Grave new world: There's a sombre new mood in the arts world

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The 'South Bank Show' with Melvyn Bragg may be ending, but across the arts there is suddenly a hunger for serious fare, says David Lister

A recession can do strange things to the artistic sensibility. It can drive audiences, TV viewers, readers of novels, rapidly and relentlessly upmarket. The hottest tickets this summer, predicted the National theatre's Nichoals Hytner this week, would be for Racine's Phèdre, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

This was, admittedly, not the whole story, as those three challenging plays are not exactly without the crowd-pulling star quotient. He might have added that it was Phèdre with Helen Mirren, Hamlet with Jude Law, Chekhov from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes.

But Hytner is not alone in claiming audiences want meatier fare. The theatre producer Carole Winter, one of the new breed of impresarios bringing serious plays to Shaftesbury Avenue, says: "In a week when the Labour government has received little praise, I want to suggest that their investment in the subsidised sector over the last 12 years is reaping rewards as commercial producers like me are more confident that serious drama, often born in the subsidised sector, can sustain a West End run. So the sense of excitement generated from regional theatres has also wakened the West End taste buds."

Certainly, her production of Six Characters in Search of an Author was testament to this. A teaming up of West End producers and subsidised regional companies brought to Shaftesbury Avenue an extraordinary re-imagining of Pirandello's classic play. Its inventive staging and post-modern questioning of the 'self' was not what many traditional West End audiences would expect to find, but its critical reception and presentation alongside a landscape of film-to-theatre adaptations and musicals contributed to a change afoot in the West End.

It's not just theatre audiences who are embracing complexity, darkness and challenge at a time when one might have expected the craving to be for simpler entertainment. As Hytner points out, another feature of the public's aesthetic response to the current economic woes has been the embrace of history, with, he says, the most illuminating insights into the crisis coming from Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money. "Serious," he concludes, "is what the public wants."

And if the public "wants serious" in the theatre, it wants it in other art forms too. The English National Opera has always had a challenging strand in its repertory, but for years it has seen its main revenue earners as revivals of classic Mozart or familiar Italian operas. But just this week the company found it had on its hands its hottest ticket for some time with David Alden's dark, complex and provocative production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. I was among the audience that cheered to the rafters this piece showing, often in grotesque and chilling shape, the dark underside of English village life.

It may sound like stretching a point too far to say that even in pop there is a search for deeper meaning. But if one takes one of the bands of the moment, Fleet Foxes from Seattle, British critics and public alike have been entranced not just by their exquisite harmonies but by the spirituality, yearning and even melancholy in their music.

Cinema, of course, continues to thrive on escapist entertainment and Hollywood fare. But there are straws in the wind even at the multiplex. It's certainly interesting that young hunk Robert Pattinson's Hollywood vampire film Twilight has not had the same critical or word of mouth acclaim as Let the Right One In, the new art house vampire film from Sweden, a dark brooding study of childhood loneliness. Audiences wanted the more thoughtful, darker treatment.

Straws in the wind? Well there seem to be plenty of them at present across the arts. Three days ago the Sony Radio Academy made BBC Radio 3 its Station of the Year for the first time. The judges highlighted the broadcasting of the complete works of Chopin and Milton's Paradise Lost, names one doesn't often hear read out from the podium at an awards ceremony. And after some difficult years, Radio 3's listening figures are increasing.

Roger Wright, who runs both Radio 3 and the Proms, says: "I've certainly noticed recently a new thirst for classical music and serious programming. Record audiences at BBC Proms, increased listening figures for Radio 3, sold out concerts and lots of media interest in orchestras. The fascination with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and then the National Youth Orchestra, are good examples. Places like the Wigmore Hall have been having renewed success, and new classical superstars such as Lang Lang are making real connections with the general public."

At the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, the director, has set his face against high-profile blockbusters with the associated razzmatazz, in favour of smaller, more contemplative exhibitions. The poignant political paintings of poverty in 19th-century Italy by the little-known Italian "Divisionist" painters, working at the same time as the French Impressionists, in the Radical Light exhibition was a memorable example. His current Picasso: Challenging the Past is full every day, and visitor numbers at the gallery are up. Mr Penny sees this as not only testament to the works on show, but also to the recession effect. He says: "The National Gallery's permanent collection is of course free of charge, and at times of financial difficulty, the Gallery offers the opportunity for us all to continue to enjoy astounding works by such artists as Rembrandt, Titian, Cézanne and Van Gogh."

There's an element here of "he would say that, wouldn't he?", but then there is also an element of National Gallery visitor numbers rising alongside the more challenging exhibitions and free admission for the permanent collection. As evidence goes of a new seriousness linked to the recession, this purely economic motive for partaking of serious art is worthy of consideration. But one senses more metaphysical reasons too.

Certainly, as far as theatre goes, Nicholas Hytner sees the new seriousness as an exasperated response to the one dimensional and immediate nature of YouTube and related technology, and perhaps not least Reality TV.

