Sunday, 15 March 2015

Plus ça change

James Millingen Some Remarks on the state of learning and the fine-arts in Great Britain J. Rodwell 1831

London is still blessed with a handful of outstanding second hand bookshops where you can find all manner of things you'd never have thought to look for on Amazon. At the  wonderful Any Amount of Books I found this battered pamphlet from 1831 that advances strikingly modern arguments about state support for the arts. It's rapidly disintegrating, but pages were still uncut. It nearly died unread, which is especially sad given the disproportionate attention paid to some of our contemporary reports on the arts, which ought to die unread. It's sometimes unsophisticated and sometimes crudely elitist, but its flamboyant disdain for the plebs shines oblique light on the more politely expressed snobbish sentiments of today's faux-egalitarians. 

Millingham shares the modern belief that the arts are a good investment, but he has an honourable reticence about making a merely economic argument. He quotes French director-general of finances Necker: "Learning and science repay the State with usury the assistance which the State affords to those who profess and cultivate them", and then calculates the French government's income from the estimated 5,000 (!) tourists in Paris at any given time. He hopes this will "prove a satisfactory answer to the Utilitarian and the Sordid, and shew them, that what is honorable, is generally profitable at the same time". Utilitarian and sordid. I like that.

A better argument is that state funding produces better art, though he regrettably has the modern vice of seeing 'better' in instrumental terms: "The relative decorum and piety observed on their stage, and which contrasts so much with the licentiousness and coarseness of our theatres, may be reckoned among the causes which have contributed to improve the manners of the middle and lower orders". Isn't this close to the attitude of many today, who want the lower orders herded into museums and theatres, but have a horror that they might watch Jeremy Clarkson or read the Daily Mail? Of course today they use terms like 'socially excluded' rather than 'lower orders', but the content echoes. 

In 1831, as today, luvvies were bemoaning the 'new' idea that state funding should be cut because the market will provide: "An opinion has, of late, been gradually gaining ground in this country, that it is neither a duty nor good policy, on the part of the State, to grant encouragements to the Sciences and Arts which should be left, like any other commodity, to find their natural price at the market, according to the degree of demand which may exist for them". So much for the idea that it's a novel conspiracy by neoliberals.

There's lots more in this short pamphlet. He complains that England's two universities have 'grown corrupted': "At one period, they were of easy access to young men of slender fortunes, but within the last century they have been rendered expensive, in order to become select and respectable. In other words, that they should produce men of fashion rather than men of learning" (p. 8). Today's universities are expected to churn  out credentialed employees rather than 'men of fashion', but they continue to grow corrupted. I bet people today would recoil at the term 'learned' lest it imply that others are 'less learned'.

I like Millingen's directness; none of the respectful networking of today's half-hearted critics. He tells us that learned societies contain a few learned men, but most "can no more be called men of learning than subscribers to a concert can be called musicians". Today we are more deferential, but many of the trustees of our great cultural institutions are still unqualified buffoons.

No comments:

Post a Comment