Culture: Don't believe all the hype

Imagine a world without publicity. It isn't easy, given that we live in an unbroken monsoon of advertising and hype, but it isn't entirely impossible with a little bit of effort. This alternative universe would have the eerie purity of a William Morris utopia, a world in which cultural value had successfully been severed from commercial necessity.

I have a hunch that it might also turn out to be a nightmare - like one of those fantasies in which death is banished from the world and people begin to realise its essential charity as their limbs start dropping off through decrepitude. But the fantasy can be beguiling for a while, even so. In this world there would still be surprises, for one thing. You would go to the cinema knowing little more about a film than who was in it and what its title was - large clues, it's true, but not the complete synopsis supplied by most current trailers.

What anticipation there was would be dependent not on the marketing department's ability to co-ordinate fast-food toy promotions with magazine editorial coverage, but on your own past cultural experience. Conversation about culture would cease to have the saintly beleaguered air of guerrilla resistance (just think how many conversations start with the sentence "Is it really any good?") and take on a more open character, a kind of affable engagement with the work rather than a grudging confrontation. You would still have innocence to lose, rather than encountering all new work with a wary assayer's suspicion, a sense that you always have to check the reality against the claim. Almost everything you encounter these days bears the right hallmarks - "excellent!", "marvellous", "brilliant" - and yet very little turns out to be true gold. In a world without publicity, nothing would make a claim for a work but the work itself.

It's just a fantasy of course - and so any true account of the cultural year just past is inescapably bound to be an account of hype and publicity, too. This was the year, after all, in which a press show was set up not for a film itself but for a film's trailer and in which customers in America - hearing that the said trailer was to be shown - paid the full ticket price for just two minutes of bliss. They were presented, in several press accounts, as exemplary cultists; in fact they simply understood the truth about contemporary cultural life - but it is not seeing something that is particularly important, but seeing it before anyone else.

And George Lucas's The Phantom Menace offered a matchless example of how the forces of publicity are now so powerful that they can invert the laws of physics and make consequences come before the cause. It used to be that a film had to reach its audience before it could stir something in them - in fact that's what happened with the very first Star Wars film - which came out of deep space to astonish its audience and confound the executives who had predicted a commercial disaster. Now, though, the excitement comes first and the film itself only after that excitement has already begun to collapse through over-inflation, like a souffle cooked too quickly. To watch a big budget film is to take part in a ceremony of completion, not of initiation.

It's not just big budget films either - at the other extreme from The Phantom Menace, the year offered a film which appeared to contradict the established rule that success could be bought if you had enough money to spend. The Blair Witch Project pulled in huge audiences with no special effect more sophisticated than a wobbly camera. It originally cost just over $30,000, before 10 times that was spent on making it a little less like a sow's ear, and that humble figure had a strange potency in an economy where bigger is casually equated with better. In a world of big-buck bluster this was a film that seemed to offer something pure -a vein of authentic excitement.

But in truth, Blair Witch only added a new twist to the power of publicity - its makers and distributors having discovered the power of stealth-hype. Blair Witch triumphed partly because it found a new and fashionable accent to speak in - one that offered an alternative to the received pronunciation of Hollywood gloss. But it also represented a classic exercise in "word of mouse" - exploiting the ease with which the Internet can make a rumour cascade around the world. Blair Witch reminded us of a long-established paradox; that sometimes the most alluring hype of all is the hype almost nobody has heard. And again, seeing the film with the completion of the process of experiencing the Blair Witch phenomenon, not the beginning of it.

There were other kinds of resistance - the death of Stanley Kubrick provided the publicist for Eyes Wide Shut with a perfect following wind. This wasn't just "Kubrick's latest movie", it was the late Kubrick's last movie. But Kubrick himself had already decided on a strategy of teasing reticence - quite unlike the show-'em-all-you've-got candour of most big Hollywood releases. The result? Another cultural moment in which the experience of the work itself was not an exposure to something new, to be taken on its own terms, but the comparison of a ghost with a solid reality. Watching Eyes Wide Shut, it would have been virtually impossible not to question it in terms of its relationship to the phantom film we had been teased into creating over the preceding months.

Naturally, some art forms are better protected from publicity, simply because less money is involved. In the theatre, for example, we may painstakingly build our own prejudices about actors and directors, but there is little commercial return in having them built for us by advertisers. So the audiences who saw Trevor Nunn's Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre - probably the best production of the year - experienced an occasion in which the excitement was tightly coiled around just three and a half hours of stage time. Because of that, the effects reverberated for some time after it was over. As soon as return on investment enters the equation, though, that hazardous variable - the ignorance of an audience - has to be eroded.

The arrival of The Lion King in the West End offered an example of how even theatre can obey cinematic rules of engagement if enough money is at stake.

Once more the confusion between public response and its synthetic counterpart often makes it impossible to tell what has taken place. How do we interpret the success of Tracey Emin's unmade bed? Attendances were surprisingly high, but was this a triumph of art or publicity? Had the work found a public ready to respond to its dishevelled virtue or had the public simply found the fuss they wanted to say they'd been part of themselves?

Those people who attended the all-night showings of the big Monet blockbuster at the Royal Academy provoked some similar questions; were they really attending an art exhibition or simply making sure that they marked their card at an event which had already been declared a success even before it opened? The overnight openings were less a practical response to public pressure than an attempt to increase it even further. They were a kind of advertising, not crowd management.

There are now very few art forms safe from the depredations of publicity - its corrosive ability to smear the experience of a work into before and after - rather than the simple present tense in which we respond directly, without thought of what we had predicted or of what we will say later. Poetry is probably safe for some time yet - because widespread public indifference is very close to the state of guileless openness which best allows us to see an art work for what it is. Poets often lament their Cinderella status, but they should think hard about the costs of the high life before they give up the privileges of poverty.

Perhaps the best emblem of the year was the release of Hannibal, Thomas Harris's sequel to his earlier Hannibal Lecter novel. In an echo of the Royal Academy's stunt, at least one London bookshop opened at midnight on the day of publication - the fiction of unobtainability adding to the book's attractions. Many otherwise sensible critics succumbed to the widespread illusion that "long-awaited" is a straightforward credential of value, and hailed the book as a work of metaphysical profundity.

What most of them missed is that Hannibal is a self-destructive exercise in hype itself - an exploration of just how far a writer could go before anyone would notice that he'd gone over the top. The most telling scene is that in which Harris's malevolent killer stares down with loathing at the crowds attending an exhibition of torture instruments, a crowd filled with excitement at finally getting access to the event of the season. It was a portrait of the author examining his readers - but such was the excitement and hype that most readers failed to spot it.

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