The Arts and the State in Times of Crisis: The Prospect of a New WPA, Part 4. The UK in the 1940s: ENSA & CEMA

NOTE: I’m delighted to be once again cohosting a “virtual residency” with my friend and colleague Francois Matarasso on my blog and his. (You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting 29 September, we’re publishing excerpts from our dialogue on public service employment past, present, and future. Then on Tuesday, 6 October, we’ll host a free Zoom conversation about how to make a new WPA real. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT — that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. Here’s the link to register.

Download our full dialogue formatted for the UK or for the US (if the links aren’t working, try a different browser or email me at and I’ll send you the PDF you want via email). Or if you prefer, you can read an excerpt each day at our blogs.

Here’s the fourth installment.

The UK in the 1940s: ENSA & CEMA

François: The first thing that happened during the Second World War in Britain was different from the occupied countries like France. Once they were occupied, the theatres and galleries could reopen and then the question was do you collaborate or not with the enemy? But Britain was still fighting and a free country. London was being bombed and a lot of theatres were closed. The government recognised that there were a lot of musicians, actors and other artists who had no income — and they probably weren’t going to be much use in the Army or anything like that. So two structures were created.

The Entertainments National Services Association (ENSA) was tasked to boost morale among the troops and on the home front — factory workers and so on. It was rooted in music-hall tradition and the entertainment side of popular culture. The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) took what were then called ‘the high arts’ (and still are by some people today): theatre, classical music, painting exhibitions and so on. So Dame Myra Hess famously playing lunchtime concerts of Bach in the National Gallery, which was empty because all the paintings were safe in slate mines in North Wales. Since the first World War government had paid artists to be war artists. Now they set up a big programme for artists to document the home front and important buildings they thought might be destroyed. That led to some extraordinary work, including Stanley Spencer’s paintings of workers in the Clyde shipyards, and Henry Moore’s drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz.

There are two things to say about this: why it was done, and what happened after. During the 1930s European governments (although interestingly, not the American government) had understood the power of art, especially through the mass media, including cinema and radio, and, whether they were Nazi or Fascist or Communist, governments were trying to reforge the minds of their populations, which they did with a lot of success for a while. Britain also in effect conscripted artists into the war effort, this existential challenge to keep the country going and raise morale. The British government also wanted to demonstrate national values and influence the population, but the ideology was different: Britain’s war was about defending democracy, freedom and “the little man”. And consequently they were able to have a cultural war programme that allowed the artists to be much freer ideologically than in the other combatant countries.

Then at the end of the war, a radical socialist government is elected under Clement Atlee and begins to establish a welfare state with a National Health Service and new opportunities for education. The Beveridge Report, which had been written during the Second World War, promised to stamp out the five great evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness. That laid the foundations of the welfare state for the generation that became the community artists. Most of those people were baby boomers, the first of their families to go to art college or university, and crucially to have been brought up in an expectation that was much more egalitarian, and where culture was really prized.

It’s important not to romanticise this, but it’s the moment when the Royal Festival Hall is built for the Festival of Britain (1951) and, they build a concert hall which is one space, instead of having the class system built into the architecture they try. Now the government had to decide what to do with ENSA and CEMA in 1945. CEMA became the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) with the economist Maynard Keynes as the first chairman. Keynes was close to the Bloomsbury set, and married to a Russian ballerina: he was absolutely in that world. So the critical choice that Britain made then was to embed hierarchical attitudes to the arts in its institutional structure. The Arts Council took the posh part of the arts world but wouldn’t touch the popular work of ENSA: that was allowed to die as far as the state was concerned.

Fortunately, there was another important but undervalued, form of support for the arts in Britain — the BBC, an independent public broadcaster with its own visionary leader, John Reith, who gave it a mission to ‘educate, inform and entertain’. Broadcasting its own orchestras, the BBC has played a massive role in classical music in the 20th century, while also supporting popular music and entertainment. (I doubt the British pop music boom of the 1960s would have been as strong without the BBC: the Beatles and the BBC are intertwined.) So, in July 1945, the BBC launched the Light Programme, a popular radio station that became home to many the artists who had been performing in ENSA. They did comedy and music hall, laying the foundations, in things like The Goon Show for the Baby Boom generation to become Monty Python and the Beatles. In its post-war years, and while there’s plenty you could criticise it for, the BBC was the most successful cultural institution in Britain and it was comfortable with the diversity of artistic expression. In terms of origin stories for state support of the arts, that’s the British equivalent to the WPA. Of course, it was much more complicated and shaded than that, but it was transformative until it ran out of steam in the 1970s, and the neoliberal project began dismantling all of those institutions.

Arlene: That’s really interesting, US versus UK, because here we privatized broadcast spectrum first, then they much later they created this little teeny thing for public broadcasting. But in the UK, they saw it as a social good, apropos our earlier conversation, and spent a lot of time developing it as a social good before they allowed the privatisation of spectrum.

