Oxford Union debate
January 17th, 1996
'This House believes that the National Lottery gives too much support to the elitist arts'
It is generally believed that dancers should be seen and not heard, so it is with some degree of trepidation that I have agreed to speak here this evening. But I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to oppose this motion and at the same time defend myself, and my profession, against criticisms that are at the forefront of public interest at the moment.
Before we can discuss the motion before the House, we must first of all define what is meant by 'elitist art'. Are we referring to those who practice it, or those who observe it?
Let's take the spectators first. On what grounds can we who practice the arts be said to exclude prospective audiences?
Well, ticket prices. The newspapers delight in stories of £200 seats for the opera, and it makes very good press. But this is not the whole picture. ballet and opera is very expensive to mount. Even modest productions require an orchestra of around 80 musicians, a large cast, scenery, and costumes, but the scale of performance is intimate, and revenue is therefore limited. A stadium event or rock concert can accommodate 60,000. Opera Houses generally seat around 2000. But publicity always seems to focus on the most expensive seats, and while it is undoubtedly true that some tickets fall outside many peopleís budgets, there are always seats available at less than the price of admission to a premier league football match. The Royal Opera House also goes to great lengths to ensure accessibility to people of all income brackets through a variety of special initiatives. We have a Proms week. There is a Hamlyn week, where booking is open only to first time visitors, at a cost of between £1 - £7. Our audiences during this week are in some ways the most responsive of all. Their appreciation is entirely intuitive. In addition we perform Schools matinees, and our Education Team takes our work out to schools throughout the country. Here we encounter children from every social background, with certain projects designed to take the arts specifically to inner city and deprived areas. The response is without exception one of fascination and delight. These children are not yet subject to the financial pressures and tabloid teachings that may later convince them that art is not for the man in the street. The Royal Ballet takes small scale performances into the regions with its DANCE BITES tour. Last year, 5.3 million people saw opera and ballet from the Royal Opera House on TV, and 20,000 people saw live Big Screen relays from the theatre in the Covent Garden Piazza. And all this with a government subsidy that is about a fifth of what the Paris Opera receives. So, although pricing is often used to support accusations of elitism, when the picture is seen as a whole, it is not really a fair argument.
So how else can we be deemed to exclude certain people from the audience? There is no dress code, no membership required. Most productions can be enjoyed with absolutely no prior knowledge or preparation. Indeed, I would say that a high proportion of the audience brings along less knowledge than the average football spectator, armed with column inches of analysis and hours of Sky Sports commentary ringing in his ears.
So perhaps it is us, the practitioners who are an 'elite'. Well, I wouldn't deny that it takes a certain amount of skill to become a dancer with a major ballet company, or a musician in a symphony orchestra. But if the possession of a skill is a criterion for elitism then we should be applying the same criticism to doctors and plumbers. No, the implication seems to be that those who are involved in the arts are there by birthright. But artistry and culture are not passed on with the family silver. Art has nothing to do with privilege, and everything to do with awareness and sensitivity, and those qualities can shine where least expected. Famously, Trevor Nunn, Pat Barker, Alan Sillicoe and Jeremy Isaacs himself do not hail from privileged backgrounds. Less famously, I was the fourth daughter of a travelling salesman in working class Derby. My parents hadn't actually seen a ballet until I myself was dancing in it. But they never once suggested that my career, chosen at a very early age, was 'not for the likes of us'.
Where does this perceived elitism come from, this idea that art is not for everyone? We are demeaning people by telling them that they cannot be touched by great art, and the tabloids that do so insult their readers. The value of art is that it can touch people on different levels. It can entertain, not a concept that critics of so-called 'elitist' art like to consider, but audiences do actually enjoy the ballet. (I know that, because I am there.) Art can be a form of escapism, a way to forget the stresses of modern life and consider higher ideals. It can provide an arena for reflection and solace in times of trouble. Possibly the most valuable work I have done was in a hospice in Northern Ireland where patients facing terminal illness found comfort in the performance we gave. Human beings have spiritual as well as physical needs, and whilst medication can attend to the latter, it falls to art to uplift the former. We need leaders in society with the vision to see and portray art as spiritual food - a national figure who can speak with the passion that we all feel, and carry the day.
If I am wrong, and my art is elitist, to whom is it suggested, then, that the Arts Council should distribute its largesse? Some politicians apparently favour community arts. I donít doubt that community arts are a worthy recipient of Arts Council support, but surely amateur and community productions have never been intended to replace artistic performance at its peak? In the same way that the Sunday morning tennis player will rush to Wimbledon to see the sport at its zenith, surely the great theatrical institutions will hold the same attraction for those who enjoy creating art in their community? We must not assume people to be so limited that they can only enjoy and experience those things which are to hand, that they lack the imagination to venture beyond their immediate environment.
