Questions of real value: Later this month, an attempt to raise the level of debate about our culture and heritage

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The Independent Culture
IN RECENT years some fundamental questions about our culture - why we value art and why it deserves public support - have been neglected in favour of arguments about policy and finance. Both the traditionalists' view that a culture is 'the best that has been known and said' and the avant-garde's more bracing calls for art that overturns our preconceptions now look tired and worn.

With the aim of returning to the basic questions about the value of art and the nature of our common heritage, the British Film Institute, the Tate Gallery and the Independent have joined forces to organise a day of debate on 'Art and Value' at the Tate Gallery on Friday 22 October. The event will be open to the public and will also be attended by decision-makers from the arts, literature, film, television and heritage. There will be keynote speeches from: Jonathan Miller, the director and author; Mary Douglas, the anthropologist; Donald Davie, poet and critic; and Simon Schama, the historian. The day will end with a discussion chaired by Stuart Hall.

Here John Lyttle asks four of those who plan to attend to respond to the debate's principal question: 'What should we preserve?'


'So much has been lost already that perhaps we should use the word recuperation rather than preservation. We should argue forcefully that the BBC should'nt feel defensive about the licence fee. For society to work freely, it needs to have a section of the media not subject to ratings or market forces. You need only look at America's struggling public service television to see what lack of conviction can do.

The British Library is an institution worth preserving. It's one of the astonishing Utopian visions that we have pioneered: one of the greatest free sources of knowledge in the world, financially and philosophically connected to a network that covers the entire country. Not only is it important to invest in that, it's the sort of dream we need to fling ourselves into - just as we need to return to the rather illusory conceit that we are an open country, that we have access not only to information but to justice, that old-fashioned word. I think that, tyrannised by a slender majority, we forget that this is the country where Thomas More wrote Utopia. We have forgotten who we are.

Which is why it would be wise to invest in a national film industry. This is important not only in terms of employment but in terms of a national sense of cohesion. I cannot understand why so many governments have refused to do anything to maintain the film industry. It seems crazy.

We need to return to the idea that all the performing arts, including poetry, can be popular entertainment. After all, Shakespeare was a popular entertainer.'

JEREMY THOMAS, film producer

'To talk from my own ground . . . The BFI (British Film Institute) has an incredible archive, arguably the finest on the globe, collecting and distributing film, asking what our cinema is, what it can be, talking about it all around the United Kingdom. Which is needed, because there is a danger of our culture disappearing from screens, and other cultures taking over. I'm interested in other cultures, but I don't want to be dominated by them. I don't want them to run my children's lives.

We need to have a cinema that is reflective of British life, that audiences feel part of, as in the Sixties, be it a Woodfall film or a Carry On. Not a cinema that is jingoistic but which is about people's lives and living those lives. We can do this.

For that we need a healthy climate for production. Tax incentives and a levy, similar to the Eady levy, perhaps on blank tapes, to promote funding.

Lately the Government seems to have understood the potential for a home cinema. I'm hopeful that the industry, which has suffered from a series of rough decisions over the last 25 years, will begin to be restored.'

TOM PAULIN, poet and critic

'There's an utter confusion between heritage and culture. What do we mean by heritage? The British heritage industry is a loathsome collection of theme parks and dead values. It's like modern pub design that calls on the vision of ye olde worlde. In every way offensive, aesthetically and politically, you name it. I think the problem with heritage is that it is a form of monarchism and, until the dead hand of the monarchy is lifted, the notion of heritage is a tainted idea. We should ask very carefully what it is we want to keep.'

MELVYN BRAGG, broadcaster

'For the last half century at least we've had a confusion of culture or a culture of confusion. The approach of the millennium gives us an excuse or even a new aesthetic responsibility to find a new sort of hierarchy. If we're talking about strict preservation, we have to ask which will be more important to have in 50 years' time - the Cavern or the Royal Festival Hall? The first jukebox or the last Gainsborough? The British TV sitcoms of the Sixties, the Seventies or the Eighties or the letters and novels of those periods? Is it better to have the Lloyds building or half of semi-detached Wimbledon? This is a clear case of discovering the future by going back and addressing the past and asking what we should value and why. Only by moving forward can we see what baggage is actually worth carrying.'

(Photograph omitted)