This Saturday we launch the Weekend Sensemaker – a newsletter to make sense of who and what is shaping culture now
When my sister was a kid, she used to think that the way fame worked was this: if you saw or met someone famous, then you were famous. A while back I was sitting in a restaurant when Paul Mcartney and Ronnie Wood walked in and sat a few tables away. And in that moment all of us in that restaurant were about as famous as it’s possible to be.
Looking back, I now realise that I was also missing quite a story: the Beatle, it’s reported, is going to be on the next Rolling Stones album. And I’ve been thinking about that night this week – and, more generally, how we can do a better job understanding the world of music, storytelling and the arts. That’s because this weekend, we’re launching the Weekend Sensemaker, a weekly newsletter that tries to make sense of what and who is making our culture.
I’m James Harding, Editor of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I wanted to talk about how we’re approaching culture and creativity. And I’ve got a thought about a common criticism of journalism – the underreporting of culture – that’s long rung true to me: it’s the complaint newsrooms spent the 1960s tracking every twitch and turn of Harold Wilson’s government, but the story that endures, the story that stood out from that decade, well, that was The Beatles.
The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more it strikes me that journalism can and should sit between the two – between Harold Wilson, if you like, and The Beatles.
This is not to make the point that journalism needs to do more to understand how the culture wars are remaking politics. It’s more to say that we need to do more to understand how politics can and should remake culture.
Because we’re all well aware that politics has become a branch of culture in the way that it once was an extension of economics. The rows – over statues, Elgin Marbles, Rule Britannia, Roald Dahl, casting, Fawlty Towers, GB News, for that matter, BBC News, Winston Churchill, the history curriculum – well all those rows are real. And, while it might be the case that politicians, unable to fix the economic drift, reach for cultural arguments to define themselves and distract the public, it’s also true that politics in a democracy is partly there to help us articulate who we are, what we care about.
But here’s why we need to think more about what politics can and should do for culture – for all that I’ve nodded along over the years to the Harold Wilson-Beatles critique of journalism, there is a different angle to it. Namely, Wilson’s own political record on culture and the life of the mind. During his time as prime minister, government found new belief in enabling the arts: Lord Goodman, as chair, forged the modern Arts Council, Jennie Lee’s landmark Policy for the arts paper made the case for multiplying public funding, Wilson himself established the Open University.
A decade ago, when London hosted the Olympics, the capital was still high on its own arts scene. Looking ahead at the 2020s, it’s surely the case that the decline in public funding of arts and culture is catching up with us: money going to cultural services in the UK as a percentage of government spending is less than half of what it is in France, according to the OECD; in fact it’s lower in the UK both per capita and as a percentage of the national budget, than in every European country other than Portugal and Greece.
I once heard Jeff Bezos say that the first rule of business is that “complaining is not a strategy”. Likewise for culture. Bitching and moaning about public funding are not going to help Conservative or Labour politicians find more money as they face down a climate crisis, an NHS emergency, a war in Ukraine, a productivity problem, a calcified education system and much else besides.
The best canvases for the arts – the BBC, the national theatre, galleries – have been publicly owned and, considerably, publicly funded. If that money is not going to increase significantly, then we have to confront that, we have to recognise that Britain and, in particular, London’s cultural economy needs a rethink. In other words, a whole set of incentives for investment, lending and giving in the arts; a willingness to look at different ways to use the state to channel money from IP, from licensing and digitisation into culture. It needs new Harold Wilsons, Arnold Goodmans and Jennie Lees. In other words, politicians working a bit harder for culture than culture seems to be working for politicians.
Of course, the chief complaint about journalism when it comes to culture is that there’s just not enough of it; too much Westminster, not enough West End, loads inside the Beltway, not nearly as much Broadway. We try to understand the people and processes that make our politics; but, when it comes to culture, we mostly review the product – the play, the film, the album.
In our own small way, Tortoise has been guilty of this too. We’re more interested in culture than our output would let on. And so, the Weekend Sensemaker is a start at repairing that. It’s intended to be concise, informative and fun; we hope it filters out the noise and zeroes in on what and who matters, creatively; we’re going to try to spell out not just the what, but the so what – the choices, the consequences, where it leads. And we’d love to do all that without losing sight of the point: art and culture are a source of delight and hope, understanding and vision. We hope the Weekend Sensemaker can offer a bit of that. I hope you find it illuminating; and, better still, a joy.