Cries & Whispers

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THE ROYAL Fine Art Commission published its annual report this week. There is much good sense in it, including a trenchant review of new architecture (see quote, below). But there is also a remark which speaks volumes about the way the mandarins of the arts see things. In his introduction the chairman, Lord St John, writes: 'It would be absurd not to include a reflection on the most important event that has occurred in the world of the arts and architecture in Britain in the past 50 years.' I wondered what this could be. The founding of the National Theatre? The opening of the Lloyds Building? The day Lennon met McCartney? No: 'the setting up of the new Department of National Heritage'. Well of course. Silly me.

I don't mean to belittle the Department of National Heritage. When St John argues that it is much better for the arts to have a voice in Cabinet than outside it, I am sure he is right. But the most important event in 50 years? Come off it, Norm. It might be the most important event in arts politics in 50 years, but not in the arts themselves. What we have here is a serious misconception, which I suspect is not confined to St John. He and people like him, who have spent a lifetime soft-shoe shuffling along the corridors of a certain amount of power, are apt to lose sight of what the arts are about. They are about individuals, or small groups, struggling to squeeze something out of themselves that they perhaps did not know was there which sheds a little light on the human predicament. They are also about entertainment. They are not about men in suits making self-important pronouncements.

This begs the question: what is the most important event in the arts and architecture in Britain in the past 50 years? Answers on a postcard, please, to me, c/o Arts Desk, Independent on Sunday, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. A bottle of champagne for the most persuasive suggestions.

THE SHORTLIST for the Mercury Music Prize, issued on Thursday, is astonishing. It's very hard to argue with. It includes the two best mainstream rock bands of the moment (U2 and Simply Red) and the excellent John Tavener (see left). The other places go to a challenging cross-section of smaller names: Primal Scream, Saint Etienne, Bheki Mseleku, Jesus and Mary Chain, Barry Adamson, Jah Wobble, Young Disciples. My tip is that the mainstream will prevail and U2 will win, but the exposure for the others can only be a good thing. As to why this prize jury should have succeeded where so many fail, may I suggest, with due humility, that it has something to do with a majority of them being journalists.

I KNOW the London Philharmonic has a grand vision of itself as resident orchestra at the South Bank, but things get out of hand in the South Bank calendar for September, which carries a page of self-eulogy more appropriate to a communist dictatorship. Klaus Tennstedt is designated as Beloved Conductor Laureate; the capitals are theirs. Presumably Franz Welser-Most will soon be billed as Adored Music Director, and John Willan as Reasonably Well-Liked Chief Executive.

A SMALL victory this week. The new director general of the Office of Fair Trading, Sir Bryan Carsberg, said he would look into the price of Compact Discs. As it is only a few months since his predecessor, Sir Gordon Borrie, gave us the findings of the OFT's

last inquiry, this is quite a step forward. Far be it from me to claim any of the credit, but . . . Meanwhile the chainstores, who have been among the villains of the piece, are continuing to make modest concessions, with a variety of special offers. So please - don't pay full price if you can help it.