Rosamund McCarthy: we cannot expect the arts to be firm friends with civil society

Art is for art's sake, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

Are the arts and civil society firm friends or distant cousins?[QQ]This was the question posed during a recent lecture at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations by Sir John Tusa, chair of the Clore Leadership Programme, former managing director of London's Barbican Centre and former managing director of the BBC World Service.

I sense an unequal relationship, with the arts the more distant party. Indeed, Tusa was candid enough to admit that when he ran the Barbican he did not believe a relationship with the voluntary sector to be "useful, necessary or indeed natural".

Of course, there are myriad connections between the arts and community projects. Eleven years ago, I set up Poet in the City to make connections between City workers and poetry in the Square Mile.

But despite these numerous crossovers, there is still a gap. Funding does not help. Far be it for me to go empire-building on behalf of the NCVO, but it is crazy that hermetically sealed funding streams duplicate capacity-building across the two sectors. Ninety-five per cent of governance issues are similar, so why don't the Arts Council and the Office of the Third Sector save costs and fund joint training?

But maybe we are missing a fundamental point. The purpose of charity is to achieve change, often through collective action. Art is not a means to an end like this; the purpose of art is the art itself. It has never clothed, fed or housed a single person. And, as totalitarian societies have shown, art created for a didactic purpose is sterile propaganda.

The creation of art is not an altruistic act. When I write a poem, I fulfil an essential part of my being, but have no thought of doing public good. Unless it is of a high enough standard, which I can assure you my poetry is not, it remains a private act. In the same way that we readily forgive the solipsism of an artist whose work profoundly touches us, we should also forgive the arts for not getting close to the voluntary sector. Art cannot criticise, challenge and reflect society back to itself unless there is a certain level of detachment. By pressing its nose up against the window, it can speak truth to power.

Given this necessary distance, what is the ideal relationship? Tusa concluded that the arts and the voluntary sector should stand side by side, but that firm friendship was not possible. Poetry has mended my broken heart, and on many occasions it has got me through the day. I cannot expect more than that.

Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity

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