Monday, 31 March 2008

Would you trust a musician to be Minister of Culture?

On Saturday night I was part of a sell out 1500 strong audience at The Sage Gateshead that gave the Minister of Culture a standing ovation after a thrilling two-hour performance. We knew there was a huge political mind at work but we’d also been entertained, inspired and moved. Discussion of innovative approaches to intellectual property, including the government binning Microsoft and adopting open source software, had to wait for another time, because this was all about song.

Confused? Well, this wasn’t our Minister of Culture, Andy Burnham. It was Brazil’s, the musician Gilberto Gil, who has been Minister of Culture since 2003. It was a great concert, part of a fantastic night in the Gateshead Jazz Festival. If you don’t know Gil’s music or standing, imagine Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger becoming our Minister of Culture.

Artist who become elected politicians are rare in the UK. Although there are more cultured politicians than people give credit for I struggle to think of any in our Parliament at the moment who’ve practised at a professional level, except Glenda Jackson. There are a number of people in the Lords with substantial track records – Melvyn Bragg, for instance, and David Puttnam (who coincidently is Chair of the Trust which runs The Sage Gateshead.) But that might suggest the elected route to power is less attractive or viable. I’m not sure whether this says more about artists or our democracy. There are, also, of course, some politically active artists outside of the three party structures that lead to seats in Westminster. (Gil was first elected as a member of the Brazilian Green Party.) Perhaps this is a factor in artists, who are often unaligned by nature, not getting directly involved in electoral politics?

So the position is perhaps more complicated than the first cynics’ response of the cultural grass being greener, or more exciting, outside the UK. I’d not argue for artist Culture ministers per se, but for ministers of all sorts informed by an understanding of culture. Lord Puttnam, for instance, talks about education so powerfully because of his working history.

But maybe there are other examples, including at a local level? And which musician or artist would you trust to be Minister of Culture? Let me know!

1 comment:

Christopher Gordon said...

Wise old fox Michael Foot has said "People of power have no time to read; yet people who don't read are unfit for power." Cf Denis Healey's lament about contemporary politicians lacking any 'hinterland'. UK experience suggests that when either business people or public intellectuals are promoted to government roles, they bomb.

Politics is a mucky business and to operate successfully you require particular skills. Serious art (at least in my book) is partly about putting doubt into certainties and about simulacra of truth (Flaubert letter of 1846: "of all lies, art is the least untrue"). But the artistic urge and party political dogma aren't exactly natural bedfellows. Have you ever watched the Labour Party faithful singing Auld Lang Syne at the end of their Nuremburg Rally? (Yes, we don't even need to resort to Redwood's command of Welsh).

Vaclav Havel is a rare success story - but prior to being 13-year Czech President, his political skills were honed through Charter 77 (for which he was imprisoned) so that by the time 1989 arrived, he was effectively regarded as Opposition Leader.

Generally speaking, the grass is not greener and we should not romanticise. Ever asked culture professionals from Brazil how successful and effective they think Gil (for all his amazing charisma and the international profile) is as a Minister back home? Shall we say it's mixed? The Eastern European record of noted artists engaging in government post-1989 is also extremely patchy. In Romania, Marin Sorescu (great poet) as Culture Minister was chewed up his his unreconstructed Securitate civil servants. Ion Caramitru (great actor)later on was slightly more effective but was totally undermined by his old professional colleagues who assumed he was in post to serve their interrests, and to hell with the heritage.

In Latvia, Imants Ziedonis (world-class writer)was briefly an MP but wisely restricted himself to drawing up and piloting through Parliament a set of 'Postulates for Culture' to guide future policy making and evaluation. In Italy the self-promoting art critic Vittorio Sgarbi was a pretty disastrous Culture Minister under Berlusconi... but wait, Brian Sewell for Culture Minister, now there's an entertaining idea.

Mark - you are right in your penultimate paragraph. That's why, for us Brits, Chris Smith was an unique high-water mark. No wonder Blair soon reached for Mrs Mills (who latterly almost made Mellor seem simpatico by comparison). What the role requires is high operational political skills supported by excellent advice from people who know the field (e.g. Puttnam, yes).