“There is no money in poetry, but there is no poetry in money, either.”
Robert Graves was one of the Great poets of his era, and one of the finest in all English. His memoir of his time in the trenches, Goodbye to All That, is perhaps the most poignant prose written about the First World War. Every November is a good time to return to it. His pair of novels about the stuttering club-footed Roman Emperor Claudius were international bestsellers, and spawned one of the BBC’s most admired serialised dramas. He was a successful man, and a brilliant one. Graves was from a middle-class family, not a rich one, but he did go to Charterhouse, climbed with George Mallory, became friends with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and went to St John’s College, Oxford. He wrote his books after the Great War, during the age of the birth and infancy of the mass-market paperback, when the term bestseller first came into usage. Graves made a good living out of writing, in an age when it was a booming industry, a growing industry.
The quote at the top of this article, then, catches me for several reasons, and has done since I first came across it as a teenager (and aspiring poet). Firstly, Graves really is talking about the poor quality of the pension plan that comes with the job of ‘poet’. Secondly, there is a chilling reserved strength to the artist who comes up with this line in such an era as the one in which Graves did. The line, therefore, is pithy and memorable, and like all great quotes, has a meaning deeper than the pith. It goes to the very nature of the relationship between money and art. We will return to this.
No generations of writers has made as much money as those who plied their trade in the period Hobsbawm termed the short twentieth century. Almost as soon as the Berlin Wall came down, the internet went up, and those in the creative industries have been battling with the monetisation of content ever since. Will Self recently made the point at the Rhys Davies Conference in Swansea that the age when writers can make a living from their work is over, and it was historically relatively brief.
Before the period of substantial remuneration in literature for the author, the doyens of British literature were largely subsidised by generous patrons. This normally meant that they did not starve. Theodore Watts-Dunton went so far as to rescue John Clare from a lunatic asylum so that he could write, but in the main it has been the donation of a stipend to the artist from a wealthy admirer that has meant that great art could be born. John Milton, it is said, could not have been part of the triumvirate of English creative genius (along with Chaucer and Shakespeare) that helped Great Britain build a global empire if it had not been for the small financial support of Lady Alice Spencer. (She also has works dedicated to her by Ben Johnson and Edmund Spenser). The eighteenth century’s most significant British writers, Pope and Fielding, owed the time they were able to dedicate to their work that changed the future of Britain, and helped shape the one we live in today, to Baron Lyttleton. I could go on with examples like this – giants subsidised, one and all!
And why, might you argue, was it quite right that the wealthy invested in the arts for the hundreds of years prior to the twentieth century publishing boom? Two reasons. Firstly, it was mainly the wealthy who enjoyed the benefits of the arts. It was the wealthy who read, the wealthy who hung paintings and attended recitals (theatre is a bit of an anomaly in this company, as it had also had a working–class following since Norman times).And it was not only the patron who benefited from the enjoyment of the art that had been nurtured into life with their pennies bestowed. Many wealthy people had their lives enhanced by Rape of the Lock, not just Baron Lyttleton (and in Pope’s Dunciad Lyttleton actually financed Britain’s first fully-fledged anti-establishment satire, an establishment of which he was firmly a part). So the patron invested for the benefit of all. Why? Out of generosity of spirit in some cases. Out of egocentricity in some, too, no doubt. But also there was very much a sense of the Greatness of Britain being procured from two strong arms; its military, and its geniuses. The Britain we live in today, still, even for all its troubles, is a golden egg laid by the exploitative largesse of the Empire that went out with Eden. And when Britain was building that empire they did so with three things: cannons, Jesus and William Shakespeare. The persuasive tool that has lasted the longest, the thing that has infected the globe? It is Britain’s artists, the ones given time and space by the patronage of the wealthy. Those allowed to work because of subsidy, not profit.
(It should also be mentioned, in passing, that before the boom in publishing, of course, there was another type of writer: the one who was wealthy of their own accord. When Virginia Woolf wrote that all a woman needed to do the work of a man was a ‘room of one’s own’, somebody should have pointed out that she was lucky enough to be able to afford the room, and the time to go with it. That has not changed. The wealthy still create art. They have the time.)
As the First World War receded and a hush came across the clawed landscape of Europe, Britain saw many changes. The ruling classes began to realign themselves in the face of the unstoppable forward motion of radical social needs, embodied most boldly in women’s suffrage and the Labour Party (who marched arm in arm). At the same time writers, fresh from the trenches, began to change their subjects and tones. The Fisher Act of 1918 meant that for the first time education was compulsory up to the age of 14 (and 18 part-time). The natural demographic of ‘the reader’ was changing to look more like the majority. And by 1935, when Allen Lane established Penguin Books, we were a nation of readers waiting hungry for affordable paperbacks.
And here we enter the Golden Age, now past.
