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This item is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

MR Callaghan, surely one of the more endearing characters in our public life, said a few years ago that 'everyone should at least have the chance of enjoying the arts if he wants to make the effort'. It is an odd experession, for effort is not what one is conscious of when something of this kind takes one's fancy, if I may put the matter in that vulgar way. One might go further, and say that no amount of effort will advance our appreciation of a picture we cannot see properly. A glance tells us whether it is something we shall want to go back to, though admittedly there may be an effort in going back to it and perhaps one we shall never make.

The other odd thing about Mr Callaghan's pronouncement is that it is, after all, not 'the arts' that we enjoy. In the context in which he was speaking Mr Callaghan probably meant 'the theatre'-a usual meaning-but no doubt he would have lumped with that 'music', 'art galleries', even 'literature' to indicate the wide spread of his thoughts. But we do not enjoy these general indicators. We may enjoy a play, or a piece of music, a picture or a poem or it may be, truly, some bits or phrases only of works which demand our attention over a noticeable stretch of time. At any rate it is only during those moments when our attention is most fully engaged that we are really 'enjoying' anything, and it is always something quite concrete. Talking about it all afterwards, if we are given to that, is something different.

Mr Callaghan was of course talking politics, as became him. He was making the most of the number of millions his government was prepared to lob out in directions which would pass as 'cultural' and so, he would hope, he might please an unidentified number of people suspected of voting on that ticket. Yes, he proclaimed, his government was 'committed'-a good word, that-'to give the arts all the financial backing against all the other claims that are made that the State can afford'. We are here in the realms of fantasy for, whether one admires Mrs Thatcher's economics or not, she certainly has a point in making it clear that 'the State' can afford nothing except what it takes from others' use-and I should be the first to admit that no government can avoid taking a lot, these days. A more significant element in the fantasy, from our point of view, is that the 'arts' thus encouraged include that of the electrician who might otherwise be re-fitting houses, that of the 'arts administrator' who might or might not find equally remunerative employment elsewhere, and those of a host of other people, few of them artists except by a polite extension of the term. One may feel that with some absurdities such as the National Theatre the tail wags the dog but it is a fact of life that any organized presentation of works of art to a public large or small demands a great deal of labour which is certainly a long way from both artistic enjoyment and artistic production: the sort of labour people are engaged in for quite different ends in factories, shops and offices everywhere.

A magazine is just such an organized presentation and we cannot give ourselves airs. Behind the shining faces of the poets are the sweaty faces of those who do what is ordinarily called 'work'. Not that poets as such are free from labour; they may sometimes involve themselves in extraordinary ones, more or less alimentary to their craft. Still, the best of them are poets because they damn near can't help it or have sunk gradually into an addiction and many of the others have what can only be regarded as an uncontrollable habit. So one wonders about the claim that backing is given by politicians 'because the arts are essential to nourish the quality of life and enlarge the vision and spirit of man' (Mr Callaghan again, as reported). It is nearer the truth to say that the addicts cannot be stopped-and that goes for the real reader as well as the writer-and that governments are better at such sordid matters as drains and defence than at the production and diffusion of the arts. Indeed, as to production, it is hardly to be believed that they have any influence at all.

What, then, of the sordid labours which produce a magazine? Do editors also have their little 'policies for the arts' which 'will improve the quality of life and enlarge the vision of man'? It is beyond doubt that a good editor can elicit good work, particularly in the way of respectable prose, which is not to be sniffed at. There is no question that how good a magazine is depends on the sort of contributors he can gather around himself, and that on them depends the sort of readers who can be attracted, and readers are what magazines are for. But editorial 'policies'? In this strange magazine pronouncements are made in turn by peripheral and advisory editors as well as by the one who really does the work, but it is only occasionally that they have much bearing on the work which actually appears in the magazine. For that work is, very properly, simply the best that can be found for each issue as it comes up and this-mercifully perhaps-precludes any consistent colouring of the contents. The best contributors will think differently from the editors, and it has been demonstrated more than once that the editors can think differently from one another.

This item is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

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