Creativity stripped of its complexity

To be a genius, these new films tell us, consists of being oversexed and a bit of a liability
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FRIEDRICH ENGELS thought that any commodity was capable of arousing fetishistic desires among the bourgeoisie. In the 19th century, that meant pleasure in the act of acquiring. As a foe of retail therapy, he would be gratified to see his theory vindicated by the rampant intellectual consumerism of the 1990s. The acquisitive desire now extends beyond objects and into the pursuit of knowledge - or at least the appearance of knowledge.

That is why the debate about dumbing down is so heated. Those who claim that we are not getting dumber, but that cultural goods are simply spread across a wider section of the public, are applying a redistributionary analysis, in the same way that socialists used to argue about the slices of an economic cake being divided up into fairer slices.

When we concern ourselves exclusively with redistribution, material or intellectual, we care less about the quality of what is being shared out than about the number and social breadth of people doing the consuming. The most forthright statement of this kind of politicised aesthetics I have seen is the poster campaign for the Munich state opera, which shows a hairdresser, a mechanic and a secretary as opera-goers.

There is nothing wrong and a lot right with encouraging a wider group of people to enjoy music. But it is a strangled and faintly patronising idea of social conscience that then parades the lower orders in the audience as a marketing tool.

In so many ways, we have never been so clever or sophisticated. The aesthetics of our everyday life, from car design to interiors, have grown immensely in refinement. Modern art sales are booming; a hundred magazines and television programmes tell us how to have good taste.

Nor is there a shortage of intellectual curiosity. However, there is a tendency to pander to a temporary and limited view of the ability of culture to bridge the divides of time, place and experience. The implicit tension between dumbing down and braining up is inadequate to describe what is happening: the triumph of manufactured infantilism - the second childhood of the arts.

The new films Shakespeare in Love and Hilary and Jackie are typical contemporary treatments of artistic subjects, in that they present a view of creativity stripped of complexity. To be a genius, they tell us, consists of being oversexed and a bit of a liability to those around you. Joseph Fiennes's Shakespeare is a monotone rendition of an angry young man, impatient with social constraints, greedy for sensuality: pretty much indistinguishable from Jim Morrison, apart from the flow of one-liners.

Of course, the film doesn't take itself seriously, which is its saving grace. The translation of Jacqueline du Pre's life to the screen does. "This is a true story," we are told at the beginning - a dubious proposition, since the main character isn't around to contradict it, and her sister's version is hotly disputed.

Of recent fictional treatments of real lives, the one that struck me as intellectually challenging as well as beautiful was Shekhar Kapur's film Elizabeth, which opens with a scene of Catholic martyrs being burnt at the stake. We see the terror, the prayers, the pain of state violence and think: "How could people be so brutal?" The rest of the film explains how that brutality arose. We do leave with a psychological insight into the tensions between raison d'etat, between the belief and the humanity of Elizabethan England. It does our intelligence the honour of not pretending that the 16th century was just like today.

One consequence of turning culture into commodity fetishism - with books sold by their covers and prize-givings elevating the mundane into events of media importance - is that we miss the steady stimulation of a balanced culture. We forget how enjoyable are the neglected as well as the celebrated works. Read the book of the moment. Don't be without the latest Ted Hughes or the CD of Jacqueline du Pre's Elgar sound-track. Everyone agrees that Birthday Letters is brilliant, marvellous, absolutely fabulous. Next year, everyone will agree that something else is better.

Lack of discrimination and passivity are the enemies of discernment. Someone tells us to read X and lo, we go forth and read it. The Dutch had their tulipomania and now we have bookmania about tulipomania. The Arcanum, the best-seller about the history of porcelain, was stunningly bad. It prospered because the hype was so hearty that it seemed impolite to complain about the result. That is not a story of the power of art. But it is a tribute to the genius of the publishers' marketing departments.