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!