Arts: Look, children, we're doing Art: If it's too easy, it's not art. Bryan Appleyard speaks out against the packaging and prettification of 'culture'

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The Independent Culture
The people love real music, we can prove it. Look how wonderfully well Classic FM is doing, see how the Royal Philharmonic will fill the Albert Hall, watch the big three tenors strut and preen, and consider the sales of those 'Best of . . .' or 'Hooked on classics . . .' compilation CDs.

And it's not just music. Thanks to the CD- Rom, you can now stroll through a virtual National Gallery in the comfort of your own homes. You can read anecdotes about the artists and, information-wise, get a much better deal than you used to from those dry little plaques on the gallery wall.

We've had National Poetry Day, now for the Booker Prize. The daily post brings me news of a hundred other arts promotion events. One public relations company even helpfully franks its letters with the motto 'The Arts Are News'. Sweet. Yep, no doubt about it, the boring old arts are certainly waking up to their responsibility to reach out and touch the hearts of the masses.

But what, exactly, is going on here? We are seeing a serious outbreak of 'packaging'. Music is packaged as hummable tunes or edited down to 'greatest hits' format. Painting is digitised. Fiction is graded for the bookshop dumpbins. Poetry is prettified as whimsy: there is T S Eliot at the railway station - Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. And what does David Attenborough read on televsion? Lewis Carroll's ' 'Twas brillig . . .'

It is customary to see all this as no more than attractive presentation to lure the people into the arts, which are, as we know, a Good Thing. And, once in, their tastes will be refined, intensified. They will demand more. Elgar will be their marijuana, Stravinsky their heroin.

There are three basic justifications for this frenzy of marketing - two of them are acknowledged, one is not. First, since government subsidy is not enough to keep the arts alive, they simply have to sell themselves. Secondly, the arts have an obligation to reach the widest possible audience; great art is the highest and best that humanity has achieved and it is only right that it should be made as widely and easily available as possible.

All, apparently, unobjectionable. But the unacknowledged justification is the most important and raises the deepest questions. This arises from the feeling that, in a democratic age, art must have a democratic validation. An audience justifies the work, proves that it is needed, endorses its power, provides it with a political presence in the world, making it as real as a can of Coke or Tony Blair. Marketing the arts means buying votes for the arts.

Now the reason this democratic justification is required is that, in the modern context, there are no other justifications. We cannot say that art, like penicillin, makes people better - not since the commandant at Auschwitz organised the prisoners to play Mozart. We cannot talk of art as an absolute because all is relativism and subjectivity. The best we can do is shuffle apologetically and murmur that, well, to me this poem, picture or symphony is one of the loveliest things in the world and, er, that's it.

In practice this - combined with the pressure of habit and tradition - is enough to persuade most developed countries to put substantial resources into patronising the arts. The arts are seen as a necessary accessory to the civilised, modern state. The politics of this are chaotic and frequently disgusting, but, as a way of preserving a culture of excellence, it works.

The trouble is that you cannot really use phrases like 'culture of excellence' because nobody really believes in such a thing any more. Indeed, it is best not to use any phrases at all - nobody really knows how to explain paying millions to the Royal Opera House just so that 2,500 people can get subjectively blissed out every night. Any poll would show that the vast majority would prefer the money to be spent on hospitals or 'jobs'. Best, on the whole, to keep quiet, to ignore the metaphysical vacuum and just shovel in the subsidy.

The great virtue of this establishment stitch- up is that it acknowledges the unacceptable truth - that the arts are a difficult, elitist affair. Few artists will ever be good, let alone great, and not many more people will know or care one way or the other. Jeremy Beadle is more fun than Wallace Stevens, Lisa Stansfield slides down more easily than Richard Strauss, and even Puccini becomes demanding when you have to take in three or four hours rather than the two and a half minutes of some poppy aria. The arts are, for everybody concerned, difficult. If they were not, they would be worthless. Packaging attempts to deny this by a crude selectivity. David Attenborough reads Carroll's whimsy rather than Frank O'Hara's In Memory of My Feelings. The RPO will play the familiar, amputated thrillers rather than whole works. Computer freaks will think a digitised Titian, complete with matey anecdotes, is the real thing. An audience is born and, suddenly, the arts have their democratic validation.

But isn't there an anxiety that these loppings are weakening the aesthetic tree? Isn't it possible that people will forget that there is a real painting beyond this digitised image, a full opera beyond this hot, sweet aria? In the end won't all artistic experience be understood as an effortless, context-free glide through the greatest hits of a culture made irretrievably unreal by its own populist sophistication?

The truth is: if it's easy, it's not art. Packaging tries to conceal this from the eyes of the masses. The people will buy, the people will think they are getting the real thing. It's so easy, after all; no effort is required. Look, children, we're doing art] And a culture curls up and dies.