Publishing houses, for some time, paid something called an ‘advance’ – a fabled sum of money to most of today’s writers – that would match a reasonable forecast for the sales figures of a particular book. Once that figure was reached in sales, and thus paying back the advance to the publishing house, further profits became shared unequally, but fairly, between house and author. They were known as ‘royalties’. Many times these forecasts were inaccurate. Sometimes they were too low and sometimes too high. But these things level out. In a publishing house, a successful book will subsidise an unsuccessful book, regardless of who wrote them. The people who bought Jonathan Livingston Seagull were, somewhere along the line, also paying for Ulysses. The paying public subsidised work which they would not read, but work which would greatly enhance the world in which they lived.
The publishing boom did not directly subject all writers to the fluctuating nature of market forces. Publishing has never been a capitalist clothes horse through and through. In the capitalist paddock the weak are allowed to wizen and die (unless you’re a bank); in publishing the writers with low sales figures, but who produce work the industry deems culturally and morally significant, are subsidised by the bestsellers (who may also be all of these things, of course). We are all improved, whether we’ve read it or not, by the existence of Ulysses, even if it was originally printed and sold at a loss.
But now this model is also being forced to change.
Rich patrons are a thing of the past, in the same way that profitable publishing will soon be. And both of these things had at their core a subsidising ideal from which our civilisation benefits. So where do we go from here?
We go, inevitably, to the heart of austerity politics. Forgetting the demonstrable fact that those who espouse ‘austerity’ are invariably austere themselves only in the areas of heart and soul, the Tory-led government kept to the script and, almost lackadaisically, attacked arts funding early on, somewhere between quaffing celebratory champagne and trashing the restaurant in which they were celebrating, I’d imagine. In Wales we have always managed to make good out of very little, but cuts came this way, too. Labour, Tory, Lib Dem; consensus is cultural, and there has not been a political class as culturally bound as this one since before the First World War.
And this is where the problem lies: the important arguments are not even made, never mind debated. The significance of Robert Graves’ famous quote is not that poetry does not make money, but that money and poetry should never really be mentioned in the same sentence. Art and money is not chalk and cheese, but is rather Earth and moon, connected and influenced by gravitational flirting, but separate entities, alien to each other, even if one is in thrall to the other. Searching for one in the other is a largely pointless exercise, a journey akin to Marlow’s search for Colonel Kurtz, one that will save no prisoners, even if you survive. For the successful artists, the ones who shape cultures and change societies, the work is the only thing that matters. It is not the concern of artists what financial implications their work has, beyond the need to eat, and the need to feed their family. Rather it is our responsibility as beneficiaries of great art to allow them to do what it is that they do.
Let’s be clear: the subsidy of art is an investment in the nature of the national psyche, nothing less. It is not an investment in the national economy, and should never be considered one. The moment that it is deemed as one it begins to fail in its first mission, the substantially more important one, the one that realises you can be happy and poor just as easily as you can be miserable and rich. Art (literature in my examples above) has always been subsidised. And the nation has benefited as a whole, even for those who are not interested in art. That is the beauty of art: it is for everyone, whether you like it or not.
And yet, with barely a hand raised in objection, artists across the nation are not only being asked for the first time in the history of creative energy to work without subsidy, but they are being asked to provide an economic argument to justify their existence at all. Maria Miller and her synecdochically reductionist fag-packet soulless memo-fed rhetoric be damned! Only the cold braying mind of a member of the modern political class could not understand at least the implied philistinism of this mind-set. But I will explain further to keep the attention of those reading who normally only get hot under the collar at the sight of a pie-chart.
James Joyce was not thinking of the financial implications for Dublin of Bloomsday. Proust was not cynically planning open top bus tours of his Paris. And Dylan Thomas was not anticipating his role as the only global literary icon of his poor nation. The art that creates a nation is not created in an atmosphere of economic credibility. And none of their works were created with pen-pushers of a different kind peering over their shoulders.
But let’s back up for a moment. We are in danger of taking the arguments of the political classes on the disingenuous terms they offer us. We are, after all, not talking about the ‘artist’ when we talk about the economic impact of an artistic event, are we? When we talk about the ‘economic impact’ it is the artists themselves who are invariably overlooked. To be an artist, to the political classes, is still seen as a privilege (as Thatcher once intimated about the whole of the Arts and Humanities ‘sector’). The benefits, as always, are supposed to be primarily to retail. Bring the punters in, put pounds in the pocket; translate that to national economic growth.
How does this work? Create something people want to attend. Why does Dylan Thomas’ poetry inspire devotion, and get people out of their armchairs and through turnstiles? Who knows? Who cares? But it does. And we should know, and we should care. There is no critical evaluation of his work in the economic argument. Is it a no-brainer for those concerned with the economy of a nation to support an event that will raise revenue? Of course it is. Is Dylan Thomas’ popularity worthy of a celebration in economic terms? I don’t doubt it. Is Dylan Thomas’ writing worthy of eclipsing R.S. Thomas and Gwyn Thomas in years that also strike the anniversary bell for them? It most certainly is not. And Wales would be a richer nation had we celebrated all three Thomases with as much gusto as the one from Cwmdonkin Drive.
