone before whether public money should be spent on a three-day street performance featuring a 42-foot wooden elephant and a 20-foot puppet of a girl, you would probably have been met with more than a few astounded looks. But ask anyone who experienced it and I am sure you will receive a resounding yes. As one viewer commented to a passing journalist, ‘If this is coming out of my ...taxes, I don’t mind. Exactly the kind of thing we should be spending them on.’

And it’s not only enjoyment and uplift which the arts can bring, although many of our publicly funded institutions do just that, from the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The arts can also offer new opportunities for learning, for people excluded from society, for deprived communities. In schools our Creative Partnership programme is embedding creativity within the curriculum, while our partnership with the Youth Justice Board is showing how the arts can offer new ways to engage young people at risk of offending with education, training and employment. Investment from the Lottery has given us iconic arts buildings such as Tate Modern, the Lowry and the Sage Gateshead, which have acted as a catalyst for urban regeneration, creating communities where people actually want to live.

Looking at the state of the arts today, I think we can safely say that the Arts Council — through countless artists and arts organisations — has helped to realise Keynes’s dream, and far more besides. It is unfashionable to be high-minded about such things, but this particular 60th birthday is well worth celebrating — as publicly and as vocally as possible. Where my birthday is concerned, I’m looking forward to the bus pass and railcard so I can check up on the arts investments even more than I do already.

Sir Christopher Frayling is chairman of the Arts Council.