Arts & Books: A life lived without art is a half-life or no life at all

IT IS a most curious time for the arts, one of maximum exposure and blag - as you might expect from the hedonistic, pre-millennial mood - but simultaneously one of extreme uncertainty and neurosis - which I suppose you might expect from the fatalistic pre-millennial mood.

The sense is of a need to keep up the output, to keep firing on all systems, to maintain the momentum, without any strong notion of why. "We must maintain the arts," cry all civilised commentators. "We owe it to ourselves, to our self-respect."

But these cries have the forlorn quality of the Lambeth Conference's resolution to return to traditional morality: the empty pews no doubt glow with self-righteousness, but the rest of the world goes merrily on its wicked way. So with the arts. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," the world says. "Now let's check out that new restaurant, do some E, go dancing, sit on the pavement and watch the pretty boys and girls."

In my lifetime as a performer and a member of the audience I have passed through several stages in the evolution of the image of the arts, from the kind of plump assurance of the late Fifties, to the explosion into relevance of the Sixties; the idealism which lay behind the creation of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company and the civic theatre movement; the rise of the militant fringe, revolutionary both in its politics and its aesthetics; the streamlining and glamorisation of the museums and galleries; the death or retirement of the generation of great musicians whose concerts were almost religious events and their replacement with non-threatening chaps with flawless techniques and wonderful cheek-bones; the steady journey down-market of radio; the growth and then gradual abandonment of serious television arts coverage. It has, on the whole, been a gloomy journey.

Undoubtedly the glory days were the Sixties, when it appeared that art, along with education and European travel, was no longer going to be the preserve of the swells but would be opened out to the population at large, who would now, finally, fully come alive to the inspiring and humbling reality of being human.

It is almost with disbelief that I think back to my time at drama school, a particularly visionary organisation called the Drama Centre, and to the sense we all had that we were being trained to be an elite corps, the storm-troopers of culture, bringing the good news about the agony and the ecstasy of the human condition. We had no specific agenda, no political affiliation, but we conceived of art as being fundamentally radical, a shock to the system, provoking laughter or tears, but always provoking.

We emerged from our training to the sobering realities of the profession, but nonetheless we were able to pursue our vision in the repertories, in theatre, in education, at the National and at the RSC, all of which had, in their different ways, similar agendas. We were even able to pursue these dreams on television, where national life was being closely scrutinised in plays which threw up archetypes of modern life: Alf Garnett, Cathy Come Home, the desperately dysfunctional family of Talking to a Stranger.

What we were doing seemed to matter. I am sure that it was as true of my contemporaries as it was of me that we had little ambition in the sense of wanting fame or money; what counted for us was that we were making a significant contribution.

It was not long after I joined the acting profession, exactly 25 years ago, that the brave new world began to crumble. The repertories started to close down and television embarked on the ratings wars.

Why? How? The factors are complex, and no doubt I shall frequently be returning to them on this page. The essential truth is that the arts are widely considered to be dispensable. The best that any of us can say now is what David Hare said in his horribly telling lament, filled with such ironic despair: "I know that the theatre is a backwater, but it is the only place that I want to work, and so I shall devote myself to it for the rest of my days."

There may be those of us who became artists as the equivalent of pavement buskers. I don't know any. The onus is on us to show that a life lived without art is a half-life or no life at all. Time is running out, faster than any of us know.

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