Labour's pop culture project is doomed
Podium; From a speech by the cultural critic to the Social Market Foundation on the limits of `new' Britain
Monday 25 January 1999
THIS MAY seem like a mad thing to say but, without Schubert and Titian, nothing makes sense. Obviously you could substitute any number of other names, or things, or even institutions, but the point would remain the same. Human culture is defined by and exists in relation to certain works. Those works may seem arbitrary, but, in fact, they are not. They are not arbitrary because they are, above all, transmissible.
I am fairly confident that any human being who ever lived could be brought to an understanding of Schubert. I am even more confident that the knowledge of Schubert - or even the mere fact of his existence - is a way of assessing the world in which we find ourselves. Put more generally: the idea of a history of attainment - of great works - is essential to our ability to maintain a viable civilisation. Without it, we may as well abandon ourselves to a scientific and technocratic - and, therefore, uncivilised - future.
Clearly the idea of great works is at odds with the idea that we are all artists, and anything can be art. It is, therefore, at odds with pop culture as an ideology.
Although, as I have indicated, great works may emerge from pop culture, they will only do so by default. The culture itself - as a culture - is inimical to the idea of the masterpiece, because that idea carries overtones of anti-spontaneity.
It also creates problems for the complex metaphysics of equality. Plainly, if I rate masterpieces as highly as I do, then I am, fundamentally, not equal to Schubert. This does not trouble me too much, as I am grateful that Schubert is there to give me a glimpse of something higher and better than I could ever be.
But it does, necessarily, trouble those who take an excessively fundamentalist view of equality. And such people are no longer, I believe, in a minority. A hyper-individualised society which treats all experiences as equal will inevitably deny the possibility of any superior experience - such as that felt in the presence of a masterpiece.
This idea appears in the insistence that current pop forms are exactly the same as earlier forms generally regarded as high art. It is routine these days to hear this view expressed in such forms as: "If Dickens were alive today he would write soap operas." Or: "Mozart could have made a fortune out of musicals." Neither is likely to be true, but both are consoling to a certain ultra-democratic vanity.
But, for New Labour, the acceptance of his view means that the newness of their project is doomed from the start. For, remember, the whole point of their "Third Way" was to soften the effects of the free market on the culture. But this is precisely what is made impossible by their adoration of pop culture.
For pop culture now is the globalised free market in its most raw and rampant form. Michael Jackson, until his fall from grace, was a front for the marketing of Pepsi-Cola. And every major rock tour now arrives bedecked with sponsorship. Overwhelmingly, what is being sold - the drinks, the clothes, the software, the hamburgers, the whole lifestyle - is American- made. It is the decor and the cash flow of the global market place.
New Labour thus finds itself promoting that to which it should be most profoundly opposed. And it does so because, apparently, it can see no alternative. "The People" - to whom Blair frequently and cynically appeals - must appear to have the last word. And, as far as culture is concerned, that last word is pop.
The deep problem here is that it has become difficult, if not impossible, to separate the concepts of democracy and the market. Buying something has become a vote more powerful and more meaningful than any voting slip inserted into a ballot box.
As conventional democracy declines and electoral turnouts fall, so market democracy triumphs by basing itself on the statistics of millions of buying decisions. Our political identity becomes co-extensive with our consumption patterns, because nobody troubles to make the distinction between the selfishness of material desire and the generosity of a free and rationally responsible choice.
In short, the New Labour solution is no solution at all, it merely sugars the pill of the cultural disruptions of the global market.
And it is certainly reductive and opposed to the idea of freedom. For it treats people as marketing statistics and it accepts the persuasive power of the market. If we accept this idea, then we reduce ourselves to our buying decisions. The next campaign for Nike or Coca-Cola will replace the Party Political Broadcast as the true political reality.
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