Maria Miller is right to recognise the importance of the consumer to the arts

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Maria Miller will today speak on Britain's arts as a "compelling product", and in so doing highlights the importance of the role of the consumer in culture, reports The Guardian.

She will say: "In an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture's economic impact … We must demonstrate the healthy dividends that our investment [in the arts] continues to pay."


She will add: "British culture is perhaps the most powerful and most compelling product we have available to us. The most compelling platform upon which we can stand. The world was watching the UK during our Olympic and Paralympic year, and the world was reminded of just what Britain had to offer."

For too long we have considered art as something that must be supported by government, by a panel of experts who know what culture should be backed. Before the establishment of the Arts Council of Great Britain in the 1940s, Britain was not devoid of culture (in fact many enduring artistic works come from before World War II). This new government body was first chaired by John Maynard Keynes, who was essentially an elitist, writing in 'A Short View of Russia' that he could not support a system in which the “boorish proletariat” were on an equal footing with the intelligentsia, who he deemed to be “the quality in human life”. This view, that people do not know what is good for them, underpins much of how funding of the arts occurs in practice.

Many who support high art are unhappy with the outcomes of the market. While the theatre was once immensely popular, tastes have changed. Technology developed and the cinema gained in popularity. Then as screens became cheaper, the television entered our homes. Now most of us consume far more television than theatre. We can choose between more channels than local plays, the format is often more convenient and cheaper. No-one celebrates the decline of theatre, but we should not seek to reverse it through redistribution of taxpayer money. No panel of experts knows what art is better for us, and we should respect the preferences of those who prefer to watch Take Me Out rather than Faust.

That is not to say that high art can not survive without government. As mentioned previously, it did before government arts funding began. Now crowdfunding services such as Kickstarter are matching artists with those who are willing to pay. Last year that one service alone managed to distribute more funding to artists in America than the National Endowment for the Arts.

Culture is valuable, but not when dictated to us. It is the sum of our organic exchanges, and the flexibility of that process which allows our desires to be fufilled. We should appreciate these choices, not try to re-engineer them through government action.