Arts: `Artist' is not a dirty word

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The Independent Culture
COLUMNIST BITES columnist is an unpromising way to begin, but I am unable today to contain my anger against Richard "Mad Dog" Morrison, who writes a powerful piece every Friday in The Times in a place very similar to this and who chose last week in returning to the subject of the Royal Opera House to turn his fire on an extraordinarily undeserving target, the dancers of the Royal Ballet, for resisting the management's proposals to make them work more hours for less money.

In an access of uncharacteristically incoherent aggression, he denounces the dancers ("My dears, get real") for balking at working more than a 160-hour month "in a job you love or, say you love", suggesting that they might go to the people of Walsall or Wigan or Wapping and explain their problem. This is part of the fall-out of his rage against the Opera House itself, an "ivory tower with its sterile museum repertoire and its staggeringly vain indifference to the cultural needs of modern Britain". Well, columnists go mad from time to time; it's an occupational hazard born of the twin and simultaneous delusions that you have great power and that no one is listening. The voice rises to a shriek, the tub is thumped, the word processor turns white hot as the keys are mercilessly hammered, every one an opponent whose heretical voice is stifled. The piece appears, the fever passes, and they start to think more or less clearly again, dimly, perhaps, remembering having been a bit rude about someone or something.

C'est la vie. In this instance, however, it matters rather more than it might otherwise, because the writer is the arts editor of The Times, and his position is one of such potential destructiveness, that it is altogether possible that like-minded people will take his tirade as having some sort of authority. What we hear in last week's column is the ancient voice of resentment against performers (let us not even dare to use the word "artist", because then Morrison's incipient cardiac arrest will instantly be precipitated) who have the audacity to say that their work is different from the work of others: not harder, not nobler, not more important - though nonetheless hard, noble, and, we hope, important - but different.

I shan't go into close detail of the financial conditions of the deal under discussion, any more than Morrison does. But let us consider the circumstances of a classical dancer's life. Training generally begins at age seven, with a programme of classes, both practical and theoretical, making demands of discipline and stamina which a child of the same age who was not a dancer would simply laugh at. The work continues at an increasing pace until the dancer gets her or his first job. From now until the end of their active lives as dancers - which in the majority of cases will be about 20 years - they will do a strenuous class (far more exhausting than the training of a footballer or a runner) in preparation for rehearsal and performance every single day, rain or shine, in order to give their 160 hours a month of performance. The job requires not only stamina and application, but intense concentration: picking up complicated steps on one swift demonstration; surmounting technical challenge to give an interpretation, to lend meaning to the difficult manoeuvres they're called on to execute.

It is hard to keep them away from the barre even on Sunday. Many things can be said about dancers, and are said about them - by themselves, not least - but no one can ever say that they don't work. They work like slaves; they push their bodies to breaking point and beyond. Many fully active dancers are, technically speaking, crippled - and in great pain and permanently exhausted.

I suspect that the people of Wigan and Walsall - though not, on this showing, of Wapping - would be filled with nothing but admiration for this level of work, but would certainly require several times the paltry sums involved to do the same. Moreover, they might note that these are the dancers of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House, the very summit of the profession. Is it not customary for those who have reached the top in their chosen field, whatever it may be - those who are in possession of exceptional skills and outstanding talents - to receive some commensurate remuneration? Is Morrison saying that being an artist (there, I've said it; sorry, Richard) should be sufficient reward? In that case, we shall have a ballet and a theatre entirely peopled with dilettantes, which seems to be the direction in which he would like us to go.

Who is there in our society to cherish the artists? Today, at the end of the 20th century, increasingly few, either in government or in the press. Clearly, for The Times, "the cultural needs of modern Britain" do not include breeding and nurturing artists.

God help us all.