Debased Currency: UK Arts Honours

The New Year’s Honours List once again did State Art proud. The Pantomime Dame was made a real Dame for being unable to say no to any opportunity involving rancid self-promotion. The departing head of Tate Modern got a CBE for doing her job whilst studiously policing the State Art line for backsliders. The Director of the Baltic, a venue hosting numerous major exhibitions [subs to fill in], got an MBE, also it seems simply for turning up. Michael Landy, who once destroyed all his possessions to great acclaim, got a CBE because, well, it was probably his turn. As a serving RA you get one, it’s that easy. Ingrid Pollard accepted an MBE, the honours equivalent of a wooden spoon … Curious, isn’t it, that these supposedly anti-establishment types will accept anything even, amazingly, stuff with ‘British Empire’ tagged on the end.

John Akomfrah is knighted for being … everywhere, the human passe partout of State Art. This follows an OBE in 2008 and a CBE in 2017 – imagine that, he’s got a full set for making films no one watches. And clearly he worships a British Empire all these clones are supposed to loathe. His ‘arty’ multi-screen films are nothing remarkable. Their level of competence is the very least an audience conditioned by television and Hollywood might reasonably expect of a filmmaker. The best you can say about his work is that it’s fit only to be shown in an art gallery where normal criteria of film judgment have necessarily to be suspended. The bar in films is set very low indeed by the visual art establishment – not even the world’s most lissom limbo dancer could wriggle under the State Art film bar.

It wasn’t always thus. Carol Reed was knighted only after making The Third Man and Odd Man Out, both masterpieces; the latter among the greatest of all British films. David Lean had to have made This Happy Breed (also a masterpiece), Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Oliver Twist before he was knighted. Tony Richardson, who directed A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, both memorable pictures, didn’t qualify even for a rosette. And then there’s John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz who weren’t knighted despite directing superb films. Guy Green and Jack Cardiff, cinematographers responsible for some of the most enduring images in British art, qualified only for OBEs. Robert Krasker, a great ‘noir’ original (he filmed This Happy Breed, The Third Man and Odd Man Out), got nothing; likewise Freddie Francis. Can you name a single one of Akromfrah’s films? Me neither. So why him? And now, to add to his K, CBE and OBE he has also just been selected to represent us at the next Venice Biennale.

The deputy chief executive of the Arts Council, Simon Mellor, got an OBE ‘for services to the arts’. That is a bad joke. ‘Services to the arts’ is his job. He works for a charity which gives away billions of taxpayer’s cash and is paid the eyewatering wedge of £156,000 p.a. to do it. His boss, meanwhile, the Arts Council’s Chief Executive, Darren Henley, has previously notched up an OBE and, last year, a CBE, also for ‘services to the arts’. It’s a weird system this, because once you’ve got one medal if you stick at it long enough you’ll get another for doing the same thing. In Henley’s case he pockets £180,000 a year for turning up, not including an accumulated pension pot of four hundred grand.

Not one of these people has done anything extraordinary that couldn’t have reasonably been expected as a duty of their already handsomely remunerated positions. And performing acts of charity is no more than most of the population do quietly as routine with no expectation of either acknowledgement or reward.

A century ago Lloyd George was pilloried for the naked fraud of trafficking in titles, which led to the Honours Act of 1925. In theory this made it illegal to sell gongs. But nothing has changed. No one has ever been convicted for peddling UK honours, although a case is currently under CPS consideration concerning the Prince’s Trust which, allegedly, offered a knighthood to an Arab in exchange for a bagful of tenners. Blair is the only serving PM to have been interviewed by the fuzz for trading in medals. To you and me he would have been as guilty as Cain but, of course, he talked his way out of it. They all do it, whilst pretending they don’t and vigorously protesting their innocence. This entire squalid system should be scrapped and replaced with something untainted and which is awarded only to seriously meritorious candidates, those who have changed our lives for the better. This doesn’t apply to Akomfrah, Landy, Mellor and the rest of them whose names and works are unremarkable and unknown to almost everyone.

If Lloyd George was corrupt what does that make State Art with its widespread dispersal of unearned medals to those lickspittles who support it?

For ‘State Art’ read ‘DIRTY GREAT RACKET’.

David Lee is the editor of The Jackdaw art magazine. For a complimentary copy email your postal address to