Again, let me be clear so as not to lose the attention of the pie-chart fetishists: a focus on economics in the artistic fields means no more Dylan Thomases, which means no more anniversary festivals, which means no more national economic windfalls off the back of exploiting a ‘national treasure’ whose nation let him die of pneumonia, impoverished, forced to take lecture tours of the United States to pay his bills (bar and otherwise).
What I’m saying is, invest in the arts and even you Beancounters win eventually.
But this argument seems to get lost, seems to be broken down. The message ‘Everybody Wins’ is unpalatable for a nation where half are starving and half are convinced that ‘austerity’ makes Real Men of us all. Capitalism can build nations. But too many capitalists are kids in suits. Pavement capitalism, the vulgar smash and grab capitalism, is self-destructively short-termist in nature. Steal the milk bottle tops, ignore the fact people are likely to give up their milk for you should you need it.
Let us take for a moment the statement quoted in Wales Online just a few weeks ago of Swansea MP Geraint Davies (who is, as far as I know, a decent and hard-working man towards whom I have no personal animosity). He said, so it is written, that he hoped the year-long festival of celebrations of Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday would be the cultural equivalent of the Ryder Cup. There is, of course, an inherent ugliness at work here in the comparing of golf to poetry, and perhaps the echo of Mark Twain’s ‘good walk spoiled’ reverberates through Dylan Thomas’ sonorous linguistic drives, but there is also a sleight-of-hand when it comes to exactly what is meant in the analogy. Art is for the people; by its very nature it is inclusive, it allows itself to be felt by whoever can feel it, and for whatever reason. The figures detailed in the Economic Impact Assessment delivered by IFM recently, about the money attracted to Wales by the world’s third biggest sporting tournament, are statistics that speak only of corporate poetry. For a tournament that saw 244,000 people pass through the turnstiles, Newport the city, the place where I live and grew up, was a clanging funeral bell of sallow expectation the entire week of the tournament. The organisers, the governors, did everything they could to keep Newport centre at arms-length, if not further, from the trough of the Celtic Manor, the resort where the event was held, which sits overlooking Newport, forever longingly facing the road out. The EIA does not go on to detail the economic legacy of the tournament, nor the benefit to shareholders over that of community members.
By mentioning the work of Dylan Thomas in the same breath as an event like the Ryder Cup, is not just to undermine the very nature of art, it opposes it, corrupts it. By making it only worth corporate dollar, it becomes worthless. And there a shill’s work is done.
And this rhetoric is just a tiny example. The shill is not that of corporate hegemony, it is that of the political consensus. Davies’ language is part of an ideological political tapestry of argot and ritual so rigid and cloudy and imperious that objection to it is tantamount to donning a tri-corn hat and declaring yourself Napoleon Bonaparte-insane: it is the mind-set that believes events exist in order to create national economic benefit, and nothing else. For economic benefit is the only benefit there is. Every breath, every click of the eyelid, is judged in economic terms.And economic benefit is almost always translated as a fuel for corporate energetics. No other language is welcome: Feed the beast. And now we are even to feed it our poets.
In Wales, even well-meaning supporters of arts funding largely miss the point. In a recent blog pleading with councils to protect arts funding Assembly Member Antoinette Sandbach said that the arts were important to society because they are a ‘route to escapism and day-dreaming’. Perhaps that is true of doilies and Gilbert and Sullivan (I know nothing of those things), but art is most definitely not important because it helps us forget the humdrum nature of our daily lives. This frequently aired bunkum is naïve, superficial and it is patronising. Art is important to society because it is the most significant forum through which people try to understand the meaning of their lives. Art does not help us escape, it helps us dig in, embed; it helps us live correctly, with dignity, with grace, and with understanding of human relationships. Art is the exact opposite of escapism.
My heart goes out to these people, really. If nothing else, it is an artless way to live. But what is stopping the political consensus from using the argument I have given in this essay? ‘Don’t worry if you don’t read books, don’t worry if you don’t go to the theatre, don’t worry if you don’t go to art galleries, because they exist anyway, and when the world looks at our country it sees a nation of Great artists, and that is why they come here.’ Is that not a good enough argument? Does that not put the colour in the slices of the pie chart?
Of course, there are many people, stiff upper lips balancing rolled up copies of the Daily Mail, who are impregnable to the obviousness of this argument. They will have their own ideas of what I’ve written, based largely on nothing I have written. So if you have read this article and think that I am saying that public funding of the arts should be without scrutiny, that it should be like a tickertape parade of ten pound notes for every hippy with a paintbrush who wants to represent their sexual encounters by painting their own urine onto the side of the Senedd, you need to read the whole thing again. What I am declaring is that the perceived connection between the arts and economics is misconceived and rotten, is a deliberately corrupting one, and is one that puts a cancer into the arts which infects society and then in turn will infect the economy. I apologise for my joined-up thinking, and if that seemed like the back door to solving your problems, pie-charters. In some circles that is called Long-Termism, which is as out of fashion as its cousins, Reasoned Debate and Intellectual Engagement.