The shock of the old: When did we become so culturally conservative?

We are taking refuge in the past, whether it's 'Call the Midwife' and 'Downton' on TV, Coward and Rattigan at the theatre, or neo-Romantics in the galleries. Where's the sensation, asks Philip Hoare?

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The Independent Culture

Has our art become impossibly conservative? Is this the age of anodyne, coalition culture? This weekend the crowds will once again pack out the Royal Academy at all hours of the day and night, eager to take in David Hockney's primary-coloured visions of the Yorkshire landscape. Yet this is the same gallery in which the young British artists of 1997's Sensation exhibited intensely controversial work, from Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley composed of children's handprints, to the Chapman Brothers' perverted mannequins of pre-pubescents with penises for noses.

The gulf between the two is extraordinary. Have we taken refuge in the apparently safe, if undeniably gorgeous, landscapes of the former enfant terrible? Art, film, literature and television all appear to be backward-looking, if not reactionary – as epitomised by the success of Downtown Abbey. But perhaps there is a more subtle narrative at work here. Currently showing at Oxford's Modern Art gallery is another retrospective and highly successful exhibition. Graham Sutherland's visionary, loopy landscapes – with their deep tunnels into an ancient unconscious, all wired with thorns and rocks – were a discernible influence on Hockney, as well as on Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Like Hockney, Sutherland was the most acclaimed modern British artist of his day, defined by his neo-Romantic visions of the Welsh hills and Blitzed London. Yet he has long since fallen out of favour. Until now, that is.

The Oxford show has been curated by one of the great new talents of the post-YBA era. George Shaw was the hotly-tipped favourite to win last year's Turner Prize. Shaw, a product of post-punk who grew up on a Coventry council estate (images of which permeate his eerily empty paintings in Humbrol enamel) to a Joy Division soundtrack. He could not be further from Sutherland in background – for all that he was exposed to the older artist's work from an early age, in the shape of Sutherland's "monstrous tapestry", hanging in the city's bombed-out cathedral 'like a prehistoric monument'.

Neo-Romanticism was a peculiarly British phenomenon (although it had its French counterpart, and initially influenced by Surrealism). It was rooted in a particular kind of Englishness – bound up in the landscape, but floating free of it, practised by an inchoate coalition of Blakean visionaries with TS Eliot's bank-clerk looks. For decades it has been hopelessly unfashionable and unsaleable, save to a minority who were inspired by David Mellor's ground-breaking A Paradise Lost show at the Barbican back in 1987. But for Shaw, as for certain other young artists who have rejected the YBAs' flagrant outrage and lack of maker-liness, neo-Romanticism has become a new lodestone.

Sutherland drove round Pembrokeshire in his Bentley, clad in tweeds and cravat; Shaw dresses in the check shirts and Levis of a neo-skinhead, rather than a neo-Romantic. Yet the younger artist's fascination with Sutherland's art echoes a definite disturbance in the zeitgeist. In his catalogue essay for the exhibition, Shaw writes of Sutherland: "Shaking and scraping the shit of British Landscape off his shoes, he opens up a vision to the very questions that run the risk of closing it down".

Nor is it a coincidence, I'd contend, that this Saturday sees the screening of an hour-and-a-half-long BBC 2 Arena film by Adam Low on the novelist William Golding. A contemporary of Sutherland, Golding was also monumentally successful in his time, although most of his books, save one, now go largely unread. Their subjects appear deliberately archaic; one might see them as literary neo-Romanticism. They include the building of a medieval spire, the brutal conquest of Neanderthal man by the Cro-Magnons, and the last moments of a sailor thrown overboard into the sea. But they also encompass, most famously, Lord of the Flies, which deals with the anarchy that prevails when a group of boys, escaping an explosion, are let loose on a island. Tellingly, Low's film opens with scenes of last summer's riots.

Golding, originally a classics teacher in Salisbury, was an equally paradoxical figure. He reflected a conservative Englishness, yet strayed into deeply weird territory. He kept a detailed written account of his dreams, and was so fearful of the supernatural that he would open the door of an empty room and wait for whatever spirits were within to depart. He too was haunted by war and its aftermath – a sense of psychic disturbance that reverberated painfully within his own family, as the Arena film shows.

Low, a Bafta- and Emmy-award-winning director, has made evocative films on Dirk Bogarde, Francis Bacon, TS Eliot, and Auden and Britten. His work also says much about the taste of Arena's series editor and great champion, Anthony Wall. But such reassessments of apparently reactionary figures also speak more generally to our age. It's only five years since Michael Bracewell, one of the most incisive of modern critics, told an audience at the Royal College of Art that the most subversive thing a contemporary artist could do would be to make a traditional, two-dimensional painting.

