The worst thing that can happen when you launch a debate is that no one wants to take part. And whilst it can be pretty sure that the arts matter to arts professionals, Arts Council England (ACE) has admitted to concerns that its public inquiry (p1) would be greeted with indifference by the very people whose opinion was being requested. Thanks to the wonders of technology, this was never likely. The past two or three years have seen an explosion in the blogosphere. An enormous cultural shift has seen media organisations, retailers and even the Prime Minister (remember the Big Conversation?) plunge into the ether. The welter of opinion and, to be fair, drivel that appears online, means that niche interests can attract a widespread following. Views that once would have been expressed in isolation now form the basis of significant mass movements.
The comments and criticisms currently being voiced on ACEs free-for-all online forum represent an interesting set of views: there are calls for more transparency in funding decisions, pleas for support for arts in education, and demands that the culture of indigenous England be preserved. In addition there are numerous brickbats about political correctness and excessive support for multicultural arts compared with that for English artists and artforms. If a theme appears to be emerging, it is because The English Democrats, a minority political party, the nature of which can be gleaned from its name, has posted a link to the debate on its own forum. While not yet a mass demonstration, these contributions offer an early example of how ACEs public value inquiry could fall victim to viral hijack, in much the same way that the vitriol poured on Jerry Springer the Opera was engineered by small groups online. While only a few people turned up to stand outside theatres and protest at Jerry Springer, many more were willing to email expressions of disapproval in order to shout it down. Funded or not, arts practitioners care about the arts and most have strong views about arts funding. Whatever ones views on ACE, its role or its responsibilities, this inquiry provides a valuable opportunity to express them and ensure that the debate isnt just public, it is also informed. Join in at http://www.artsdebate.co.uk.
Liz Hill and Brian Whitehead