The festival consensus
By TOBY LICHTIG
Having greatly enjoyed last weekend's Latitude Festival – as described in my previous post – I do have one small whinge.
On the final evening, there was a debate about the future of the arts in Britain. Producers and critics lined up to argue for increased government arts funding and less emphasis on measuring "value". Michael Gove and his legacy came in for a general pasting and a pleasant glow of mutual righteousness hung about the Literary Arena. Everyone was in agreement. Or almost everyone.
Despite my own instinctive support for state arts subsidies, I found myself relieved to hear a dissenter in the crowd make the case for self-funding. Good art, she argued, needs to pay for itself; hand-outs can lead to complacency, a sense of entitlement. Not a popular view, but a different one, and a reminder that a good panel consists of competing voices. There was a murmur of disgruntlement among the audience before the event was sadly called to a close, punch-up averted.
This brief episode seemed to expose a fault with the Latitude programme – and the programming of so many similar festivals I've attended over the years. Crowds at such events tend to be overwhelmingly middle-class (weekend tickets cost well into three figures) and liberal in sensibility (the carnivalesque atmosphere doesn't exactly lend itself to conservatism – at least not social conservatism). And the programming, rather than challenge the consensus or provide fodder for a decent debate, tends to reflect this. I'd have liked to see a rebel voice or two on that panel; a case for the right – if only to bolster my own generally leftist sympathies.
It's worth noting that even Hay, despite being sponsored by the decidedly un-left-wing Daily Telegraph, isn't immune to cries of leftist elitism, as evidenced by last year's row over the "exclusion" of Margaret Thatcher's biographer Charles Moore, along with David Goodhart of Demos, whose book on immigration, The British Dream, led the festival's director Peter Florence to complain about "Tory posh boys". (Moore did appear at this year's event.)
If festivals such as Latitude really want to rock the boat, then I'd argue for some representation from the right. Preaching to the converted may leave everyone feeling warm and fuzzy but what, ultimately, does it achieve? This thought had also struck me on the previous day when I'd found myself walking briskly past the tent in which Vivienne Westwood appeared to be agitating for the takedown of the global capitalist order. People sat nodding in agreement – before toddling off to buy their £5 smoothies.
To be fair to the panel on Sunday night, they did engage with the dissenting voice before the event ended. Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of Sadler's Wells, argued that it is above all necessary to convince the public that the arts matter, rather than just demand money from the government and expect it; and Lyn Gardner of the Guardian reminded us that those who spend the most on the National Lottery (in the northeast of England, for example) also tend to get the least return in terms of arts investment.
Gardner also made the point that festivals such as Latitude encourage experimentalism in art because productions are devised "on the hop", audiences are free to come and go as they please, risks can be taken and polish jettisoned in favour of innovation. "It stops prissiness", she said – a supposition borne out by much of what I saw last weekend. If some of this radicalism and diversity could be injected into Latitude's political programming, too, then it really could be, as I'd previously suggested, a Total Festival.