Before we vote in June’s election we must consider what kind of culture we want to live in. I woke up recently to the voice of historian David Starkey telling radio listeners that there was no reason to fear Brexit because “we have been here before when Henry VIII split from Rome”. What Starkey omitted from this Ladybird book version of British history is that that rupture with Rome led to the destruction of medieval British culture and the dissolution of the monasteries. Before voting for a Brexit-supporting candidate in June, voters should remember the ivy-clad ruins of our Cistercian monasteries. When we visit what’s left of Rievaulx or Jervaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, near where I grew up, we are taught to feel romantic and rarely imagine the paintings, sculpture and tapestries that were destroyed and plundered there.
Post-Brexit, we face a dissolution of our museums and galleries comparable in its devastation to that visited on England in the 1530s, as philistine politicians slash budgets. Art schools and the arts in schools will be further diminished in a wave of manufactured disdain for so-called elitists. The only people in the arts set to benefit from Brexit are the auction houses, which are poised to sell off publicly owned collections to the world’s super-rich at cut prices. Local authorities facing huge bills for social care are looking to their assets to fill funding gaps. Already, Croydon council has sold its holdings of ancient Chinese ceramics, Northampton museums sold an Egyptian sculpture of Sekhemka and Walsall council threatened to close its New Art Gallery. Our weak pound only makes our treasures more affordable to oligarchs.
Brexit will precipitate a stripping of regional museums much as Henry VIII plundered monasteries to fund his foreign wars. Local councils will momentarily be able to plug the black holes in their budgets, but when it comes to tourism, there will be a faded patch on the wall where once a Francis Bacon hung. Bury council in Manchester will always be mocked for having sold L.S. Lowry’s A River Bank. Future generations of children will be brought to museums where there is little to see. Why, then sell off the museums and pop in some luxury flats!
The congregations of 14th- and 15th-century Britain must have thought the edifices of Catholic Britain would last for ever, much as we now think of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. But imagine for a moment the new Switch House extension covered in ivy and buddleia, pigeons and seagulls nesting in its Modernist brickwork, its oak floorboards curling up with water damage and its artworks not in a public collection, free to view, but lining the walls of a yacht.
If we leave Europe we leave a funding structure called Creative Europe. In 2014 Creative Europe was given €1.46 billion (Dh6.62 billion) to spend on the arts. There is as yet no mention of what will replace our share of that cake. Other unanswered questions include whether George Osborne’s tax reliefs for the creative industries will be maintained post-2020. Leaving Europe means we leave the pan-European Erasmus university student exchange scheme, named after the Renaissance scholar. It is heartbreaking to imagine the options of future generations of students being so limited.
There are probably some Hogarthian grotesques out there who imagine British art should be made by “British artists”, but most people working in the arts voted to remain in Europe. Contemporary artists frequently show across Europe, and are represented by European galleries. Artists are interested in freedom of expression and we are worried that a British bill of rights will weaken our voices advocating for artists and writers imprisoned by repressive regimes. Large numbers of artists, such as me, have partners from other nations. Art, like science, is an international language.
So it is with a degree of horror that artists see the normalisation of the concept that Britain is leaving Europe, with both Conservative and Labour parties committed to some form of Brexit. For most of my life I have voted Labour, but I was taught socialism was international. In the 2015 election I stood in Surrey Heath against Michael Gove to advocate the arts. This time around, Gina Miller’s stance — advocating tactical voting in an effort to avert a hard Brexit — has inspired me. I have come to the conclusion that voters must consider which of their local candidates would be better for the arts.
Anyone looking at Brexit from a cultural perspective should be arguing for a second vote not just in parliament but also in the country. In our arts organisations, theatres, museums, galleries and universities there is deep sense of foreboding. If Brexit is delivered it will undoubtedly shift the nature of our culture in a way that is deeply worrying.
Brexit will mean the end of a period of British culture born out of the ashes of the Second World War that was open, intellectually curious and essentially generous. The arts currently suffer disdain and removal of patronage. Many who are vocal in defending the welfare state and NHS fail to recognise or do not take seriously that our museums and galleries are similarly threatened.
The Brexit referendum was fought on the idea that Britain was sick of elitists and tired of experts. When we leave Europe, British artists should prepare to be added to the list of undesirables.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Bob and Roberta Smith is the pseudonym of British contemporary artist Patrick Brill