Books: An exciting monarch is always a help

The Spirit of Britain: A Narrative History of the Arts by Roy Strong Hutchinson pounds 40
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The Independent Culture
This readable and efficient art book, by the popular floppy-haired and moustachioed broadcaster, gardener and former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, follows hard on the heels of his history book The Story of Britain. Like that one, this one doesn't have anything stunningly sophisticated to say and much of what it says is cliches. I read an entertaining list of some of the more clunking ones in a review of the book by Peter Conrad the other day. This criticism made me wonder what Conrad thought might be the right way to deal with the subject. What should a book about the arts be like if it wants to be taken seriously? What type of character should be telling the story? Should it be someone who seems more or less real?

I reached for a copy of Conrad's own recent book on the arts, Modern Times Modern Places, to compare it. Here I found the language was far more sonorous than anything attempted by Strong. Strong presents himself as a guardian of historical culture, and his book is an elaborate explanation about why that might be a thing worth doing. It's strange when he talks as though he's not just examining the past but actually from it - a caricature velvety-jackety, flowery, pursed-lipped, 1890s, salon-style, English aesthete- dandy. But then Conrad's language too partly has the function to project a desired self-image - that of the tragic alienated intellectual outsider critic, all international coffee bar early Sixties poetic existential.

And yet weirdly, both these fictions work in that they help get the authors' subjects across. In fact both writers do the same thing. They want to be popular and serious at the same time and they find ideas expressed in concrete cultural objects. The difference is that Strong's is a more O-level approach whereas Conrad's is more A-level.

In his review Conrad complained that Strong "does no more than list names and make blimpish generalisations". And indeed you could sum up The Spirit of Britain by saying Strong picks out great moments, and some objects and artefacts which he feels expresses the moments, matches them together with great men, and then gets it all on the page in a series of lists. There will be a grouping of artists, say, followed by one of poets and writers, one of architects, one of musicians, maybe sometimes one of scientists or alchemists or whatnot. They will all have something to express about sensibility if it's the 18th century or Romanticism if it's the next century or the divine right of kings if it's the one before. There is sometimes a feeling of him getting puffed out by the third or fourth grouping, as the paragraphs get more and more terse and sparse. But if this is simple, nevertheless it gets the job done.

It's true Strong is not Right On. He takes it personally whenever any great English houses or palaces or churches are put to the torch or the sack, or when anybody great is treated boorishly or their art treasures trampled on by bores. But rather than obsessing over that we might ask what can we get out of it? In fact Strong is particularly lively on eras where there's an exciting monarch whom everybody likes.

In his chapter on Elizabethan England he talks about a national fear of the visual image - "at least fear of it in any deceptive optical sense." He describes a new type of fear-countering imagery emerging at this time. "Images are now to be locked into the mind, into the visual imagination. If and when they took visual form, whether in architecture, painting or sculpture, they were to be abstract, diagrammatic, anti-naturalistic compilations, either pattern or symbols which called for reading. The visual image in short was turned into a text to be read. And this verbalisation of visual experiences was to become central to the island's culture until the television age. Even our landscape was to become literary." This is good and clear, not blimpish.

Strong really is bad on the present, though. For him art now is just to sell, not to express anything. And what sells, he says, is dumbed down sex and sensationalism and a set of values that sees the poems of Keats as essentially the same as the mumblings of Bob Dylan (whose name Strong can't quite bring himself to write down). What can you say, he sighs, when all artistic expression is reduced down to the level of the deeply stupid instead of elevated up to the sublime heights? This is irrational and sad and written, it seems, only to answer a popular need to hear something flat, simple and obviously wrong explain away something complicated.

Do you necessarily have to be sound on now, I wondered, to be informative on then? People who can talk informedly about the cultural present are few and far between . It's unusual for academics or knowledge-pundits to have a convincing take on it. And maybe you don't have to extrapolate an ideological propensity not to see the wider historical picture, from a writer's inability to read the now? The fact is, for most of the book Strong makes an effort, describing - often vividly - a series of cultural givens that his chosen great men of history work within.

What can be bad about Strong's stories is not that they're narrow-minded or reactionary (they are not particularly either of these), but that they're sometimes told in a pastiche of a dead language (he says things like "But what of Pope?" and "Thus Robert Gould"), so it's easy to nod off.

What's good about Conrad's far more ambitious style is that he really can make everything he decides to mention seem to make sense, even in all its exciting fragmented diversity. However "uniquely strange" Conrad thinks the 20th century is, it turns out he has got everything about it sewn up. This ability to see everything might be interpreted as a blind spot, however, because it can make him seem like a smug git.

But with both writers you get used to the mental wincings and cringings and eye-ball rolling and learn to read through the mannerisms, like reading a book during a bombing raid, perhaps. In any case, I concluded, with Strong just as much as with Conrad you are won over because you feel you might be learning something.