Now we have Shaw's darkly luminous and haunted pictures, and artists such as Clare Woods, about to enjoy a major show at Southampton Art Gallery. Woods's work, built up in painstaking layers of enamel over aluminium, channels Sutherland and Paul Nash with its desolate but painterly images of wayside nature.

It isn't just contrariness that young artists are producing such "accessible" art. Given our unstable times, perhaps we just appreciate the greater perspective and context of the past, rather than the bright new future – which doesn't look so bright after all. In his review of the Sutherland show in Frieze, the contemporary art bible, James Cahill sees this new trend as a "romantic recidivism" – a desire to reach back both into our own pasts (as Shaw so obsessively does) and into the long history of humanity. Tellingly, at a talk at Modern Art last week, the packed room of Oxford worthies and hipsters fell silent when George Shaw told them that, when he saw his reflection in the high-gloss surface of his paintings, he felt he was looking at his own death.

Crucially, there's a vital difference between what may be ripe for reappraisal and what is merely nostalgic. Popular culture seems hooked on retrospection. No 1 on the bestseller lists as I write is Call the Midwife, "a true story of the East End" set in the same post-war period – and, of course, a cosy BBC Sunday night series, too. The new BBC2 drama series, White Heat, makes a similar tip to the past, as did The Hour.

But beyond the obvious appeal of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, there's been a marked revival of playwrights such as Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan on stage, and in Terence Davies's 2011 film of Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea. As Coward's biographer, I'm perpetually surprised at the manner in which the Master has been constantly revived in recent years. A new production of Hay Fever opened last month in the West End, and this summer, Bill Kenwright presents Volcano – an unpublished 1956 Coward work dealing with partner-swapping and a thinly-veiled portrait of Ian and Anne Fleming's lives in Jamaica – which was never performed in his lifetime.

Both Coward and Rattigan rely for dramatic effect on a now-rare sense of reticence, and apparently rigorous class structures. That's what provides their tension, and gives us our frisson, our nostalgic kick. What happens on stage is far from our modern neuroses or violent dramas. Theirs is a world without mobile phones and overt sex.

And yet, they address exactly the same issues which obsess us now: power, relationships, gender. It is only the means, not the message, that is different. Both Coward and Rattigan struggled to assert themselves in a post-war world redefined by Beckett, Pinter and Osborne. The fact that they are still going as strong, if not stronger, than ever, says as much about us as it does about them.

We can't control the future, so we reach back to the past. Even our homes have taken on the "mid-century look", all Charles Eames chairs and Cath Kidston prints. Little wonder that last year's 50th anniversary of the Festival of Britain was so popular, since it slotted so easily – frighteningly so, perhaps – into the 2010s. Ironic, too, since that atom-age futurity was looking forward to a white-hot future out of the bombed remains of the past (Sutherland, of course, was commissioned to provide art for the Festival's "Land of Britain" pavilion). The optimism of our own millennial festival, incarnate in the much-maligned Dome, seems a long time ago.

As we enter the second decade of a troubled new millennium, are we forever peering over our shoulders rather than fixing our sights straight ahead? In fact, the past provides an ambivalent reassurance, as Frank Kermode described in his famous lectures of 1966, "The Sense of an Ending". Kermode (who provided Julian Barnes with the title of his Booker winner) argued that each era created its own apocalypses as an overarching narrative; that they were ultimately historical events, made comfortable by the obvious fact that they are also ultimately disconfirmed. Kermode was, of course, writing under the shadow of the mushroom cloud – precisely the same subject currently being dealt with on the stage of the Tricycle Theatre in London, in Nicholas Kent's season of plays, "The Bomb – a partial history".

It may be easier to deal with forgotten crises, the world of the Cold War, than with our own emergencies. Back in 1997 – another century now – the YBAs toyed with notions of mortality and money. No one then could have predicted what the next two decades would bring: 9/11, the collapse of the banking system (which at least partly financed the YBAs, those children of Thatcher), Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, recession, last summer's riots, the troubled EU, Syria, Iran. Productions such as Lloyd Newson's Can We Talk About This?, which opened at the National Theatre this week and which addresses notions of Islamic extremism, are few and far between.

Ironically, we leave it to Shakespeare to comment, as might anyone who's seen Dominic Cooke's bravura The Comedy of Errors, also at the National. Starring Lenny Henry and re-set in modern inner-city London, it gets its edge from its shifting cast of migrants.

Where is our cultural reaction to contemporary events? Are we turning our backs on their reverberations, too scared to address what they say? Do we get the art we deserve, seeking the safety of the past – or is ours a culture that has always been stitched together from what has been? After all, Shakespeare raided the past for his plots. And, as George Shaw says in his catalogue essay, "there is nothing new and nothing finished in Sutherland's world". Perhaps the same can be said of ours.

Philip Hoare won the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize for his book 'Leviathan'. 'Dominion:A Whale Symposium', edited by Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne, is published by Wunderkammer Press, 17.99