Theatre can certainly offer several other dimensions to what he describes as "this binary comic strip of triumph and disaster." But so can the live arts as a whole. Peter Grimes is a protagonist, abusive yet vulnerable, who might simply be too puzzling for present day TV controllers as he defies that simple definition of hero or villain.

Notions of a new seriousness in the arts are not helped by the treatment of culture on TV. This is the month in which ITV decided to axe The South Bank Show, its only lauded cultural strand. The almost total lack of our great playwrights on BBC, ITV and Channel 4 remains a disgrace. You would not know that Stoppard or Pinter existed, you would not know that Shakespeare was the national playwright, if you relied on BBC and ITV for drama. And in the sphere of ideas, the Horizon strand, which used to be a benchmark of TV seriousness, is now almost entirely given over to pop science, presented by stand-up comedians or lads-mag journalists. The increasingly impressive programming of Sky Arts ought to be giving the terrestrial channels food for thought.

Seriousness exists on TV, but it is all too often on the margins, on BBC4 or More4, as if seriousness is a minority interest. Nevertheless, there are straws in the wind even on terrestrial television. Janice Hadlow, the newish controller of BBC2, has been emphasising in recent speeches that the channel must be the "intellectual engine room" of the corporation. The BBC has set up an arts board, is putting more resources into its arts department, and even a cursory look at current output shows a poetry season and a history of British classical music. It's not enough, but it is to be hoped that it is a statement of intent.

Looking at the literary landscape is certainly heartening. Boyd Tonkin, the Independent's literary editor believes that theree are encouraging signs. Publishers of serious non- fiction say that their sales are holding up well, driven by a widespread need to try to understand these turbulent times. From books directly addressing the current crunch, such as Vince Cable's The Storm and Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold, to books that revive an interest in critical analysis of our system – such as Tristram Hunt's biography of Friedrich Engels – serious writing that gives a wider perspective on a period of crisis is definitely in fashion.

With fiction, the signals seem more mixed. The standard blockbusters are performing as strongly as ever while publishers despair of the ever-shrinking market for "literary fiction". However, this week's sales figures for hardback fiction show no fewer than four books from the spring glut of new works by leading "literary" novelists – Kazuo Ishiguro, A S Byatt, Hilary Mantel and Colm Toibin – in the Top 10.

And look harder at the nature of some of those leading popular bestsellers as well. Victoria Hislop's chart-topping The Return, for instance, outsold the next bestselling title by two-to-one in its first week as a paperback. Yet it deals with the Spanish Civil War and shows a deep concern for getting the political history of the time right rather than simply painting a picturesque backdrop.

The three blockbusters in translation that have reached the fiction top 10 in Britain during the first quarter of 2009: Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire; Roberto Bolano's 2666, and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. All are epic novels from abroad that ask a lot of their readers, but each comes with a big story – about the author, the setting or the theme – that turns publication into a memorable event. The lesson seems to be, in Tonkin's experience, that the new seriousness can indeed sell in abundance, but it needs to snare the attention of its audience just like the old frivolity.

The straws in the wind are there. It is, of course, wrong to isolate certain productions, certain exhibitions, certain novels, and draw far-reaching conclusions from them about the state of our culture. What we are seeing is a culmination of several different factors. New arts leaders with different approaches to their institutions, such as NicholasPenny at the National Gallery. Fruit being borne from public subsidy of regional theatre, which is now enabling West End producers to put on challenging plays in the heart of the West End.

One could cite other factors which invisibly contribute to cultural change. But all of those factors put together do not explain why audiences seem to be craving more serious fare. To explain that we do have to make reference to the time we live in.

Linking the art that affects us and that we seek out to the economic recession is a dangerous science. In reality, such links can amount to little more than instinct and deduction. And yet... Do fears of financial meltdown, fears of redundancy, fears of a breakdown in society make us more contemplative? Contemplative of our own security, our own place in the world? Contemplative of our relationships with our fellow human beings? Contemplative of our mortality? The answer is surely yes.

I became even more certain of it this week, when I sat in a full house at Waiting for Godot. This best double act in English literature, with their music hall allusions, will always get laughs. But I could not fail to notice how the audience, more than in previous productions I have seen, seemed to feel the pain of the two tramps, seemed to ponder Beckett's existential parable. The laughter was muted; the contemplation on the purposelessness of life almost audible.

Great art can and should reflect the times we live in, as great art has something to say about all times. But the times we live in can also determine the art we seek out. In this particular time of recession, financial and political instability, with the integrity of our most notable institutions questioned as never before, we seek out art that has real questions to ask. We seek out art that tries to make sense of the senselessness of existence. We seek out art that is full of ambiguity. We seek out art that helps us strive to understand.

If the silver lining of the recession is a hunger for more serious art, it is a silver lining unlikely to be mentioned in Parliament or in financial reports. But cultural history will not understate its sign.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower