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The arts have become a toxic battleground

Riven by in-fighting, paranoia and controversy, our great cultural institutions were already in trouble – and a second lockdown won't help

'Riding Around' (1969) by Philip Guston, whose paintings have led to a row at the Tate
'Riding Around' (1969) by Philip Guston, whose paintings have led to a row at the Tate Credit: © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth 

As we begin our second national lockdown, there is no doubt that the arts can be a source of great comfort. That’s why we have started a new daily column called Culture Fix in which The Telegraph’s critics and writers pick the music, literature and paintings which give succour when we so need it.

Of course, the world’s arts organisations, ravaged by the pandemic, are unable to open their doors to do the very same, but the messaging throughout 2020 has hardly been one of great emotional support in any case. What we have seen as Covid took hold was an industry riven by in-fighting, paranoia and allegations of serious misconduct. Working in the arts should be a rare and joyous privilege, but it isn’t. It has become a toxic battleground which makes most countries’ corridors of power look benign.

Every day there is some new headline which shows a major organisation in crisis. This week, it was the turn of the National Gallery as it was reported that its director, Gabriele Finaldi, told his board of trustees it is no longer feasible for it to take a politically neutral stance on the subject of Black Lives Matter and slavery.

Putting aside the point that Finaldi, as the head of a non-departmental public body, is essentially a civil servant and therefore obliged to be politically neutral, it also highlights the serious mistake that so many people in the arts are making. Art can be political – indeed much of the best art is – but that should be left in the hands of the practitioner not in the hands of those who curate it. The duty of those who showcase art, theatre, music and dance should be to provide inspiration, provocation and yes, even joy.

For example, to be beholden to questions of provenance (almost 40 paintings that formed part of the National Gallery’s original collection came from John Julius Angerstein, whose marine insurance business underwrote slave ships) is to enter into an arena which threatens to squeeze the life blood out of the institution. If the National Gallery politicises its display, it throws the very purpose of visiting a gallery into question.

Of course, things are far worse over at Tate. Its cowardly, shameful decision to postpone the Philip Guston exhibition (Guston, a tireless advocate for civil rights, used images of the Ku Klux Klan in unlikely settings as a way of making us confront evil) and the subsequent suspension of curator Mark Godfrey who dared to disagree with the move shows not only a place that is at odds with itself, but also one which is intent on enforcing an oppressive cultural hegemony.

I work in a creative industry (when time allows) and some of my best working relationships have stemmed from creative conflict. The dismissal of Godfrey shows that the Tate is wielding an intolerance to such healthy conflict, and isn’t punishing dissenting voices surely anathema to the spirit of liberalism, the spirit of inclusivity which it would surely like to project?

It is not just galleries that have been subject to the hand wringing. Our theatres, terrified of saying the wrong thing and being caught out by a vocal and deeply unpleasant Twitterati have, with a few exceptions, ignored the needs of the nation and in those small windows where they have been allowed to perform, offered a joyless programme of stuff which virtue signals and keeps a very small minority happy.

People don’t want to see plays which explore, I don’t know, shifting identities or the need to examine our troubling past – they want to see someone lose their glasses, trip over and fall into a big vat of custard. Or at least some big juicy sexual scandal.

Talking of which, arts organisations have been torn apart by sexual misconduct, too and it isn’t pretty. We know it has always gone on – retrospective stories of libidinous opera singers and directors with wandering hands – and it is better that such things are not brushed under the carpet as they were way back when.

However, this year has simultaneously brought sharply into focus the fact that such horrors still exist. Dance seems to have been particularly susceptible with the Royal Ballet suspending choreographer Liam Scarlett amid allegations of sexual misconduct against students. Scarlett has not responded to the allegations.

A scene from Royal Ballet choreographer Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anexiety Credit: Getty

There is also the worrying situation over at New York City Ballet where it was claimed that one dancer sent explicit photos of his girlfriend (also a dancer there) to other men within the company.

Claims of a “fraternity house” atmosphere are hard to shake off and it makes you think how sad it is that an art form which, with its precision and intensity, brings us close to what many people look for in religion, has been reduced to a sniggering and invasive attitude towards sexuality.

These institutions need to stop disappointing us and certainly in terms of misconduct, much is being done in many places to introduce safe spaces, to have a zero tolerance approach. But in terms of politics, there is no sign that things are improving with voltes faces, apologies and revisionism, all seemingly designed to avoid conflict in the febrile echo chamber of social media.

When galleries and theatres and concert halls in this country reopen their doors in (fingers crossed) early December, they will need to work harder than ever to cheer us up. And if they are currently in woeful financial health, managing to entertain us will be a step towards aiding their survival.