François: It’s worth it’s worth noting that the BBC started as a private sector company. It was nationalised after the General Strike of 1926, because government saw radio’s importance and that it couldn’t be out of state control. Luckily, we had politicians wise enough to recognise that having it directly under their control would be equally unwise, so they invented what’s now been enshrined as the arm’s length principle.

Arlene: Two questions. One is for the artists who were commissioned to document the home front. How was that administered? Was that like a national programme kind of like the Arts Council today where decisions are made centrally? Or were there local authorities, any form of decentralisation?

François: It was a bit ad hoc, I think. There was the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, which nationally commissioned about 300 artists to document life on the home front, buildings at risk, and military operations. One of their projects, Recording Britain, was funded by the Pilgrim Trust, and produced about 1,500 artworks most of which are now in the V&A Museum. Several artists, including Eric Ravilious, were killed while on WAAC commissions; others, like John Piper had successful post-war careers. They created a remarkable body of work and some, including Ravilious, have now become celebrated today, more than in their own lifetime.

Arlene: That leads to my second question. As we talked about in the context of the WPA, in the US, there was a great politicisation of artists during the Great Depression that preceded the establishment of these entities. As a class, artists were predisposed to do work that had social content, and they cared about justice — not 100% of them, but the majority. That gave a certain coloration to a lot of the work that came out — the posters and the theatre pieces and so on. Is that true in the UK?

François: In the 1930s, we were in a different place because we were on the doorstep of Communism and Fascism. There were artists who felt they had to take one side or the other of that conflict, and some, like George Orwell, went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. I think that fades away when you come to the Second World War, because suddenly, there is only one enemy, which is the Nazis. From 1941, the Soviet Union is our ally, so that ceases to become an issue for most people: it’s an existential struggle to survive as a nation and a culture. Of course, after 1945, and the emergence of the Cold War the left-right split re-emerges and dominates until the 1990s.

Arlene: I see that. In every mass war-effort there’s creation of fellow feeling and pulling together. Meanwhile the lived reality isn’t so much we’re all in it together. Like the British government is full of antisemites, racists, and so on. But as a general point, it’s true.

François: The reason I feel what we’re now going through is comparable is because it’s throwing up problems on such a scale that only the mobilisation of society and the resources of government can respond to. So there’s a parallel, and the other parallel is that perhaps, much as they did in 1945, people will say we want this suffering to be meaningful: we demand that a better world should come out of this situation that we have lived through.

Arlene: And it relates to the post-war revolution of rising expectations where working-class people throughout Europe come back from the war and don’t want to just take their appointed places and tug their forelocks again. Stuff like the Open University flows out of that desire.

François: There’s a useful competition between ideological systems, which is one of the things we have lacked during the neoliberal hegemony. Western European nations didn’t build welfare states only out of the goodness of their hearts. They wanted to prove that capitalism could take care of ordinary people, just as Soviet propaganda was showing how they were taken care of under communism. That strong motivation to improve the conditions of working people disappeared after the end of the 1980s, which is why their living condition have declined so sharply.

Arlene: There’s another difference that’s worth mentioning too. There was such a clear objective in World War Two: to defeat the Fascists and regain control of your own country. If our objective is to defeat the virus, that’s not big enough to catalyse that kind of sea-change. It’s potentially up to all of us to say what it actually is we are trying to accomplish. Trump’s trying to destroy the Post Office — and he’s not just doing it, he’s admitting it. That gives an excellent hook to understand what a social good is, and to see why the right in this country is so determined to destroy all social goods, transforming them into profit centres. So that’s the evidence, but I don’t know if it’s getting across to enough people to make a consensus. But that seems possible.

François: I read about why pandemics do not touch the human imagination the way wars do, because we can’t make a story out of them, with heroes and villains. But the suffering that they can create is real, and there is a powerful and a natural human sense that when we have paid a heavy price, we want it to have meant something.

Arlene: I hope so. It’s such a strong element in British culture, this stoicism, this feeling of we survived and we want it to mean something. It’s not that it isn’t woven into our collective personality here. But it’s not quite the same, in part because not everybody did have to sacrifice something. A lot of people didn’t.

François: The cultures are very different. There remains a sense of collective spirit that politicians like Boris Johnson can and do call on regularly. When I see American politicians talk in that kind of way, it seems to me that they that they appeal to things that are more abstract.

Arlene: If the WWII books and movies are to be believed, then even these people who had stately homes out in the country had to take children and billet soldiers and so on. I don’t think that was true in the US. Nothing like that happened. Cities were never evacuated because we weren’t bombed.

François: Hence why 9/11 was such a trauma for America. For the first time in anyone’s memory, America was physically threatened.

Arlene: It shattered the invulnerability. But there’s more to it. This friend of mine made a film (Letter to The Next Generation) on the anniversary of the Kent State shootings that happened in 1970, where National Guardsmen shot some protesting students. He went back to that campus 20 years later to talk to the students that were then on campus about what they cared about and what they knew about that time. It turned out to be very little, although they all knew “The Brady Bunch” theme song by heart. We may not have the same interest in historic memory.

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