Perhaps then the 'popular' arts? Those 'hundred greatest hits' which are as comfortable and familiar as old slippers. They are wonderful, and they have their place, but art is like food. Sometimes you want nursery tea, and sometimes a massive three-course feast, however hard to digest that may be. It is possible, as we have heard, to sell the popular classics to the public with no subsidy, and presumably with a profit margin built in. But the great artistic institutions are doing more than that. They must preserve and maintain the heritage of our artistic past whilst creating the heritage of the future. They must be both museum and laboratory. Without the experimental work that is so often derided as nonsense by detractors of the arts, there will be no popular classics of the future. Mr Gubbay's successors will have no repertoire one hundred years from now. What will be the Nessun Dorma of the 2090 World cup? It is a famous - and true - story that The Rite of Spring instigated a riot at its first performance in 1913, the audience unable to comprehend the harsh dissonance of Stravinsky's score and the unfamiliar choreography of Nijinsky. Now we are presumed to be so comfortable with it that it can be used as an advertising jingle. Swan Lake was not an initial success, and Les Sylphides was seen as an unacceptable departure from the accepted structure of classical ballet. Both of these are now the bread and butter of the ballet world, popular classics in themselves. They have a sacred place in any dance company's repertoire, but that won't stop every young choreographer railing against the restrictions in their form. We may mock their efforts, but one day a new masterpiece will be born of them.
The art that we create today will speak for us in the future. As we judge past civilisations, so will we be judged. Artistic achievements are always high priorities in civilisations that we admire - The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Ancient Chinese - and they could be argued to be an integral part of a stable culture. Regimes that suppress and censor artistic endeavour are usually seen with hindsight to be undesirable: witness the book burning of the 1930s, totalitarian suppression of artistic freedom, right back to the Philistines.
And so to the lottery: Should the Arts Council have any money at all to hand out? There are those who would argue that all the proceeds should go to medical research or to the NHS. No-one would suggest that the health of the nation is not worth funding. But unfortunately, breakthroughs in medical science are not simply a question of ploughing in cash and reaping the consequent rewards. We could spend the lottery millions and more without finding a cure for Aids. It will be a combination of good luck, timing and genius that will bring about results. Research is carried out internationally and, as such, is funded jointly with other nations. It will still be carried out without lottery finance, and in time, cures will be found and diseases eradicated. But The British Museum would not have been built without funding from an earlier lottery, and sadly the Royal Opera House would decay without partial funding from this lottery - money which is, incidentally only 3.4% of the 1.6 billion which will be available for the arts alone over the duration of Camelot's licence. We have let the government off the hook as far as maintaining a building of national importance is concerned: we should not absolve it of its absolute obligation to fund the health and welfare of the nation. That really would be a scandal.
We must remember that the lottery bounty is spread equally between five causes, and equally large sums will be given, for instance, to the Sports Council. Will the tabloids complain as bitterly on behalf of those of us who have no interest in sport? Why are we letting the tabloids determine the tastes of this country? For there is, after all, a question of taste here: I do not enjoy watching football, but I appreciate its importance to the nation, its position as a national institution. I don't want it on my television screen, but I deplore the loss of the premier league to satellite TV. Will opera and ballet lovers criticise the large sums of money that the Lottery will make available to sport? Respect for other peoplesí beliefs is a fundamental tenet of democracy. To paraphrase: I do not agree with how you spend your leisure hours, but I will defend to the death your right to do so.
The lottery was not conceived as a way of creating millionaires, but as a way of raising extra funding for five 'good causes' - a voluntary taxation, if you like. But this is not how it is seen by the playing public. There is something about this moral outrage which does not add up. A lottery purchase is a straightforward financial transaction: does the buyer have any say over his pound once it has been handed over? And does he care? It is not a generous impulse that drives people to buy lottery tickets. If that were the case they would do better to send their pound directly to the charity of their choice. No, they would still buy into the fantasy of millionaire-ship if all the money went straight to Camelot, or to the Treasury. It is not an alternative way to give to charity - the people who spend 10% of their weekly income on scratch cards would probably not consider giving the same proportion to Cancer Research instead.
Here perhaps is the real question: Have we as a nation turned our attention so much to material wealth that we are no longer ethically equipped to make judgments over the consequential windfall?
The underlying truth may be that the lottery is iniquitous - its marketing weighted towards those who can least afford it, those for whom even a comfortable existence is as likely ever to be theirs as a lottery jackpot. Perhaps its only redeeming feature is its by-product, the millions being made available for worthwhile projects that would otherwise fall outside the government's limited artistic vision.
I believe such work to be infinitely more life enhancing than the dim and distant possibility that through a pound spent on a lottery ticket, It Could Be You.